Butterfly Garden Design: Tips For Attracting Butterflies In Gardens

Butterfly Garden Design: Tips For Attracting Butterflies In Gardens

The flittering, yellow and orange movement on the pink Echinacea flower in the distance outside my office window can only mean one thing. What a joy! The butterflies have finally arrived again. After a long (and very white) winter, there is not a more welcome sight than the soft, playful rhythms and alluring color patterns of the monarch or the painted lady butterfly on each open blossom.

Attracting butterflies in gardens is easy to do with the right plants. Keep reading for info on how to attract butterflies to your garden.

Butterfly Garden Plants

The butterfly garden itself is a spectacular thing to behold as butterflies are attracted to some of the most striking flowers. Some of these common butterfly garden plants include:

  • Zinnia
  • Marigold
  • Rudbeckia
  • Coreopsis
  • Aster
  • Sunflower
  • Liatris
  • Purple coneflower

Wonderfully fragrant choices to add to the butterfly garden design include the following:

  • Salvia
  • Lavender
  • Verbena
  • Thyme
  • Sage
  • Bee balm (Monarda)
  • Butterfly bush

When deciding on the best plants for your butterfly retreat, keep in mind that they enjoy feasting on a flower’s nectar as well as using the plant’s leaves for food as young caterpillars. For instance, the brilliant monarch butterfly will only feast on milkweed (Asclepias) as a caterpillar, while the swallowtail butterfly prefers the parsley plant.

If you’re unsure what types of butterflies are common to your backyard, a field guide to butterflies will come in handy. The guide should also describe what food, flowers, and habitat regional butterflies prefer at both the caterpillar and adult stages.

Tips for Butterfly Garden Design

In addition to food, butterflies need water and places to relax, just like we do. Be sure to keep some type of wet area for butterflies to drink from, be it a shallow mud puddle or a moist bucket of sand in the sun. If you water your lawn or garden beds every day, just make sure that some water lingers for them to drink from throughout the day.

Butterflies also enjoy warming themselves on a sunny rock or other flat surface. Placing flat stones in butterfly gardens not only adds beauty and diversity to the landscape, but increases your chances of spotting these amazing creatures all day long!

Wind is one problem that may arise in the garden and will drive all types of butterflies away. It’s nearly impossible for butterflies to eat, drink, and relax when gusts of wind are threatening to whisk them away from their blossom filled with nectar. In order to avoid this trauma, be sure to plant your attractor flowers in a location protected from the wind. Even small gusts can be a problem for the tiny butterflies, so planting a hedgerow, erecting a fence, or installing trees to stop the wind from entering your garden site may be necessary.

Planning the butterfly garden design to include all these components is essential, but above all, the use of pesticides and herbicides is strictly off limits. Your efforts to create a butterfly sanctuary will be to no avail if poisons are added to butterfly gardens or any place nearby. Organic gardening is perfect for nature and absolutely necessary in the butterfly habitat garden. More information on organic methods of weed control, fertilization, and pest control can be found in many books and websites.

Before you know it, you’ll be attracting butterflies of all sorts. Soon you will notice clouded sulfur, field crescent, fritillary, red and white admiral, and spring azure butterflies enjoying the garden you planted for them, so be sure to string up a hammock or place a garden bench nearby for hours of fluttering entertainment!

How to Attract Butterflies to Your Garden

Who doesn’t LIKE butterflies? Many butterflies live only a week or two, so help them make the most of their days. Plants with large, single daisy-type blossoms, such as black-eyed Susans and Mexican sunflowers, let butterflies gather nectar in one spot, which saves them time and energy.

Turn your backyard into a flying circus with annuals and perennials that butterflies can’t resist. Butterflies zero in on large beds. A hummingbird stops by for sugar water. Butterflies need liquid, too, so provide a shallow dish of wet sand where they can get salt and nutrients not found in nectar.

Keep an eye out for butterflies-to-be. Chrysalides (pupa stage, enclosed in a cocoon, before turning into a butterfly or moth) hide on outdoor structures, pots and chairs. And be prudent with pesticides. Many products kill all kinds of caterpillars, destructive or not.

Butterfly gardens attract the birds and bees, too. Most gardeners have realized these winged beauties not only play an important role in pollinating other plants, but they are fun to watch and attract! It is also incredibly peaceful and enjoyable to sit in the garden and watch vibrantly colored butterflies flutter around.

These vibrant flowers and plants provide nectar for butterflies and create a bold border for your yard. (source).

Butterfly Bush (Buddleia)
Butterfly bushes (Buddleia or Buddleja) are large, fast-growing shrubs whose flowers are irresistible to butterflies. Buddleias are easy-care plants, but they’re invasive in some areas. Look for sterile cultivars which don’t set seed and therefore don’t run wild.

Phlox is a low-growing, spreading plant that forms a blanket of blooms all summer. Perennial varieties are great for a year-round groundcover.
Coneflower (Echinacea)
Coneflower is one of the best flowers for attracting butterflies. It adds a flashy touch of color to the late summer landscape. Plant echinacea among a low growing perennial bed where showy flowers will stand above the rest.

Lantana produces profuse color, showing off clusters of tiny, eye-catching blooms in a variety of hues. Typically grown as an annual, it’s an excellent low hedge or accent shrub that you can also train as a standard. It attracts butterflies and tolerates heat.

Bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii)
Blue star is a perennial that can reach two to three feet in height. It gets its name after its blue, star-shaped blooms that open up in spring.Use in masses or as a specimen plant, or in a mixed perennial border in the middle to back of the border or in a rock garden. Blue star performs best in partial shade in a moist, loamy, well-drained soil, and also tolerates full sun if provided with enough moisture.

Pot Marigolds
Pot marigolds’ blooms last up to eight weeks in the summer and are a quick-to-grow plan

Black-Eyed Susan
Black-eyed Susan is one of the great wildflowers of North America and was one of the first to become a domesticated garden flower. Its showy golden yellow flower head with black centers are a visual delight.

Blazing Star Flowers (Liatris spicata)
The blazing star is an interesting perennial which produces 1 to 3 foot-tall spikes of bright purplish-pink or white flowers in late June to early fall. It is an ideal plant to grow in a butterfly garden.

Heliotrope has a sweet, pungent scent that some liken to the smell of cherry pie. ‘Dwarf Marine’ features a royal purple color. It is large flowered yet compact and has attractive, dark green foliage and a bushy habit.

Lavender is a perennial favorite for gardeners and butterflies alike, producing tall, fragrant spikes of purple blooms. Hailing from the Mediterranean, it’s drought-resistant and can take the heat.

Swamp Milkweed
The only food source of Monarch caterpillars and a preferred source of nectar for many butterfly species, including the adult Monarch, there are over 100 varieties of milkweeds in North America. Hardy Swamp Milkweed, shown here, is a good choice for Zones 3-8 but prefers moist conditions till well established.

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
A type of milkweed, drought-tolerant butterfly weed isn’t picky about growing conditions. Give it a sunny spot, and you’ll be on your way to a flowery summer. Butterflies, bees and other pollinators can’t resist these bright orange blooms. This perennial pushes through soil in late spring, well after other plants are up and at ‘em. It’s a good idea to mark clumps with a stake to avoid early season digging in that spot. Hardy in Zones 3 to 9.

Flossflower (Ageratum)
Flossflower is an annual that is a member of the aster family. The plants grow easily from seed and with enough water and a little shade, will bloom from midsummer to frost.

Chocolate Cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus)
This delightful cosmos boasts dark maroon flowers that—as you might guess—are chocolate-scented.

Agapanthus comes to life in late summer. It features large, elegant, deep blue bell-shaped blooms that are clustered together on tall, sturdy stems. These showy flower heads stand well above the plant’s foliage.

Aster is an herbaceous perennial that comes in a wide variety of colors. Its daisy-like flowers bloom in late summer and autumn in a sunny site.

Salvia produces fragrant foliage and tall spikes of flowers, usually in shades of purple or white. Its nectar attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.

Sea Holly (Eryngium tripartitum)
Sea holly has blue green stems with masses of small, metallic blue flower heads on tall, 4-foot stems. Sea holly is a delight to butterflies a tough plant that is very tolerant of drought.

Hollyhocks a favorite for cottage gardens because of their loose, carefree look and beautiful, large blooms that attract bees and butterflies.

Cheerful, colorful sunflowers attract both bees and butterflies to the garden.

Sedum has thick, succulent leaves that withstand drought and rainy weather. The flower buds form early and remain attractive well into winter. Low-growing types are perfect for rock gardens, while taller varieties thrive in perennial borders.

Goldenrod is a perennial with bright yellow flowers that add color to a late summer garden.

Local Spots to find Butterfly Gardens:

Butterfly Garden: E 9th St & S Washington St, Lockport, IL 60441

Peck Butterfly House – 4038 Kaneville Rd, Geneva, IL 60134

The NENA Butterfly Garden – 166 Ann St, Elgin, IL 60120

Chicago Botanic Garden – 1000 Lake Cook Road, Glencoe, IL 60022

Lyman Woods Nature Center – 901 31st Street Downers Grove, IL 60515

North Park Village Nature Center – 5801 N. Pulaski Rd. Chicago, IL 60646

Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo

Powderhorn Marsh and Prairie – Burnham, IL 60633

Montrose Point – Lincoln Park

Rainbow Beach – 3111 East 77th St. Chicago, IL 60649

Garden Design

A wide assortment of flowers is better than having just a few kinds. Butterflies are attracted to brightly colored, simple flowers with good places to perch. To make sure that nectar is always available, choose your flowers so that something is always in bloom.

  • Provide a combination of adult nectar sources and larval host plants: attracts maximum variety of butterfly species encourages butterflies to remain in your yard, reproduce, and build populations instead of just passing through allows gardener to appreciate all life stages.
  • Incorporate native plants into the landscape whenever possible: most larval host plants are natives. They're adapted to the region, will produce a small but representative extension of the natural ecosystem, and can attract other wildlife.
  • Create horizontal and vertical heterogeneity: choosing plants that have different heights and growth habits creates numerous microclimates which in turn appeal to a greater diversity of butterfly species provides shelter creates levels/strata of feeding opportunities.
  • Aim for a consistent host plant and floral venue throughout the growing season: choose plants that have different blooming times ensures that garden remains attractive and productive as long as possible provides food for butterflies during periods of low natural availability.
  • Provide a number of different flower colors: different butterfly species are attracted to different flower colors so include yellow, orange, white, and blue flowers as well as reds, pinks, and purples.
  • Provide a mix of flower shapes: the feeding behavior and proboscis length of a butterfly dictate which flowers will be visited: long-tubed flowers, for example are typically more accessible to species with long probosces whereas many composites (daisy-like flowers) provide a feeding platform and easy nectar accessibility for smaller species.
  • Plant in shade as well as full sun: appeals to more butterfly species many forest species prefer shadier locations.
  • Plant in groupings: are aesthetically pleasing provide masses of color are more apparent in landscape allow larvae to locate additional food resources in event of shortage.
  • Choose appropriate plants for each location: understand each plan's basic water, light, and soil requirements so it will perform and grow to its maximum potential.

Butterfly Gardens - Learn How To Attract Butterflies To Your Garden - garden

An encounter with a beautiful butterfly has me on a mission to encourage more butterflies. I love the idea of having masses of butterflies flutter through my garden. They are beautiful to watch and perform valuable pollinator services.

The fact that butterflies start their life as caterpillars has some gardeners considering butterflies as pests. But the amount the larvae eat is negligible and is outweighed by their positive contribution as a pollinator and garden ornament.

The first step in welcoming butterflies and other beneficial insects into your garden is to use organic gardening methods.

When you spray pesticides to rid your garden of bad bugs, you are also killing the beneficial bugs.

Learn to expect and accept a few nibbled leaves and focus on building healthy soil using compost and manures.

In a healthy and diverse garden you’ll rarely see any particular insect get out of control.

Next - grow butterfly host and food plants

To encourage butterflies you need to provide resources for both the caterpillars (host plants) and butterflies (nectar).

Grow a diversity of plants and you will more than likely provide host plants and nectar plants for a selection of butterflies.

But you can also be a little more targeted and grow specific plants.

Butterfly larvae (caterpillar) host plants

Some of the most common butterfly larvae host plant families within the greater Sydney region (presumably the picture is similar in other parts of Australia) include Poaceae (grasses), Cyperaceae (sedges), Lomandraceae (mat rushes), and Fabaceae (wattles and peas).

Grow plenty of these plants and you'll be providing plenty of caterpillar food.

Thankfully, the bushland area adjacent to my garden hosts a nice range of species within these families.

I'm also going to set up a small native butterfly garden especially for caterpillar food and butterfly forage.

For the caterpillars I’ll grow a range of native grasses, sedges, rushes, shrubs, herbs and climbers. On my list so far are kangaroo grass (shown above), weeping grass and species from the following genera: lomandra, acacia, daviesia, glycine, hardenbergia, commelina, bursaria, pultenaea, boronia and pimelea.

A small wild area like this could be set up in even the smallest corner of an urban garden. And many of these plants will do well as potted plants.

Butterfly caterpillars also feed off many of the plants you may have in your orchard or potted garden (e.g. citrus, bay tree, avocado and figs) or vegetable garden (for example lemon grass, peas, and beans). Maintain a healthy diverse vegetable garden and orchard and you’ll likely encourage butterflies by default.

Butterfly attracting plants

Butterflies are attracted to bold clusters of flowers in bright colours.

I watched my recent butterfly visitor eagerly collect nectar from purple sage flowers.

Nectar-giving flowers favoured by butterflies are typically long and tubular and occur in clusters. Butterflies have a long, delicate, coiled tongue (called a proboscis) that is good at sucking nectar from deep within flowers.

To my native butterfly garden I’ll add a range of native plants favoured by butterflies, including grevillea, banksia, callistemon, pultenaea, melaleuca, scaevola, and leptospermum.

I’ll also be making sure there’s numerous butterfly nectar plants in my flower and vegetable gardens – including sunflowers, buddleja, marigold, ageratum, daisies and lavender.

Many common herbs also provide nectar for butterflies – including sage, chives, dill, lemon balm, mint, oregano, parsley and thyme.

Interested in learning more about pollinators in your garden?

Join in next week's Australian Wild Pollinator Count.

The Wild Pollinator Count is a great opportunity to familiarise yourself with some of the beneficial bugs in your garden and contribute to wild insect pollinator conservation in Australia. The next count run 15-22 November. Find out how to join in here.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 19th October 2015.

Tags: butterflies, butterfly, butterfly attracting plants, garden, how to attract

Butterfly Garden Design

Plant a garden that caters to butterflies, and you’ll be rewarded with flitting, fluttering color—along with drifts of flowers.

Related To:

Butterfly Bushes Create Welcoming Ambiance Around Pool Area

Buddleja bushes were planted around the pool area to attract butterflies and create a welcoming ambiance.

Photo by: Scenic Landscaping

Invite butterflies to set up housekeeping in your yard with a butterfly garden design. The best butterfly gardens welcome not only spotlight-stealing adults with their colorful wings, but also encourage their humble beginnings: caterpillars. By including plants that nourish adult butterflies along with their caterpillar precursors, your butterfly garden design can create a place where nature rules. Learn what it takes to have an effective butterfly garden design.

Use a two-pronged approach to your butterfly garden by including attributes that attract adult butterflies, as well as their young. To fuel adults with ample food, include a variety of nectar-rich bloomers. Intermingle flowers with different forms, like a flat-blossomed zinnia (Zinnia elegans) that provides a wide landing pad for butterflies or a spikey Summer Jewel salvia (Salvia coccinea ‘Summer Jewel’).

Plan your garden to have non-stop color to keep the butterflies coming. Most butterfly garden designs incorporate quite a few annuals to help achieve a steady flower show. Good annual candidates for a butterfly garden include creeping zinnia (Sanvitalia procumbens), marigold (Tagetes spp.), mealycup sage (Salvia farinacea), Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) and pentas (Pentas lanceolata).

It’s also wise to include perennials in your design to give your garden year-round interest. Perennials that butterflies favor include butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii), garden phlox (Phlox paniculata), bee balm (Monarda didyma) and purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).

Arrange bloomers in drifts so that near-sighted butterflies can easily spot the large swaths of color. Focus on flowers that feature bright tones in your butterfly garden design. Most butterflies can’t resist blossoms in shades of pink, red, purple, and yellow. These winged wonders also have a strong sense of smell and are lured by fragrant flowers. Remove spent blossoms in your butterfly garden faithfully to coax more flower buds to form.

Develop your butterfly garden design for a sunny location, since both butterflies and most of the plants they feast on thrive in sun. Try to choose a spot protected from wind. Include a watering hole in your butterfly garden design. Adult butterflies like to sip salts, moisture and minerals from moist sand or damp earth. Build a butterfly puddle by sinking a shallow pot saucer into soil and filling it with sand. Maintain a water level that’s just below the sand’s surface.

Surround your puddle with a ring of flat stones that can absorb sunlight and provide a place for butterflies to sun. Try to site your stones where they’ll absorb morning sunlight. Butterflies are cold-blooded and seek spots to bask and warm their wings for flight.

Many butterfly gardens focus solely on the winged portion of a butterfly’s life cycle, and you certainly must attract the adults before you can hope for a caterpillar. By including plants that caterpillars like to munch in your butterfly garden design, you’ll improve your chances of hosting a caterpillar. If you’re lucky, you may even get to witness an adult butterfly emerging from a chrysalis.

Caterpillars feed on specific plants, so you’ll have to do some research to stock your garden with plants that caterpillars native to your region find tasty. The one thing caterpillars consistently do is munch, munch, munch. It’s a good idea to tuck plants destined to satisfy voracious caterpillar appetites into a less visible portion of your butterfly garden design. Place this section where you can easily visit and observe caterpillars, but not front and center where chewed—and even missing—leaves will detract from the garden’s beauty.

Long days spent migrating or just flitting around the garden can make a butterfly thirsty, so make sure you offer them something to drink. Set up a butterfly bath — which is like a birdbath with sand in it. Put a little bit of water into a shallow bowl, not so much that they can drown in it, but just enough so the sand is wet. They'll do what is called puddling the males try to soak up nutrients like salts from the water and the sand. The males need sodium to get the energy in order to mate with the females.


Some of the many plants that butterflies prefer include those that you wouldn't ordinarily think about. Gardeners generally harvest carrots before they go to flower or they pinch the terminal growth of coleus so it gets bushier rather than let it flower. But if you're trying to attract butterflies, it's best to allow these plants to flower. If you have a vegetable or herb garden, plants in the Umbelliferae family are great attractors and sources of pollen they include parsley, celery, coriander, fennel, lovage and dill.

By creating a butterfly sanctuary, you may find purpose for plants you thought you needed to get rid of. "You know gardeners battle weeds all the time, but the truth is there are a number of great weeds, like clover and Queen Anne's lace, that attract butterflies," says Rachel. Because these plants can make your garden look weedy, dedicate a spot somewhere in the yard just for these plants. Milkweed is a butterfly favorite, so you don't want to pull all of it out because that's what's going to attract monarch butterflies when they make their annual migration.

Attract Butterflies to Your Garden

Sandpaper Basics

I don’t know about you, but I am so happy spring is here. Decent weather has been hit and miss. We get a few gorgeous days in the 60’s and 70’s, then snow the next day. Gotta love spring in the midwest.

I have been trying to take advantage of the nice days to get my garden beds cleared. I also check the perennials for signs of life. I try to plant a mix of perennials and annuals in my cottage garden.

Perennials once established will come back year after year, and get better each year!

Annuals need to be planted every year.

I look for plants that will benefit all pollinators. Butterflies and bees add so much to the environment, and you know how I love my bees! Butterflies fluttering around add an ethereal element, too.

How do you attract butterflies to your garden? Add some butterfly-friendly plants. If you are planning your garden or just looking to add a few plants to attract butterflies, here are some of my favorites. Plant these beauties in your garden as a loverly way to invite butterflies to your garden.

Butterfly Milkweed

butterfly milkweed & monarch

Farmers considered the butterfly milkweed a nuisance weed, but it this plant is necessary to the monarch life cycle. Monarch caterpillars need milkweed nectar for food, but over 450 insects are known to feed on some portion of the plant.

Common milkweed grows well in average soil, but prefers full sun. Milkweed can grown about 5 feet tall, so make sure to plan their placement accordingly. They feature large leaves with soft pink fragrant flowers that attract the monarch butterflies.

Common milkweed does NOT like to be transplanted. Simply sow seeds by sprinkling on the ground. When the plants go to seed at the end of the season, save them for the following season.

Have you seen my tip to to increase your chances of getting them to sprout the following year?

Swamp Milkweed

swamp milkweed & monarch

Swamp Milkweed is different from the common milkweed. As its name implies, swamp milkweed does best in a damp environment. Pick a place where water collects or creates a rain garden in your yard. You should be able to purchase swamp milkweed from a local garden shop or online.

Purple Coneflower

purple coneflower

Purple coneflowers like well-drained soil and prefer sun or part shade. Not only do butterflies love them, but birds find the seeds quite tasty.

Wild Bergamot

bee balm & butterfly

Wild bergamot is also known as bee balm. If you love the smell of bergamot, then you will LOVE bee balm. Pick off a leaf and crush it to release the oils.

Butterflies of all types LOVE bee balm. The flowers can be pale purple, bright red, pale pink or bright pink. It grows about 4 to 5 feet tall and makes a great back drop for shorter plants. You can purchase plants or grow from seed.

The plant can spread and take over your garden, but you divide it easily and gift it to your friends.

I took the photo in my garden thinking this was a Monarch. Upon closer inspection, it seems it is NOT, I am not sure if it is a painted lady or what type it is. If you can identify it, can you please drop me a note in the comments? I would appreciate it.

Anise Hyssop

anise hyssop

There are a couple of types of hyssop. The above photo is anise hyssop. If you pick the leaves and crush between your fingers, it smells like licorice. Anise hyssop is in the mint family. Instead of taking over a garden as mint does, anise hyssop grows as tall bushes with fragrant showy blooms. They seed easily and are beloved by butterflies, bees and hummingbirds.


garden phlox

Garden phlox grows to be about 2 to 3 feet tall. White, purple, and pink are the most common colors. The are other types of phlox, like creeping phlox [perfect for rock gardens and borders] and woodland phlox has beautiful periwinkle or pink blooms. Another reason I love phlox because it can tolerate full sun or part shade. Garden phlox smells heavenly and will attract butterflies and other pollinators to your garden.



The first time I saw Liatris, I was determined to add some to my garden. It blooms in tall shoots with multiple purple flowers. They almost look like fluffy skinny dusters. They grow in full sun and well-drained soil, spacing the plants 12-15 inches apart. Liatris grows in full sun but will tolerate some light shade. It can tolerate poor soils, but some types will fall over if grown in too rich of a soil.

There are multiple species/colors, so check online or at a local nursery for the ones that are native to your area.

When shopping for pollinator plants, please shop local first. Oh, and PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE make sure to check to see if any neonicotinoids were used before purchasing. Please do not buy them, they will kill your butterflies and bees.

I hope you found a couple of new flowers to add to your garden. I did not mean to feature so many purple flowers. These are SOME of my favorites.

Do you have any favorite flowers in your butterfly garden?

My garden is in Illinois, in the suburbs north of Chicago. Make sure to check with local botanical gardens or online resources for the best butterfly and pollinator plants for your area.

Now go grab your tools and get your hands in the dirt!