Beckon Beneficial Butterflies

If you garden, they will come.


A mass of Monarch butterflies congregates during migration. Tessier

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Sheila Boone is on a timely mission: She wants to help the Western Monarch.

Butterflies like the Western Monarch have received a lot of attention in recent years, but many other butterfly species throughout North America need your help. Reason: According to the American Farmland Trust, rural land in North America is falling to development at the rate of 3,000 acres every day. This profound habitat loss makes it harder for butterflies to find food and host plants critical to their survival, especially as they travel thousands of migratory miles.

Whether you live on a farm, or in a small town or suburb, with a little effort you can make an immediate difference. Here are a few practical tips for starting a butterfly garden or improving your current one.

On a wing and a prayer

“There is a worldwide pollination crisis, and I believe that the Monarch has become an ambassador for that issue,” says Boone, fifth great-granddaughter of Daniel Boone. Boone is founder of the Daniel Boone Butterfly Palace, which will be a live butterfly conservatory on the California Coast, where the Western Monarch’s overwintering habitats are located.

According to the Pollinator Partnership, the world is losing pollinators, which include butterflies, at an alarming rate. This loss is partic-ularly important to people because nearly 80 percent of the world’s food and fiber crops require pollination.

Historically, America’s farmers and gardeners have depended on butterflies to help pollinate their crops, but they did little to attract or nurture the delicate creatures.

That’s all changed today as gardening for the benefit of butterflies has been recognized for its importance.

“People are thinking more about nature and saving our environment. We receive a lot of questions about butterfly gardening,” says June Hutson, supervisor of the Kemper Home Demonstration Gardens, at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis.

Why bother with butterflies?

Butterflies flitting in a sun-drenched flower bed uplift people’s spirits and bring a smile. For many, the butterfly has great personal meaning as a symbol of hope, restoration and renewal.

You might already have winged visitors to your gardens and meadows. What makes butterfly gardening special is that the gardener consciously caters to the needs of a butterfly throughout its life cycle.

Butterfly gardening lets you observe firsthand the amazing transformation of egg to caterpillar to free-fluttering adult butterfly. It’s a relaxing hobby to identify butterflies as they visit nectar-bearing flowers and other enticing plants that you’ve thoughtfully planted. Some butterflies may spend their entire lives on your property.

Butterfly gardening primer: Five easy steps

You can create a sanctuary that will attract butterflies almost anywhere in the United States, no matter what USDA Plant Hardiness Zone your garden is located in, as long as you have plenty of sunshine. Just provide the following five basics:

1. Nectar sources. Hungry adult butterflies like to sip from a variety of nectar-producing sources that can include trees, shrubs, flowers, herbs, butterfly feeders and even rotting fruit.

To best attract and keep butterflies on your property, provide large groups of a variety of different butterfly-friendly plants that bloom throughout your growing season. Butterflies tend to prefer large flowers such as daisies and other ray flowers because they can alight and sip nectar at their leisure.

2. Host plants. Butterflies need to lay their eggs, and larvae need to feed on host plants specific to the species. (See the chart at right.)

Some farmers and gardeners mistakenly try to get rid of butterfly larvae because they eat their host plants. In her butterfly gardening programs at Pine Ridge Gardens in London, Arkansas, MaryAnn King tells gardeners that if you want butterflies, you must have caterpillars. Any plant damage they cause will likely grow back.

3. Shelter. Butterflies need a place to go during inclement weather, including high winds, rain or colder temperatures. Tree groves, shrubs, hedges and wood piles are effective. Butterfly houses look great but are seldom used.

4. Sunshine. Most of the plants that attract butterflies thrive in full sunlight conditions. The insects themselves, as cold-blooded creatures, also rely on the sun for body heat and can often be found basking on cool mornings.

5. Water sources. Butterflies need to drink and they prefer to sip from the muddy edges of small ponds and shallow puddles, where they get a good dose of minerals along with the water. You can create places for butterflies to drink by creating puddles in garden paths.

Bountiful butterfly buffet

Laying out a tempting feast for butterflies can include planting asters, salvias and Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium fistulosum), also known as the “butterfly magnet.” These plants can be grown from seed, but for more rapid results, transplanting potted plants or bare root stock in the spring is recommended.

“Native plants are generally easier to grow and don’t require pesticides. They are much more adapted to soils so you don’t have to use a lot of fertilizers,” King says. “Many natives are nectar-bearing for butterflies and some are host plants as well. Native butterflies in your area are attracted to native plants.”

Although butterfly gardening can be very specific to hardiness zones, King says that the plants below grow in Zones 3 to 8 or 9, which covers most of the United States:

• Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) – “Not only are these pretty, but they easily grow in fields and gardens,” says King, who enjoys seeing these popular flowers in meadows where she lives in rural Arkansas.

• Coneflowers (Echinacea spp.) – Many different butterfly species delight in purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) in the garden or field.

“The pale coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and yellow coneflower (Echinacea paradoxa) will grow along roadsides and in dry places,” King says.

• Goldenrods (Solidago spp.) – “They are wonderful nectar plants and bloom late in the year, which helps butterflies migrating in the fall or late-season butterflies,” she says, adding that goldenrods do not cause hay fever because they are insect-pollinated. Ragweed, the likely culprit for hay fever sufferers, blooms at the same time as the goldenrod, and ragweed’s lighter pollen is borne on the wind to pollinate other plants.

• Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) – Milkweeds are the preferred host plants for the Monarch, but many species enjoy milkweed nectar, King says.

Watch out for invasive milkweeds. One non-invasive option is swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), which can tolerate wet soils.

“It grows wild in Arkansas where it’s wet,” King says. “You can grow it in your garden, but also in ditches or around the edges of ponds. It can stand to be underwater if the pond floods.”

Bloodflower milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), also non-invasive, is easy to grow and blooms a long time until frost kills it, King says.

“It likes warmer climates, and it is a perennial if you live where there isn’t frost. In colder climates, you have to grow it every year,” she says.

Another non-invasive, orange-flowered plant (Asclepias tuberosa) is a milkweed that’s not the first choice for Monarchs, but many other butterfly species depend on it.

“It easily grows in pastures, fields, roadsides and in gardens,” King says. “However, it doesn’t like wet feet, so don’t plant it in irrigated gardens.”

• Sunflowers (Helianthus) – “There are lots of native sunflowers that are perennials. They are good nectar plants,” she says.

Five bonus tips

1. Avoid chemical pesticides. “Use organic pesticides, such as insecticidal soaps or horticultural oils,” says Tim Pollak, butterfly gardening expert at the Chicago Botanic Garden. “Or try to trap the problematic insects using many different techniques such as baiting or hand-picking them off.”

Plant marigolds, petunias and mint (in pots, to avoid having it take over) and other herbs that repel insects, recommend staffers at the Butterfly House, a division of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

2. Watch the wind. “Butterflies seek out a protected location. Place your butterfly garden out of the wind, so butterflies don’t get the brunt of the prevailing winds,” Hutson says. “This can be along a wall or a house, or anywhere where the landscape itself is a buffer.”

3. Water gently. Delicate butterfly wings can be damaged by fast moving water or heavy splashing. When watering your butterfly garden, “try not to use sprinklers that cause a lot of large droplets,” Pollak says.

4. Create diversity. “It’s a good idea to have a diversity of butterfly plants, even if not all are native, because this makes them more resistant to disease,” Hutson says.

5. Don’t grow illegal, invasive plants. “In some states, Butterfly Bushes (Buddleia davidii) are on the invasive list,” Hutson says. “They do tend to seed themselves, but they are still among the best sources of nectar for butterflies.”

Check with your state Department of Agriculture or the USDA National Invasive Species Information Center for current federal, state and international laws (

Keep America butterfly beautiful

Butterfly gardening is a great way to connect with your neighbors. In fact, many communities nationwide are participating in way-station programs, butterfly counts, school butterfly gardens and other conservation efforts. All these activities help ensure that America will continue to be a home to our native butterflies.

“Monarchs are our national treasure,” Sheila Boone says.

For her, butterflies are a gift of healing, hope, peace and renewal, as well as a symbol of freedom in flight.  

Freelance writer and journalist Letitia L. Star enjoys writing about gardening and environmental issues.  




 Butterfly Gardening Connections



• Butterfly gardening links, clubs and more: North American Butterfly Association,  

• Hear Sheila Boone’s song  and learn more about butterfly  conservation efforts:  

• For more information on  butterfly gardening and Monarch preservation: Monarch Watch,  

• Another excellent resource: Butterfly Conservation Initiative,  

• National horticultural helpline: For free advice from the Chicago Botanic Garden Plant Information Service, call 847-835-0972  

• Find Chicago Botanic Garden’s butterfly plantings in the Native Plant Garden, Landscape Gardens, Evening Island Garden, English Walled Garden and other gardens,  

• More on butterfly gardening: Butterfly House, a division of the MissouriBotanical Garden,  

• For native plants that butterflies love: PineRidgeGardens,  

• Learn about national and  global efforts to protect pollinators: The Pollinator Partnership,  







Keep Butterflies Free: Avoid Live Butterfly Releases

You may be completely charmed by the idea of releasing live butterflies at weddings or other special events, but don’t. The North American Butterfly Association (NABA) opposes such an increasingly popular practice, calling it “a long-lasting form of environmental pollution” that could result in many problems including the spread of diseases and parasites to wild butterfly populations.  

Don’t be tempted to stock your garden with live mail-order butterflies. If you correctly create a butterfly-friendly habitat, you’ll lure lovely butterflies during most, if not all, of your growing season. And you’ll be doing your part to help wild butterflies survive to boot.