Georgia Gardener Newsletter Design Tip: February 21, 2008

Butterfly Gardens

Butterfly sipping Salvia nectar Eastern Black Swallowtail Caterpillar on Fennel

Every garden whether it's 100 acres or 100 square feet should have some plants and features intended to attract butterflies. Butterfly gardening is something that every person from 1-98+ can enjoy. There is something peaceful and satisfying watching adult butterflies move from flower to flower or lay their eggs. Even the voracious butterfly larvae caterpillars are fascinating to watch as they eat the leaves of host plants. Butterflies are so beautiful that I refer to them as flying flowers.

Components of a Butterfly Garden

There are several things that every butterfly must have in order to be completely successful:
In addition to these, rotting fruit is often attractive to butterflies. Unfortunately, it's also attractive to yellow jackets. Therefore, you will have to make the decision whether or not to include this item in your butterfly garden. From personal observation, I have also noted that butterflies like to hide or even crawl to spin their cocoons in my native ornamental grasses. Therefore, I like to include these also.

Host Plants

While nectar plants are well-known and documented in a wide variety of publications and will be covered below, I want to start with the host plants that each butterfly species MUST have in order to survive. Female butterflies only lay their eggs on specific plants. Which plants depends upon which species of butterfly. These host plants may be just a few related species from a single genus or from closely related genera. The table below lists some of our native butterflies are their associated host plant(s).

Butterfly Host Plant Common Name Host Plant Latin Name
Monarch Milkweed/Butterfly Weed Asclepias spp.
Gulf Fritillary Passion Vine Passiflora spp.
Variegated Fritillary Violets & Passion Vine Viola spp., Passiflora spp.
Spicebush Swallowtail Sassafras Tree Sassafras albidum
E. Black Swallowtail Angelica & related species Angelica spp. (Apiaceae Family)
Zebra Swallowtail Pawpaw Tree Asimina triloba
Pipevine Swallowtail Pipevine Aristolochia spp.
Tiger Swallowtail Tulip Poplar, Cottonwood Liriodendron tulipifera
Populus spp.
Pearl Crescent Asters Symphiotrichum spp., etc.
Painted Lady Thistles Cirsium spp.
Red Admiral Nettles Urtica/Boehmeria spp.
Sulphurs Clover Trifolium spp.
Checkered Skipper Asters Symphiotrichum spp., etc.
Viceroy Willows, Cherries, Plums Salix spp., Prunus spp.
Mourning Cloak Elm, Willow, Cottonwood Ulmus, Salix & Populus spp.
Banded Admiral Birch Tree Betula nigra

As you can see from this table, not all our flowers. Some host plants are large trees and others are, well, weeds. Some plants are both hosts and nectar sources.

Native Nectar Sources

I prefer to use native plants when attracting adult butterflies to my garden. I feel that since both the butterflies and plants evolved together, they play a critical role in each other's life cycles.

Joe-pye WeedPurple Coneflower

Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium spp.) blooms in July and August. It can be quite tall, but shorter cultivars exist. It prefers a moist soil. I often have dozens of butterflies on it simultaneously. Purple coneflower begins blooming in June and can continue into fall. Both of these plants prefer full sun.

Woodland PhloxOrange Milkweed

Butterflies often emerge early in spring and are immediately in search of nectar. Woodland phlox (Phlox stolonifera) blooms in early April and is often covered with butterflies. Orange milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) begins blooming in June. It is a nectar source for many adult butterflies but is also a host plant for the Monarch. Woodland phlox grows best in rich soil in the shade, while milkweed loves the hot sun and dry soil.

Early Sunrise CoreopsisHomestead Purple Verbena

Coreopsis spp.(aka tickseed) are late spring to summer blooming perennials with several species and varieties. All attract butterflies. Verbena canadensis 'Homestead Purple' is a long-blooming groundcover which grows rapidly. Both of these plants enjoy full sun and well-drained soil.

Bottlebrush BuckeyePassion Vine

Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) is a large late summer blooming shrub that thrives in partial to medium shade. These flower stalks are often covered with numerous butterflies. Passion Vine (Passiflora incarnata) is a sprawling vine that not only attracts adult butterflies to its intricate flowers, but is also a host for the Gulf Fritillary (note the chewed leaves).

There are many butterfly-attracting (and attractive) native plants. These include: native azaleas, goldenrod, rudbeckia, obedient plant, turtlehead, buttonbush and so forth. If you would like to print a (pdf) list of native plants for your butterfly garden (including the table above), click here.

Some Well-Behaved Non-Natives

As with the salvia pictured at the top, there are several non-native plants that also attract butterflies. I often recommend these plants because they have not been found to be invasive.


Unfortunately, there are some popular plants used in butterfly gardens which are now considered a threat to our native ecosystems. These include: Butterfly Bush (Buddleja spp.), Brazilian Vervain (Verbena bonariensis & V. brasiliensis), Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota), Oxeye Daisy (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum). Please carefully research any non-native plants you wish to introduce to your garden.

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