Attracting Butterflies

by Mary Pellerito
I’m creating a pollinator/butterfly garden this year. I am in the weed/grass suppression stage so I won’t show you photos just yet. When I have some blooms, butterflies, and bees to show you, I’ll be sure to post photos. In the meantime, I’m studying up on what plants to add to this garden. First, what should I plant to attract butterflies?

Native plants, of course.  Butterflies that visit my garden evolved with the native plants in the area.  To make life a little easier for the butterflies, I am going to plant sun-loving natives since adult butterflies feed in the sun. Also, I want plants that provide continuous blooms from spring through autumn so that the butterflies can find food in may garden for as long as they are here.

To attract different species of butterflies, including Swallowtail, Monarch, Viceroy, and Fritillary, I’m going to plant the following natives.  Note: These are natives in my area, but I think they grow in many areas of the U.S.


  • milkweed
  • aster
  • purple cone-flower
  • blazing star
  • native phlox
  • black-eyed Susan
  • dogbane
  • New Jersey tea
  • coreopsis
  • joe-pye weed
  • goldenrod
  • vervain
  • ironweed

Adult butterflies also want plants on which they can lay their eggs. These plants are called host plants. The purpose of host plants is to provide food for the butterfly caterpillars. So the leaves on these plants will get eaten, but not enough to kill the plant.

The National Wildlife Federation provides a list of host plant by butterfly.  The butterflies listed below will only lay their eggs on the host plants listed next to their names.
Acmon Blue – buckwheat, lupines, milkvetch
American Painted Lady – cudweed, everlast
Baird’s Swallowtail – dragon sagebrush
Black Swallowtail – parsley, dill, fennel, Queen Anne’s lace, common rue
Coral Hairstreak – wild black cherry, American and chickasaw plum, black chokeberry
Dun Skipper – sedges, grasses including purpletop
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail – wild black cherry, ash, tulip tree, willow, sweetbay, basswood
Giant Swallowtail – prickly ash, citrus, common rue, hoptree, gas plant, torchwood
Gray Comma – gooseberry, azalea, elm
Great Purple Hairstreak – mistletoe
Gulf Fritillary – maypops, other passion vines
Henry’s Elfin – redbud, dahoon and yaupon hollies, maple-leaved viburnum, blueberries
Monarch – milkweeds
Painted Lady (Cosmopolite) – thistles, mallows, nievitas, yellow fiddleneck
Pygmy Blue – saltbush, lamb’s quarters, pigweed
Red Admiral/White Admiral – wild cherries, black oaks, aspens, yellow and black birch
Silver-Spotted Skipper – locusts, wisteria, other legumes
Spicebush Swallowtail – sassafras, spicebush
Sulphurs – clover, peas, vetch, alfalfa, asters
Variegated Fritillary – passion flower, maypop, violets, stonecrop, purslane
Viceroy – willows, cottonwood, aspen
Western Tailed Blue – vetches, milkvetches
Western Tiger Swallowtail – willow, plum, alder, sycamore, hoptree, ash
Woodland Skipper – grasses
Zebra Swallowtail – pawpaw
Other than flowers and host plants, provide the following in your Butterfly Garden:
A place for butterflies to rest: Place flat stones in your garden so butterflies have a place to rest and soak up the sun.
A place for puddling: Puddling is when butterflies drink water and extract minerals from damp puddles. Place coarse sand in a shallow pan, such as a plastic food storage container, and bury the pan in the soil so the sand is level with the garden bed. Be sure the keep the sand moist.

Mary Pellerito is a Michigan-based garden and nature writer. Mary is a member of the Garden Writer’s Association, Wild Ones, and she is a Master Gardener.  This article was previously published on her blog Going Native.

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