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Gardening for Butterflies

07/25/2012 in caterpillars, gardening

After my post on the Monarch butterfly, I think it’s worthwhile to discuss the other butterflies and moths we may be lucky enough to encounter, and how to garden for them.

Without caterpillars, there are no butterflies

black swallowtail caterpillar
With natural spaces being crowded out in favor of large deserts of closely mowed turf, it’s a miracle if a butterfly ever visits our flower garden.

Host Plants

We could all plant parsley… The black swallowtail (pictured above) also likes carrots, fennel, dill, and there are other lookalike butterflies that are happy with sassafrass and dutchman’s pipevine.

Probably the most important thing that we can do, is identify the butterflies that are likely to visit, and then research their host plants, and either plant them, or stop trying to eradicate them. Many of the weeds that we’ve been pulling out of the flower beds are actually butterfly host plants!

There are long lists of butterfly plant hosts

These lists are far from complete, and paying attention to what the butterflies use as a host plant in our own yards pays dividends… for example, on the butterfly website dot com, I saw that they list a coupla plants for the buckeye butterfly (Snapdragon, Loosestrife), neither of which grow in my garden.buckeye-butterfly

At my house, the buckeye uses agalinas purpurea and toadflax, a couple of natives that might get pulled for weeds by another gardener.

The toadflax is a cool weather annual, which dies before summer even starts, agalinas is a hot weather annual, and the buckeye has an extended season by using one in the cool weather, and the other in the heat.

Another example of the ‘weeds’ that the butterflies use is the passionflower vine. Here in Georgia, passionflower is ubiquitous. it grows in a tangled mess everywhere… and still… those butterflies are spectacular.
gulf frittilary butterflies on orange lantana
coffee weed with caterpillar

Another common weed here in Georgia is coffee weed.

Coffee weed has attractive flowers, improves the soil and grows caterpillars, but people pull it out because it wasn’t something they bought at the nursery.


from the idig my garden forums

I always share my parsley and dill with the swallowtail butterfly larvae – I just saw a newly emerged butterfly yesterday – it warmed my heart.

I don’t even kill the tomato hornworm – I throw it into the woods – I like the huge moth that it turns into.

I hate to say it, but “VA Gardener” just condemned the tomato worm to a painful death.
Tomato worms have other host plants besides tomatoes and peppers, but they aren’t able to eat random weeds.

Most caterpillars have specific dietary requirements… if you attempt to change their diet, they will likely starve rather than eat anything that isn’t in the specific group of plants that constitute “host plants” for the particular butterfly or moth.

tomato worm eating nightshade

Night shade is a common weed, and the tomato worm is perfectly content to eat this weed.
datura wrightii and tomato hornworm

Datura wrightii is another plant that the tomato hornworm will eat.

When there’s caterpillars on our food plants, there may be a way to live with them… by finding a suitable host weed…

You might wonder why anyone would worry about an obvious pest like the tomato hornworm…

One answer, is that the manduca sexta moth is part of a very large family of moths, that all have similar caterpillars, and very exciting behaviour in the garden.

Other ways to attract butterflies

In many articles, there are discussions about fruit and piddling.

I’m kinda finicky about the fruit concept. Leaving open fruit out for the butterflies seems like something that I’d just have to clean up later. I’ll add unusable fruit to the compost bin… let the butterflies find it there.

As far as piddling goes… I spread a lot of horse manure….
When I first started my sand-hill garden, the butterflies showed up… It was funny to see the butterflies come in search of my truck full of horse-droppings… Not a flower in site, but plenty of butterflies!

I’m not sure where those pictures are anymore…

The point is, that most of us have seen the butterflies all gathered around wet soil, and some true believers attempt to re-create that in their gardens, by leaving soil in a container that holds water… simple enough if there’s an extra bowl around… but if you’ve got a fish pond with a drain area, or have watered the garden recently, totally unnecessary effort.

Growing flowers for the butterflies

It’s no big secret that butterflies like flowers… but… some flowers are better than other flowers.

Those showy new cultivars may not be the best thing to plant in the butterfly garden. There’s something about the hybridizing process that seems to have left the butterfly out…

Not only have the plant breeders bred scentless flowers, there’s no nectar in them either. It would be like teasing a hungry person with a picture of a meal!

It’s best to grow plants suited to our area. In Georgia, Lantana is an excellent choice.
In Australia, lantana is a serious problem, and in a temperate area, lantana wouldn’t over-winter…

I suggest using common sense, when choosing flowers for the butterfly garden, and avoiding known invasive plants, while seeking out plants that grow without excess efforts.

lantana monarchs



It’s funny when the butterflies can’t tell the weeds from the flower bed…


gulf fritilaries and zinnias




People often talk about providing flowers with a large landing pad like these zinnias and echinacea…

While the butterflies do use such plants, I don’t notice that the butterflies prefer them…

2 butterflies and salvia



Do you garden for butterflies? What are your favorite methods for attracting butterflies?



One more thing….

Never ever use poisons in the butterfly garden!

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10 responses to Gardening for Butterflies

  1. Donna said on 07/28/2012

    I very much liked your informative post. I garden for wildlife in general, yet today, saw a Tiger Swallowtail, Monarch and Comma in my garden. My post tonight will have many frequent flyers and I will include your link here because you are much better at ID and knowing how to attract them than me. Your images are really beautiful too. Love the caterpillar, is it a Monarch in the making?

  2. stone said on 07/28/2012

    black swallowtail butterfly

    The cat at the top of the post is a black swallowtail.

    Here’s a coupla monarch cats.

  3. Andrea said on 07/29/2012

    Hi Stone, thanks for dropping by my site I was led here. I also love butterflies and am presently studying our butterflies. I have already learned a few things about host plants specificity and nectar plants and i am still learning.

    [about your question in my post, the posted Hibiscus is just an ordinary H rosa-sinensis, not Malvaviscus, which is already growing nicely here in the tropics.

  4. Good information on attracting butterflies. I continue to learn about what works in my area.

    The flowers you asked about are Pride of Barbados Caeselpinia pulcherrima. The hummingbirds love them and they are hardy here in 8b.

  5. Don’t get me ranting about new cultivars and how the life has been sucked out of my old time favorites :) One of my pet peeves is the way new cultivars seen to slowly fade away while the old stock keeps on going and going like the energizer bunny.

    • stone said on 08/04/2012

      One of my pet peeves is the way new cultivars seem to slowly fade away…

      I’ve been seeing this with the new echinacea. That new orange torch looks really nice, but I don’t seem to be able to get it to come back the next year.

      Barbara Pintozzi published an anecdotal post on the unsuitability of these new echinaceas in the butterfly garden…

      When you can’t get them to come back, and the seeds don’t seem to come up, I doubt there’s ever going to be a problem with those new coneflowers…

  6. Karyl said on 08/04/2012

    I am in Georgia as well and been looking for passionflower. I recently moved and the stuff was all over my previous property, but not this one. It’s usually all over the place but funny how when I went to find some I couldn’t. I’ll keep combing the edges of parking lots, some is bound to show. I miss having gulf fritillary.

    • stone said on 08/04/2012

      Where abouts are you?
      It’s funny how the stuff can be everywhere, but if we forget to take it with us, it can be nowhere to be found.

      I had an experience like that with datura stramonium. It took years of looking b4 I found some for my last garden, move, fail to collect seeds from my weeds… nope, none to be had!

      If you can’t find any maypop for your garden nearby, I’m sure that we can work out a trade or something…

  7. Thanks for stopping by my corner of Katy … always nice to meet another Southern gardener! In my garden, the butterflies seem partial to Verbena On A Stick, V. bonariensis.

    • stone said on 08/06/2012

      Hey Cindy… Thanks for coming by.
      This article wasn’t really about the nectar plants…

      I really should cover that angle… So… Thanks for the suggestion!
      The wild verbena bonariensis grows all over the place in Macon GA, and tends to be a little bit too successful… I recently planted a form with a bigger flower. Apparently the goldfinches are also attracted to it… although… they’d rather eat the sunflower n poppy seeds.

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