Float like a butterfly...
The kinetic fluttering of butterflies as they float from flower to flower is a joy to watch. Gardeners have hundreds of choices of host plants for butterflies, so we want to help you select the best plants that attract butterflies. Here at Plant Delights Nursery we have decades of experience with butterfly gardens and butterfly host plants. Over the last 25 years we have worked with literally thousands of butterfly flowers in our 20 acre garden. Here we have generated a list of what we think are the best plants for butterfly gardens…both nectar sources and butterfly host plants. Although we garden in the south, the list below of butterfly garden plants is for the entire US and includes butterfly flowers that can be grown in the northeast, midwest, southwest and pacific northwest. Just click on the links below to learn more about each plant and where it can be grown. Each plant will be followed by its food status (Host = host plants for butterflies and caterpillars) (Nectar = Nectar sources for adult butterflies) plus a list of butterfly species attracted to it.
List of The Top 25 Butterfly Garden Plants
#25 Stonecrop (Sedum)
Both tall and short sedums are beloved by butterflies and are great plants for the xeric butterfly garden. To learn more about Sedum, Check out our Sedum article in our articles archive.
#24 Beebalm (Monarda)
A hit with Swallowtails and Silver-Spotted Skipper. There are a lot of new Monarda hybrids on the market now that are disease resistant, do not overrun the garden and do not flop over.
Ornamental grasses are widely used as host plants for butterflies. Just remember not to spray them with insecticides when you see signs of feeding. Try Muhlenbergia, Schizachyrium, Panicum or Carex.
A beautiful native flowering plant, but butterflies don't want the flowers…Baptisias are host plants for butterflies. In particular, Baptisia is a host plant for the Wild Indigo Duskywing butterfly. Silver-Spotted Skippers and Hoary Edge Butterflies are fans too. Plant Delights has a baptisia breeding program and is one of the leaders in the US in new baptisia releases. You can learn more about Baptisia in the detailed article in our article archives.
Stokesia is popular with gardeners for its large blue flowers and also with Great Spangled Fritillaries for its sweet nectar. You can learn more about Stokesia in the detailed article in our article archives.
#20 Pipe Vine (Aristolochia)
A popular vine with gardeners for its large (sometimes variegated) leaves and bizarre meerschaum pipe-like flowers, Pipe Vine is also popular with the bizarre and colorful Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillar as a host plant.
Angelica is in the carrot family, and if you have ever seen butterflies go all a-flutter for its relatives - carrot, queen anne's lace, dill, or fennel, then you will understand why they also like this lacy-flowered beauty.
(Host)(Nectar) : Blues, Coppers, Hairstreaks
Large, colorful flower clusters make Achillea a great plant for a butterfly garden. The frilly foliage is very fern-like and adds a nice texture to the border.
(Nectar) : American Copper, Banded Hairstreak, Lorquin Admiral, Red-banded Hairstreak, West Coast Lady
There are a wide variety of phlox colors to choose from fro your butterfly garden...just make sure you pick ones that are also mildew resistant.
(Nectar) : Sachem, Silver-Spotted Skipper, Silvery Checkerspot , Swallowtail, Spicebush Swallowtail, Tiger Swallowtail, Zabulon
#16 Sunflower (Helianthus)
You may be more familiar with annual sunflowers, but there are also perennial sunflowers that blaze with color for a long period in the fall. Oh, and butterflies think they taste pretty good too.
(Host)(Nectar) : American Lady, Bordered Patch, Cabbage White, Giant Swallowtail, Gorgone Checkerspot, Painted Lady, Gray Hairstreak, Monarch, Pearl Crescent, Sachem, Silvery Checkerspot, Spicebush Swallowtail, Wild Indigo Duskywing
#15 Joe-Pye Weed
Eupatoriums are plants with clusters of frilly flowers that attract butterflies, particularly large butterflies like swallowtails…great choices for moist soils.
#14 Liatris (Blazing Star)
Liatris shoots up firework-like flower stalks around the 4th of July. Enjoy your Independence Day barbeque along with the swallowtails which will be sipping Liatris nectar while you sip on lemonade.
#13 Mint family
Not a specific plant, but butterflies like so many members of this plant family (Agastache, Lavender, Rosemary, Calamintha, Pycnanthemum etc.) I had to group them together as top plants for a butterfly garden. These plants also feature fragrant foliage and some of them, like Agastache, have insanely colorful flowers too.
(Nectar): Cabbage White, Hairstreaks, Monarch, Peck’s Skipper, Sachem, Silver-Spotted Skipper, Spring and Summer Azure
You may immediately think of annual snapdragons, but you should also try the great perennial snapdragons…pretty flowers, silvery foliage, and butterflies too!
(Nectar)(Host) : Cabbage White, Common Buckeye, Grey Hairstreak, Pearl Crescent, Swallowtail
#11 Ironweed (Vernonia)
A tall, purple-flowered fall blooming perennial for back of the border. Very popular with butterflies.
(Nectar) : Great Spangled Fritillary, Orange Sulphur, Monarch, Peck’s Skipper, Sachem, Silver-Spotted Skipper, Swallowtail, Tiger Swallowtail
#10 Daisy (Leucanthemum)
This classic white-flowered summer garden plant is popular with many butterfly species.
#9 Goldenrod (Solidago)
Late summer into fall, goldenrod provides much needed nectar for butterflies.
(Nectar) : American Painted Lady, American Snout, Clouded Sulphur, Common Sulphur, Great Swallowtail, Gorgone Checkerspot, Monarch, Painted Lady, Pearl Crescent, Red Admiral, Red-Banded Hairstreak, Sachem, Viceroy
#8 Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia)
Another long-blooming summer perennial, the black-eyed susan has invisible (to humans) patterns on the petals that only butterflies (with ultraviolet vision) can see.
(Nectar) : American Snout, Great Spangled Fritillary, Hayhurst’s Scallopwing, Orange Sulphur, Pearl Crescent, Sachem, Silvery Checkerspot, Silver-Spotted Skipper, Spring and Summer Azure, Variegated Fritillary
In particular, the Brazilian verbena (Verbena bonariensis) is quite popular with a large variety of butterfly species. Other verbenas work well too.
(Nectar) : American Lady, Black Swallowtail, Cabbage White, Common Buckeye, Clouded Skipper, Clouded Sulphur, Crossline Skipper, Dun Skipper, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Fiery Skipper, Gray Hairstreak, Great Southern White, Great Spangled Fritillary, Hayhurst’s Scallopwing, Horace’s Duskywing, Least Skipper, Little Glassywing, Monarch, Ocola Skipper, Orange Sulphur, Painted Lady, Pecks Skipper, Pearl Crescent, Pipevine Swallowtail, Red-Banded Hairstreak, Red Spotted Admiral, Sachem, Silver-Spotted Skipper, Silvery Checkerspot, Swallowtail, Tawny-edged Skipper, Variegated Fritillary, Wild Indigo Duskywing, Zabulon, Zebra Longwing, Zebra Swallowtail
Perennial lantanas flower all summer long with bright colors, and bring butterflies in droves (and hummingbirds too).
(Nectar) : Cabbage White, Fiery Skipper, Great Swallowtail, Gray Hairstreak, Hayhurst’s Scallopwing, Little Glassywing, Monarch, Red Admiral, Sachem, Silver-Spotted Skipper, Skipper, Spicebush Swallowtail, Swallowtail, Wild Indigo Duskywing, Zebra Longwing
If you are not already growing salvias, you should start. Salvias offer a wide range of colors, drought tolerance, an extremely long period of bloom, are attractive to hummingbirds and oh yeah, a couple of butterflies too. To learn more about Salvia, check out our detailed article in our articles archive.
(Nectar) : American Lady, Cabbage White, Clouded Skipper, Cloudless Sulphur, Dun Skipper, Fiery Skipper, Giant Swallowtail, Gray Hairstreak, Gulf Fritillary, Monarch, Orange Sulphur, Orange-barred Sulphur, Peck’s Skipper, Sachem, Silver-Spotted Skipper, Spicebush Swallowtail, Zebra Longwing, Zabulon
Asters are late summer and fall blooming perennials are astounding butterfly attractors, not only for nectar but also as a host plant.
(Nectar)(Host) : American Lady, American Snout, Anise Swallowtail, Black Swallowtail, Buckeye Butterfly, Cabbage White, Clouded Skipper, Clouded Sulphur, Common Buckeye, Common Checkered-Skipper, Common Sulphur, Eastern Tailed-Blue, Fiery Skipper, Gray Hairstreak, Horace’s Duskywing, Lorquin Admiral, Monarch, Orange Sulphur, Painted Lady, Pearl Crescent, Peck’s Skipper, Question Mark, Red Admiral, Red-Banded Hairstreak, Sachem, Silver-Spotted Skipper, Sleepy Orange, Swallowtail, Variegated Fritillary, Viceroy, West Coast Lady
#3 Coneflower (Echinacea)
This widely adaptable perennial can be planted almost everywhere in the US and attracts tons and tons of butterflies. To learn more about Echinacea check out our detailed article in our articles archive.
(Nectar) : American Lady, Banded Hairstreak, Black Swallowtail, Clouded Sulphur, Common Checkered Skipper, Common Wood-nymph, Eastern Tailed Blue, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Fiery Skipper, Giant Swallowtail, Gray Hairstreak, Great Spangled Fritillary, Gulf Fritillary, Hayhurst’s Scallopwing, Horace’s Duskywing, Little Glassywing, Monarch, Orange Sulphur, Painted Lady, Pearl Crescent, Peck’s Skipper, Red Admiral, Red-Banded Hairstreak, Red-Spotted Admiral, Sachem, Silvery Checkerspot, Silver-Spotted Skipper, Spicebush Swallowtail, Swallowtail, Tawny-edge Skipper, Variegated Fritillary, Viceroy, Wild Indigo Duskywing, Zabulon
#2 Butterfly Flower / Butterfly Weed (Asclepias)
With 'butterfly' in the common name, you better bet this is an incredible plant for a butterfly garden. Not only do the colorful flowers provide nectar, but the leaves and stems are host plants for butterflies that are popular with the caterpillars because they are filled with a toxic white latex that makes the ‘pillars taste bad to predators. No butterfly garden should be without butterfly weed, especially if you want to help protect the endangered Monarch butterfly. If native plants are your thing, then butterfly weed should be your #1 butterfly plant.
(Host)(Nectar) : American Copper, American Lady, Baltimore Checkerspot, Banded Hairstreak, Black Swallowtail, Bronze Copper, Cabbage White, Common Buckeye, Delaware Skipper, Eastern Tailed-Blue, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Fiery Skipper, Giant Swallowtail, Gray Hairstreak , Great Spangled Fritillary, Hoary Edge, Little Glassywing, Lorquin Admiral, Monarch, Mourning Cloak, Orange Sulphur, Painted Lady, Pearl Crescent, Peck's Skipper, Pipevine Swallowtail, Queen, Question Mark, Red Admiral, Red-banded Hairstreak, Red-spotted Purple, Sachem, Silver-spotted Skipper, Silvery Checkerspot, Sleepy Orange, Southern Cloudywing, Spicebush Swallowtail, Spring Azure, Two-tailed Swallowtail , Variegated Fritillary, Viceroy, Zabulon, Zebra Longwing, Zebra Swallowtail
#1 Butterfly Bush (Buddleia)
The A#1, top-ranked, can't be beat, plant for a butterfly garden is the butterfly bush which not only attracts a wide range of butterfly species, but each plant can support hundreds of butterflies feeding on it at one time. Bright colors and a long bloom time (if deadheaded) make Buddleia the #1 plant for a butterfly garden. Every butterfly fan should grow Buddleia. To learn more about Buddleia check out our detailed article in our articles archive.
(Nectar) : American Lady, Anise Swallowtail, Banded Hairstreak, Black Swallowtail, Cabbage White, Cloudless Sulphur, Crossline Skipper, Eastern Comma, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Fiery Skipper, Giant Swallowtail, Great Spangled Fritillary, Gulf Fritillary, Horace’s Duskywing, Little Glassywing, Monarch, Mourning Cloak, Ocola Skipper, Orange Sulphur, Painted Lady, Pipevine Swallowtail, Polydamus Swallowtail, Queen, Question Mark, Red Admiral, Red-Banded Hairstreak, Red-Spotted Purple, Peck’s Skipper, Sachem, Silver Spotted Skipper, Southern Broken-Dash, Spicebush Swallowtail, Spring and Summer Azure, Variegated Fritillary, Viceroy, Wild Indigo Duskywing, Zabulon, Zebra Longwing, Zebra Swallowtail
How to build a butterfly garden:
Types of plants that attract butterflies:
Butterfly gardens are easy to create. Gardeners should plant both nectar plants to attract and feed adult butterflies as well as butterfly host plants on which the adults lay eggs. 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 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. Both the butterflies and the butterfly garden plants will appreciate a sunny site that is protected from strong winds (if you had to lug around giant wings all day, you would too).
Butterfly garden features:
In addition to plants that attract butterflies, serious gardeners will want to add other features such as flat rocks (or bare patches of ground) in sunny spots for butterflies to bask upon (that is what they do in the morning instead of drinking coffee). Plus, small piles of brush within the garden help butterflies to hide and escape heat, rain and predators...so don’t keep your butterfly garden 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. Some butterflies also like cut fruit which they eat after it ferments…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).
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. They can also see ultraviolet light and many butterfly flowers 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.
The butterfly is a flying flower,
The flower a tethered butterfly.
~Ponce Denis Écouchard Lebrun
There are hundreds of other great butterfly garden plants that you can see on our butterfly flowers page. For those of you near us in Raleigh, NC (or traveling near Raleigh), you are welcome to visit our gardens during our open house events to see our butterfly gardens and butterfly host plants in action. We can also recommend two other local butterfly gardens, the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh, and the Butterfly House at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham.
NC Cooperative Extenstion - 4H article on butterflies
JC Raulston Arboretum
Durham Museum of Life and Sciences
Missouri Botanic Garden
U. of Kentucky Entomology
The Butterfly Site - Butterflies
The Butterfly Site - Food
The Butterfly Site - Creating a butterfly garden
Gardens With Wings - Host Plants
Gardens With Wings - Nectar Plants