Butterflies are everyone's favorite pollinators. Attracting them to the garden is easy: Grow flowers, and they will come.
To a butterfly, your garden is not just a pretty place; it's a habitat, and your colorful flowers are a nectar-rich source of sustenance. Many garden plants, including trees, shrubs and vines, are also host plants for butterfly larvae, fascinating caterpillars that, in time, pupate and emerge through metamorphosis to populate the garden with butterflies. When you plant both nectar and host plants, you're growing your own butterflies.
You don't need a big garden to enjoy the pleasure of many kinds of butterflies. A pot full of zinnias or cosmos will attract butterflies to a tiny patio garden. A window box planted with bright lantanas welcomes butterflies to a garden on a balcony in the big city. Urban or rural, beds filled with annual and perennial flowers, blooming in succession from spring through frost, will put you right on the stage for a fluttering pageant of butterflies. In gardens of any description, simply being able to follow the lifecycles of butterflies enriches your experience of the great outdoors.
When you plant flowers for butterflies, be bold. Large flowers, with big landing pads, are easy for butterflies to see, and they're great nectar sources. Daisies, coneflowers, lantanas, sedum, verbenas and black-eyed Susans all attract butterflies. Plant them in drifts of three or more plants, and butterflies will spot them from afar and sail in to sip eagerly from these handsome sources of nectar.
Garden phlox, a perennial plant with bold clusters of purple, pink or white flowers, is among the best butterfly plants. It is hardy and easy to grow, and it blooms for weeks in the heat of summer. Horticulturists at Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware made a two-year study of 94 different kinds of phlox that thrive in sun and shade, evaluating them for their garden performance and appeal to butterflies. They found that phlox Jeana, a strain discovered in Nashville, Tennessee, was the single most attractive to butterflies, but you can scarcely go wrong with any kind of phlox.
Anise hyssop, a good-looking perennial in the mint family, also attracts the lively attention of butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators. A single plant produces many flowering stems that stand quite tall in the tumult of a flower bed and bloom for months. They're hardy, undemanding, drought-tolerant plants. Long-blooming flowers, or an assemblage of different flowers that bloom from spring through frost, attract and maintain a thriving and varied butterfly population. Salvias, known for their long-lasting blooms, also earn high marks for their appeal to butterflies and hummingbirds. Ageratum, calendulas, and all kinds of daisy-flowered plants should be on your butterfly garden list. From late summer through fall, the purple flowers of joe-pye weed are covered with butterflies.
Milkweeds are critical flowers for butterflies, especially for the striking orange-and-black monarch butterflies, which lay their eggs on these plants. Milkweed is the only food their larvae eat. Without milkweeds -- including the brilliant orange-flowering butterfly milkweed Asclepias tuberosa -- there would be no monarchs. They bloom on and off throughout the summer, sustaining generations of butterflies and other pollinators. Milkweed plants can be found at native-plant nurseries, and they are not hard to grow from seed.
The flowers, trees and shrubs native to your region (and thus adapted to your climate and conditions) will naturally attract butterflies. Many species of aster, goldenrod, bee balm, lobelia, coreopsis, blazing star, ironweed and other natives flourish on the borders of farm fields and in the rough-and-tumble right-of-way of highways and country roads. Cultivars of these natives, chosen for their size, flower color or good garden behavior, are excellent additions to butterfly gardens.
When your garden includes host plants for caterpillars, it gives you an even deeper appreciation for the delicate butterflies they become. Voracious green-and-black-striped swallowtail caterpillars can decimate a parsley plant or a stand of fennel in no time, but watching them grow and emerge from the pupae as gorgeous swallowtails is worth losing a plant or two. To compensate in advance for any loss, simply plant more than you need.
The Xerces Society describes pollinators -- bees, butterflies, flies, beetles, moths, wasps and even some birds and bats -- as "the little things that run the world." They are "indisputably the most important animals on Earth," says the society, which works to conserve and protect butterflies and the other invertebrate pollinators. Like other pollinators, butterflies play a central role in agriculture, including backyard vegetable gardens. Butterflies and their caterpillars are an essential food for birds, which add yet another dimension to the beauty and interest of your garden. Remember, don't use pesticides in your butterfly garden: You will deprive yourself of much of the wonder of your garden's glorious show.
-- The Xerces Society (xerces.org) has lots of resources for gardeners on its website, including regional plant lists identifying the best nectar and host plants for butterflies and pollinators of all kinds.
-- The Mt. Cuba Center is a botanical garden in Hockessin, Delaware, with a special research interest in native plants and conservation. The center's reports on phlox, coreopsis, bee balm, coneflowers and asters are available on its website, mtcubacenter.org.