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How to Attract Butterflies to Your Garden (And Keep Them Coming Back!)

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How to Attract Butterflies to Your Garden (And Keep Them Coming Back!)

Attract Butterflies to Your Garden

Preparing to attract butterflies to your garden is a lot like planning a garden party for your friends and family. You provide refreshments and a comfortable environment based on your understanding of your guests' preferences. You expect the amenities you provide will be used, and take satisfaction in seeing full trays and pitchers becoming empty as the party proceeds.  By providing that which tends to your guests' needs and desires, you create an environment they are happy to visit, where they will enjoy lingering and they will be happy to return.  Easy! :)

Inviting butterflies to your garden is exactly the same thing. Provide food and beverages, as well as shelter and hosting and they will be happy to visit often!

Provide Food Sources for Butterflies

There are many ways to provide sustenance for butterflies in the form of nectar and water.  But the most important are the flowering plants you have in your garden. Butterflies have a high metabolic rate and need different types of flowers providing nectar every day. So look for a variety of plants that bloom at different times in your garden to ensure you are a part of that essential food supply.  Here are a few of my favorites:

Scadoxus | Haemanthus

Scadoxus multiflorus is a nectar rich bloom for butterflies

The globe shaped clusters of vibrant red scadoxus blooms beckon to butterflies for up to two full months in the summer garden. Scadoxus is also known as pincushion flower, blood lily or haemanthus. The blooms add both long-lasting color and unusual form to gardens or containers. Attractive foliage is basal and wavy. The long-lasting blooms are excellent cut flowers, but plant enough to leave plenty for the butterflies! Hardy to zones 8-11, scadoxus is easily over-wintered when winters get too cold.

Buddleia Butterfly Bushes

Butterfly feeds on buddleia butterfly bush blooms

Buddleia are so popular with butterflies, their common name is Butterfly Bush. Thousands of brightly colored little blossoms are clustered together in large wands of fragrant flowers that are living magnets for butterflies.  These shrubs grow to 6-10 feet tall and wide, with dwarf varieties 3-5 feet tall and wide. Free flowering for months at a time, buddleia provide a dependable food source for butterflies from early summer right through fall. Hardy in zones 5-11, buddleia have a reputation for being invasive in Oregon and Washington, leading breeders to develop newer strains with sterile blooms to keep the plants from aggressively reseeding. Though naturalizing readily in many states like California, Virginia, Deleware, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, Kentucky and West Virginia, the plant is not considered invasive in these areas.

Phlox Paniculata 
Butterflies feeding on pink garden phlox blooms

Garden phlox is an old-fashioned favorite for its long bloom time, spicey vanilla fragrance and brilliant coloring in the summer. Especially popular in county cottage gardens, phlox lend a lovely and casual growth habit as backdrop to profuse blooms. Standard phlox typically grow 3-5 feet tall, with dwarf varieties at 16-24 inches. 

Zephyranthes | Rain Lilies

Butterfly feeding on zephyranthes rain lily flowers

The cheery, charming blooms of zephyranthes, or rain lilies, are a welcome sight in the garden summer through fall. Planted en masse, the colorful blooms carpet the garden in pink, yellow or white blooms. Also easy to please in containers! Rain lilies are deer resistant as well as a great nectar source for butterflies. Snip a few blooms for a bud vase, and enjoy them for over a week! Zephyranthes are hardy zones 6-11, and are easily over-wintered where winters are too cold.

Passiflora | Passionflower Vine 
butterfly on passiflora careulea bloom

The intricate, other-worldly blooms of passion flower vines are a magnet for butterflies. In addition to the the extraordinary blooms,  some passionflower vines are fragrant, and some passiflora produce delicious edible fruit! This plant is an example of a flower that provides nourishment and a plant that is a host to butterfly eggs. Please do not be discouraged by "damage" caused by caterpillars - this is proof that butterflies are attracted to your garden and find it a great place to lay their eggs. The eggs hatch hungry caterpillars who feed on leaves to get them ready for the mystical transformation to a butterfly. Passiflora are typically hardy zones 8-11, with some varieties more cold hardy. Plant near a support structure, and the vine will rapidly scramble to its mature height to bloom all summer and right into fall.

Asclepias | Milkweed

monarch butterfly feeding on yellow asclepias milkweed blooms

Asclepias is a carefree, long-lived N. American native that is highly resistant to deer and quite drought tolerant. Dense clusters of blazing yellow blooms are produced from early summer through early fall, with even more encouraged by dead heading.

These sterling qualities are nearly beside the point for this special plant. Asclepias is the only plant the monarch butterfly will lay her eggs on - thus is it a crucial ingredient to supporting monarch populations! Like the passiflora above, asclepias or milkweed, is a vital host plant for butterflies in general and the striking monarchs in particular.

Don't Spray Insecticide

Remember we started by thinking about how to make guests feel welcome? You spend time setting up the buffet to be beautiful and appealing. But empty trays and crumbs don't upset you - this is proof that your guests enjoyed the meal you prepared, right? The same thing is true when you plant a butterfly garden. The plants and bulbs you plant that are intended to feed adult butterflies may also become host to butterfly eggs and then caterpillars. Please don't spray insecticide on your plants -- accept proof of caterpillar sustenance - i.e. "damage" - as a clear sign that you and your garden are playing an essential role in the wonder of the natural world. Expect and celebrate evidence of feeding caterpillars - they are the next generation of butterflies! 

While selecting the right plants for your garden is the most important piece of attracting butterflies to your garden, there are other strategies to try once the plants are in place. Aging fruit, puddling rocks and sweet beer are all additional ways to support the butterflies who visit - and to keep them coming back. Please check back for detailed posts to come for each one!  :)

'til then, 

Happy Gardening!

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  • Kathleen McCarthy
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