How to build a butterfly garden:
This article is the second in a series on butterfly gardens and plants to attract butterflies. Read the first article entitled: The Top 25 Butterfly Garden Plants. And don't forget to shop all our Butterfly attacting plants.
Key features of a good butterfly garden:
- Food for Butterflies and Caterpillars
- Shelter from Weather and Predators
- A Place to Warm Up
- A Place to Lay Eggs
- A Chemical Free Environment
Types of plants that attract butterflies:
To give butterflies the right food sources, gardeners should plant both nectar plants to attract butterflies (and feed them) as well as host plants for butterflies on which the adults lay eggs and foliage for the resulting caterpillars to eat. The leaves of butterfly host plants serve as a food source for caterpillars, so if you see that your butterfly garden is being munched, don't spray insecticides...a chemical free environment is vital to butterfly survival! A well chewed butterfly garden is (as Martha Stewart says) a good thing. Growing both butterfly host plants and nectar plants is guaranteed to sustain a large butterfly population in your garden. Check out our Top 25 Butterfly Garden Plants here.
Butterfly garden features:
Butterflies are cold blooded so they appreciate a flat, open, sunny site (like a flat rock or bare patches of ground) where they can bask to warm up in the morning (that is what they do in the morning instead of drinking coffee).
Butterfly wings are large and fragile so they also appreciate shelter from the weather and predators in a site that is protected from strong winds and rain (if you had to lug around giant wings all day, you would too). You can provide this with piles of loose brush which help butterflies to hide and escape heat, rain and predators...so don’t keep your butterfly gardens as neat and tidy as you would a formal garden. You may also want to add a butterfly house (like a bird house but with narrow slots that only butterflies can pass through) where butterflies can rest, protected from heat, wind, rain, and predators.
Butterflies also need a source of water to drink. Bird baths are too deep for them...they prefer shallow puddles of water with mud, sand or rocks, which provide salts and minerals for the butterflies. You can turn a bucket, bird bath or any decorative pot into a butterfly watering hole by filling it with gravel or sand and keeping it continually moist. Butterflies will suck the water out from between the rocks with their straw-like feeding tube. Keep their drinking water cool by partially burying the water pan in cool soil.
Other food sources than butterfly plants: Some butterflies also like to eat fruit after it ferments…so feel free to toss your old apples and bananas into your butterfly garden. Those with horses may know that some butterflies feed on manure so sling some around your butterfly garden (preferably in a hidden spot, and preferably downwind). Not only is manure food for certain butterflies, but it also (after it composts) provides nutrients for each butterfly plant in its vicinity.
Why are butterflies attracted to certain plants?
Choosing the best plants that attract butterflies is a lot easier if you understand butterfly anatomy and biology. Butterflies cannot focus their eyes so the world appears blurry, thus they are more attracted to mass plantings of brightly colored butterfly flowers than those planted singly. Butterfly eyes are sensitive to different colors than humans and they see blue, purple, green, yellow and orange much better than they see red, so your plants for butterfly garden should lean away fro the reds. They can also see ultraviolet light and a key feature of a butterfly flower is to have distinct patterns that only appear under ultraviolet light. Butterflies have a great sense of smell (via their antennae) and so fragrant flowers are a favorite. Butterflies reproduce by laying eggs on the leaves of butterfly host plants so it is best if you do not remove spent leaves right away as you may inadvertently be removing butterfly eggs. It’s best to leave perennials standing over the winter, or at least to pile them into a loose pile in some out-of-sight corner of the butterfly garden.
Carolina Nature article on plants to attract butterflies
NC Cooperative Extenstion - 4H article on what plants attract butterflies
JC Raulston Arboretum page on butterfly attracting flowers
Durham Museum of Life and Sciences page on what flowers attract butterflies
Missouri Botanic Garden page on butterfly attracting plants
U. of Kentucky Entomology page on flowers to attract butterflies
The Butterfly Site - Butterflies
The Butterfly Site - Food
The Butterfly Site - Creating a butterfly garden
Gardens With Wings - Host Plants for butterflies
Gardens With Wings - Nectar Plants