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Butterfly Gardening – The Why and The How

GS-baptisia.jpgWhy Grow a Butterfly Garden?

  • To help preserve these beloved insects, whose habitat areas are fast disappearing.
  • Watching them is fun and educational in a way that connects you and your kids to nature.
  • It’s a giant step toward getting your backyard certified under the National Wildlife Federation’s Backyard Habitat Program.

How to Attract Butterflies

Host Plants are used by butterflies as places to lay their eggs, and then as food by the emerging caterpillars, so including some in your garden will attract even more species. But butterflies are often very picky about which plants they use as hosts, a departure from their more generic tastes in nectar plants. For example, the Monarch caterpillars will only eat the milkweed plant.  So tuck Milkweed into your border or (if you don’t like the look) in an out-of-the-way spot.

More host plants are Asters, False Indigo (Baptisia), Golden Alexanders, Sedums, Violets, annual herb Curry and trailing Licorice plant (Helichrysum), Parsley, Spicebush, Snapdragon and Pipevine.  The shrub Spicebush is a great host plant, as are these trees: Hackberry, Elm, Tulip Poplar, Wild Cherry, Black Willow, and Pawpaw.

Some butterfly experts recommend adding fennel and dill to the garden as an easy way to provide host plants, but look out –  both reseed “like crazy”, says our Larry Hurley.  Fennel is considered naturalized or invasive in almost every state in the US and Canada. Dill reseeds, but less so.  Our native carrot relative, Golden Alexanders (Zizea) is a great alternative and is, in fact, one of the natural food sources for its butterfly.

Nectar Plants are the plants we see adult butterflies feeding on, sucking nectar through their long nose-like proboscis, and an assortment of nectar plants will attract dozens of butterflies to your garden. Eric Raun, a suburban Maryland butterfly expert, recorded 32 species feeding on his butterfly bushes alone — the most of any plant. (And if you’re worried about your butterfly bushes spreading, remove the dead flowers. That will prevent their reseeding and encourage reblooms.) Runners-up in Raun’s garden were native plants wild ageratum, milkweed, and blackeyed susan and nonnative plants verbena, marigold, zinnia, salvia, globe amaranth, and white clover.  And Behnkes’ own Miri Talabac tells me that Agastache foeniculum is irresistible to butterflies and most pollinators.

Nectar Plants for Shade include Buttonbush, Summersweet (Clethra), Virginia Sweetspire (Itea), Mountain Mint (for sun to partial shade), Eupatorium rugosum. Eupatorium coelestinum, White Wood Aster, Blue Wood Aster, Woodland Sunflower, Bugbane (Cimicifuga), Smooth Hydrangea (H. arborescens), and several native azaleas and rhododendrons.

All butterfly-attracting plants, whether nectar or host, should be massed in groups of three or more so they can be seen by these near-sighted insects, but be sure to provide a diversity of plants to attract lots of species. And because butterflies feed from spring to fall, be sure to select plants with a variety of booming times.

Other Attractants

Many butterflies love to suck liquid from moist soil, an activity called puddling. You can create a puddle by burying a sand-filled container in the ground (a shallow saucer or birdbath will do) and periodically adding stale beer, sweet drinks or water. Some species feed on overripe fruit, but be warned that yellow jackets are equally attracted to them. Butterfly houses are more decorative than effective, generally attracting more wasps than their intended guests.  But flat rocks or patches of dirt in protected spots do provide places for butterflies to warm themselves in the morning.

Gardening Practices

  • Avoid the use of insecticides. Populations of many species have been reduced by insecticides, especially sprays to control gypsy moths and mosquitoes.
  • “Weeds” like clover, violets and dandelions are excellent food for butterflies, so consider relaxing your definition of the perfect lawn to include something for the insects. It’ll help our threatened honeybees and native pollinating bees, too.
  • Garden clean-up? Not so much. Some butterflies overwinter as larvae or pupae in leaf litter at the base of host plants, so leave at least a light leaf covering around them until early spring.


On sunny days it’s fun to watch adult butterflies feeding and puddling, for which they’ll stay in place long enough to offer some awesome photo opps. On cool sunny mornings they’ll also hang out on those rocks you’ve provided for them, warming their muscles enough for flight. There are 239 known species of butterflies and moths in the small state of Maryland alone, so get yourself a pair of binoculars and a field guide, and start your list!

Join the Monarch Movement

A quick visit to Monarchwatch.org left me impressed by the organization but curious to know why all the attention to Monarchs. And I learned that Monarchs attract extra attention because they’re big, easily identifiable, and their migration habits are amazing. Not to mention the very real threat to their existence from decreasing winter habitat areas in Mexico and the use of pesticides by farmers in the U.S. In fact, 90 percent of Monarch habitats are agricultural and they’re disappearing at the rate of 3,000 acres every day. Their roadside habitats are destroyed by herbicides and frequent mowing. It sure would help — and save our tax dollars — if we just let our roadsides go natural.

More Information in Print

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by Susan Harris

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Thanks, Great article! The links to additional articles and websites at the end do not work, however.

  2. Thanks Lisa, this article is a few years old and several of the links have changed. I have re-built as many as were still available.


    Larry B

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