The number one step to attract butterflies is simply providing the food they like – which is generally plants. The adult butterflies are attracted to nectar plants from which they sip nectar and are also attracted to their host plants which are the specific plants where the females lay their eggs.
This article will suggest specific butterfly garden plants and items that are attractive to butterflies. Please visit the companion article, Butterfly Garden Tips, for plant placement and more.
Best Garden Plants to Attract Butterflies
Having only nectar plants in your garden will certainly attract adult butterflies to feed (drink) as they flutter by and the more plants you have, the more butterflies you will see. But if you really want to attract butterflies in large numbers you may want to consider adding some host plants so the entire butterfly life cycle can take place in your backyard. That’s when things get fun!
The plants most likely to attract butterflies in your area will often be native to your area which also means they will tend to grow vigorously in your butterfly garden with low maintenance. However, butterflies are not near as picky about their nectar plants as they are with their host plants.
One important thing to keep in mind with nectar plants is to try to use the varieties that are old-timey and/or natives. Sometimes the newer cultivars (double petalled, larger flowers, different flower shapes, exotic colors, etc) end up with little to no nectar and/or are difficult for the butterflies to land on and extract nectar.
Here are some great nectar plants to consider that are well known for attracting a variety of butterflies:
- Asters – Asters native to your area will probably perform best
- Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii – purple, blue and pink may attract more butterflies than yellow and white)
- Cosmos sulphureus
- Joe-Pye Weed
- Lantana camara – Most all colors are attractive to butterflies. I have seen ‘Miss Huff’ mentioned frequently as an excellent butterfly magnet and I have had great success with ‘Red Spread’.
- Milkweed (also doubles as a host plant for Monarchs but MANY butterfly species like to nectar at the flowers)
- Pentas lanceolata
- Phlox – Especially Phlox paniculata
- Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
- Verbena bonariensis
- Zinnia elegans – Cut and Come Again is a huge butterfly magnet in my yard.
The plants mentioned above are just some that are popular and well known for being top butterfly attractors but there are many more butterfly garden plants that are attractive to various species of butterflies such as Coreopsis, Blanket Flower (Gaillardia), Bee balm (Monarda spp.), Blazing Stars (Liatris spp.), Goldenrods (Solidago spp.), Ironweeds (Vernonia spp.), Stokes aster (Stokesia laevis) and many more.
Visit What Butterflies Eat for a list of favorite nectar plants separated out by butterfly species. You can use this information to get started in attracting a specific kind of butterfly you would like to see in your yard (assuming the butterfly is native in your region).
If you are unsure if the butterfly species is native in your area then just click on the butterfly name and page down to see a map showing where the butterfly can be found. Of course you can Google your state (i.e. Alabama) or region (i.e. Southeast) along with “butterflies” and will most likely find information about which butterflies are popular where you live.
Host plants are also important for exploding the butterfly population in your yard. In the case of host plants, butterflies can be extremely specific about which plants they will lay their eggs on. Please visit What Do Caterpillars Eat to get some ideas for host plants. Some easy ones to get started with include Milkweed for Monarchs and some of the herbs like Parsley, Dill or Fennel for Black Swallowtails (or Anise Swallowtails in the Western states). Rue is a great perennial host plant for Black Swallowtails and Giant Swallowtails.
Butterfly fruit Feeders are Attractive to Butterflies
Don’t throw out your over-ripe fruit! While most butterflies prefer nectar from flowers, there are some butterflies that prefer nectaring from rotting fruit. These butterflies include the Red Spotted Purple, Question Mark, Mourning Cloak, Green Comma, Malachite, Red Admiral, Hackberry and Tawny Emperors, and the Viceroy.
There are many ways that you can serve up the fruit to butterflies. Some people use a bird suet feeder to hold over-ripe rotting fruit hanging from a tree branch. Others have taken a plant saucer or flat bird feeder and used a plant hanger to hang the saucer/feeder from a tree branch.
You could also place an old dish or flat bird feeder out on a deck railing or table with some old fruit cut or lightly smashed in it. If you are looking for something fancier in your garden you could always use a decorative bird bath or a flat bird feeder.
I usually put my fruit in the sunshine but my compost pile is in the shade and butterflies have frequented both. Other people have reported having success with providing fruit both in the sunshine and in the shade. You may want to experiment to see which works best for attracting butterflies in your yard.
One thing to keep in mind is that you will attract others besides the butterflies such as bees and wasps as well as some flies and ants. At night you may want to put your fruit in a sealed bucket outdoors (especially if using a flat feeder) unless you don’t mind providing a raccoon, possum or other critter with a yummy snack.
While the butterflies don’t care about the other daytime visitors, hanging the feeder will help discourage the ants. Another clever idea I read about was making a “moat” by filling a plant saucer with water then placing an inverted plant pot in the saucer. Next, just set your fruit plate on top of the inverted pot and the water in the saucer provides a moat that blocks the ants from getting to the plate.
Keep in mind is that the fruit must stay moist. Occasionally you may need to break the dry film that forms on some fruit (such as citrus), or add a little water, Gatorade, or fruit juice to a plate of fruit. You should not form a lake, just a moist fruit mush. Experiment!
Many Butterflies Love Mud Puddles
Moist mud puddles attract butterflies, especially the males, where they will often congregate to find minerals and salts that supposedly increase their fertility (this is called “puddling”). I have not tried mud puddles yet but it is on my list of things to try! I often have seen butterflies probing around on moist ground and I’m sure they would appreciate it if I would create one so they have it during the many dry spells of summer!
From my research, creating a butterfly mud puddle really just amounts to filling a water tight saucer or container with sand, rocks and water. It should not be a “lake” of water but rather a moist muddy type spot. Adding some compost (or a little bit of manure) can help attract butterflies.
The biggest challenge is keeping it moist during the hot summer. A deeper container may help. Several people mention burying the container in the ground up to the lip of the container. I also read that the larger the diameter of the puddle, the more likely it is to attract butterflies in large groups.
Try some Basking Stones for Attracting Butterflies
Butterflies need heat to fly and they use the sun to warm themselves. If you see a butterfly just “resting” with its wings open toward the sun, it is almost certainly basking in the warmth. You could place basking stones in your garden for the butterflies but I have to say that in my experience, this is pretty low on garden items that attract butterflies.
I have a good sized rock right in the middle of my main butterfly garden and I have never seen a butterfly basking upon it. I have often seen butterflies basking on plants on cool mornings but not on my great big rock.
Now, maybe my rock is not in the right place or the right “kind” of rock/stone. Certainly others have had luck with basking stones or it wouldn’t frequently be mentioned as a butterfly attractor! So, try it if you like – if nothing else, it may add visual interest and fullness to your butterfly garden.
Final Note about Attracting Butterflies
You may have heard of butterfly houses used for overwintering butterflies or providing protection. Although they can be quite beautiful, they are rarely used. Butterflies prefer to use trees, shrubs, logs, wood piles and other natural settings for winter and storm protection. Do not be discouraged from adding a butterfly house since they can be a thing of beauty in a garden, but be aware that it may never be used.