Creating a Butterfly Garden

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Butterflies and moths perform important pollination work in our gardens, and their bright colors and graceful motion can bring a backyard habitat to life. Below are some tips on starting your own butterfly garden and resources to identify native plants that are guaranteed to attract butterflies in your area.

How to Start a Butterfly Garden

Beginning a butterfly garden can be as simple as choosing flowering plants that will invite adult butterflies to your garden to feed. But if you want to create a butterfly garden that will act as a sanctuary, attracting a wide variety of butterflies while also providing a place where butterflies can grow and multiply, you will first need some simple planning. By considering which plants to grow and evaluating your garden site, you can plant a butterfly garden that will help with the creation of more butterflies.

Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus)

Plant Selection

Many flowering plants will attract butterflies to your location, but not all flowers are created equally in the eyes of a butterfly. Selecting plants that will feed butterflies while also encouraging them to stick around for a while, laying eggs and creating a new generation of butterflies, is your goal. To do this, you will need to choose plants that fall into two groups: nectar plants that will provide adult butterflies with energy and caterpillar food plants that will feed caterpillars. With careful selection from these two groups, your garden will provide for the entire life cycle of butterflies.

Choosing Plants for Butterflies Common to Your Region

To determine which butterflies and caterpillars may arrive in your garden, visit local butterfly gardens in your region or talk to other butterfly gardeners. If such opportunities do not exist, many butterfly field guides also provide information about which butterflies are likely to visit gardens and what food sources they prefer. Once you have identified butterflies that are most likely to visit your garden, select their preferred caterpillar food plants along with nectar plants that are recommended for your growing area.

Below is information for Southern California butterfly gardens…

Choosing Nectar Plants

Crimson Columbine (Aquilegia formosa)
Crimson Columbine (Aquilegia formosa)

While shopping for plants, you will encounter many plants labeled “butterfly friendly.” Most of the time these plants are nectar plants, marketed for their bright blooms, and will attract butterflies to your garden for feeding, but are not necessarily compatible for the caterpillar stage of a butterfly’s life.  Many flowering plants provide nectar to butterflies, but some plants will serve as both nectar and caterpillar food plants which may be worth searching out due to their double duty offerings. Below are just a few California natives with flowers attractive to butterflies:

  • Sticky Bush Monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiacus)
  • Coyote Mint (Monardella villosa)
  • Sulfur Flower Buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum)
  • Snowdrop Bush (Styrax officinalis var. redivivus)
  • Crimson Columbine (Aquilegia formosa)

Choosing Caterpillar Food Plants

The relationship between butterflies, caterpillars, and the plants they use for food has evolved over thousands of years. As a result of this long development, caterpillars will use only certain plants for food. At the same time, butterflies are equally picky about what plants they will select to lay their eggs on. In order to encourage caterpillars in the garden, butterfly gardeners should select the plants that are preferred by the caterpillars in their location. Nature and chemistry will take care of the rest.

One of the most important secrets to a successful butterfly garden is to supply an ample amount of butterfly host plants. A butterfly “host” plant is the only plant that a particular female butterfly will lay her eggs on. Each species of butterfly uses a specific plant. Planting butterfly host plants for the butterflies that frequent your region will ensure your success in butterfly gardening. Without the proper butterfly host plant, butterflies will simply sip nectar and fly away. Host plants will keep the butterflies in your garden day after day until the butterfly courtship is complete and their tiny eggs have been laid.

Below is a list of some of the more common southern California butterflies and the host plants they use for laying their eggs. This list will vary depending on what part of the country you live in, so whenever possible try to use plants that are native to your region.

BUTTERFLY HOST PLANT
Acmon Blue Buckwheat (Eriogonum) Lupine (Lupinus), Trefoils (Lotus) and Milk-Vetches (Astragalus)
American Painted Lady *Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), *California Sagebrush (Atremisia californica), *Mugwort (Artemisia douglasiana), *Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea)
Anise Swallowtail Fennel, Dill, Parsley, Common Rue, *Lomatium (Lomatium utriculatum)
Buckeye Snapdragon, Summer Snapdragon (Angelonia angustifolia), Plantains, *Bush Monkey Flower (Mimulus aurantiacus)
California Dogface *False Indigo (Amorpha fruticosa and Amorpha californica)
California Sister Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia)
Checkered White Mustards
Cloudless Sulphur *Cassia (Cassia bicapsularis), Senna
Common Hairstreak *Buckwheat (Eriogonum), Pea (Fabaceae), Beans (Phaseolus), Clovers (Trifolium), Cotton (Gossypium), and Mallow (Malva)
Funeral Duskywing *Deerweed (Lotus scoparius)
Giant Swallowtail Citrus, Common Rue (Ruta graveolens), Australian Willow (Geijera parviflora)
Gulf Fritillary Lantana and Passion Vine (Passiflora)
Monarch Butterfly *Milkweed (Asclepias)
Mourning Cloak Willow (Salix), Elm, Hackberry, Cottonwood
Orange Sulfur False Indigo (Amorpha californica)
Painted Lady Hollyhock, Mallow, Cheeseweed (Malvacea), Thistle (Asteraceae), Lupine (Lupinus), Fiddleneck (Amsinckia menziesii)
Pale Swallowtail California Coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica), California Lilac (Ceanothus), Holly Leaf Cherry (Prunus ilicifolia), Sycamore (Platanus)
Palos Verdes Blue (endangered) *Locoweed (Astragalus trichopodus lonchus), *Common Deerwood (Lotus scoparius)
Pipevine Swallowtail *Pipevine (Aristolochia californica) ;
Queen Butterfly *Milkweed (Asclepias)
Red Admiral Baby Tears Moss (Soleirolia soleirolii), *Nettle (Urtica holosericea)
Sara Orange Tip Mustards
West Coast Lady *Mallow, Hollyhock, *Nettles (Urtica holosericea)
Western Tiger Swallowtail *Willow (Salix), Poplar, Aspen, *Alder
* California Native Butterfly Host Plant
Gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)
Gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)

Garden Site Selection

Planting a wide range of nectar and host plants is the best strategy for attracting the largest number of butterfly species. Butterflies may be attracted to the garden by a large patch of bright flowers, but they will linger longer if there are also areas that provide shelter, water, sun and a diverse group of plants that imitate the way plants grow in the wild.

Plant Diversity

Diversity in the garden results from choosing plants of different types, such as shrubs, trees, perennials, and even vines. In choosing plants that grow to different heights, with a variety of flower shapes and colors that have different bloom times, you will be creating a garden that is attractive to a wide range of butterflies.  Grouping more than one plant of each type together will help to unify the look of the garden and will lessen the distance that nectaring butterflies have to travel. If your garden is small and has no room for trees or shrubs, consider an arbor covered with vines to create height. There are many vines to choose from that act as nectar or caterpillar food plants.

Shelter

Shrubs and trees provide an important feature in the butterfly garden. Properly placed, they will shelter your garden from wind, which makes it easier for butterflies to explore your location. Additionally, trees and shrubs give valuable shelter where butterflies can roost at night or hide from predators. Keep in mind that many shrubs and trees are also caterpillar food plants!

Water

Water is needed by butterflies, but not very much. Nectar, dew, and tree sap provide butterflies with moisture but puddles and moist dirt or sand are also popular water sources. Puddling stations can be as simple as a damp area of ground covered with sand. Placed where they are easily viewed and sheltered from the wind, puddling stations are thought to provide dissolved salts in addition to water.

Sun

Sun is essential for the butterfly garden. Butterflies are cold-blooded insects that often start their day by warming their bodies in the sun. Be sure to include a spot in the garden where sunlight will reach the ground early in the day. Large rocks, exposed soil, or even pavement are all surfaces that will warm up in morning sunlight. Try to locate your garden where it will receive at least six hours of direct sunlight each day.

Once you have combined careful plant selection with the details of site selection, you will have created a butterfly garden that is a micro habitat providing a unique location where a wide variety of butterflies can live and grow.

Click here for a printable PDF from the North American Butterfly Association regarding California-native butterfly-attracting plants in Los Angeles.

Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus) and European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera)

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