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Grow a Butterfly-Friendly Garden

By Linda S. Lange, Master Gardener, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, Denver County

Butterflies have become big gardening business. Seed packets, plant selections and even cute little houses--all are touted as means of attracting butterflies to your garden. But how effective are they, really?

To attract butterflies or any wild creature to your garden, four basic needs must be met:  Food, water, shelter and places to raise young.  By developing a landscape to provide specifically for butterflies, you should see them fluttering in your direction.

At the same time, some gardening savvy should discourage unwanted wildlife, such as squirrels.

Migrating butterflies, such as the monarch en route from Central America to the United States, scout a wide area for the most attractive stopovers.  Color plays a significant role in their selection because color provides a clue to nectar-rich flowers that meet the energy needs for flight.

Color, however, can fool butterflies.  Petunias and geraniums, for example, provide good color but are poor sources of nectar. Cosmos, verbena and zinnia are good sources of both color and nectar.

Butterflies require different foods in the caterpillar stage of their lives.  The beautiful adult butterflies and moths flitting through the gardens are looking not only for a meal for themselves but for a place to park their offspring.  Providing for caterpillar needs is really the well-kept little secret of butterfly gardening.

Caterpillars can't fly around in search of gourmet delights, so Mom must plant the eggs on a suitable buffet. When the eggs hatch, Junior's teen-age-style eating habits generally are pretty hard on the chosen garden host.  But the gardener who wants butterflies should be prepared to share some of the bounty with caterpillars.  After the caterpillars eat their fill, they pupate into an adult.  The adult life span, after emergence as a butterfly, is abut two weeks. 

If you want to see the next generation of butterflies, you should limit the use of harsh pesticides that might harm the caterpillars.  Floating row covers or a shade cloth are nontoxic alternatives for protecting desirable plants from airborne predators.

Butterflies need safe and sunny perches to recharge their wings before flight. Grouping colorful, nectar-rich butterfly plants in clusters that grow to varying heights provides perches and shelter from wind and rain.  The endearing little butterfly houses sold as perches are much more attractive to yellowjackets and mice than to butterflies.

Appropriate food, water and shelter for all four stages of butterfly life will make your garden an attractive destination for these lovely visitors.

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Butterfly Weed

Nectar sources for adult-stage butterflies:

  • Perennial flowers: asters (Aster spp.), butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), butterflly weed (Aasclepias tuberosa), lilac (Syringa vulgaris), rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseousus)
  • Annual flowers:  cosmos (Cosmos spp.), goatbush (Lantana spp.), sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), verbena (Verbena), zinnia (Zinnia spp.)
  • Butterfly-type plants: Sulfurs and blues--alfalfa (Medicago sativa), clover (Lespedeza spp.)
  • Black Swallowtails: dill (Anethum spp.), parsley (Petroselimum spp.)
  • Monarchs:  milkweed (Asclepias spp.)
  • Fritillaries: pansies and violets (Viola spp.)
  • Painted ladies:  sunflowers (Helianthus spp.)

Photos: Judy Sedbrook

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010