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Gardening For Butterflies

Updated on September 15, 2014

Make Butterfly Gardens and They Will Come

I have been a frequent visitor to Butterfly World in Coconut Creek, Florida. That's where my love for butterflies took root.

So when I moved out of my Florida condo to the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, I decided to try my hand at gardening for butterflies and bees.

It has been a fun and rewarding experience.. one that has had its share of success. I must admit that my main goal was to use my butterfly garden to lure the beautiful winged creatures close enough to be able to take lots of butterfly pictures as trophies.

It has been a win-win deal. The butterflies get what they want and I get what I want.

What follows here is kind of how I went about creating a butterfly garden and the kinds of butterflies and flowers that resulted.

Feature photo and all other photos in this article are by the author.

backyard view of butterfly garden
backyard view of butterfly garden

Ingredients For Great Butterfly Photo Ops

AKA.. how to prepare for your guests

Here's what I figured I needed to get some first-rate butterfly photos:

  • Butterfly plants
  • Flowers with nectar
  • Camera
  • Zoom lens

This seemed like even I could do it.

I already owned the camera. It is a Canon Rebel digital SLR camera. And, I also owned a Canon EF 70-200mm f4 L lens, one of the best lenses Canon makes in my price range.

What Next?

All I needed was to plant a butterfly garden and they would beat their wings to my door garden.

The folks who lived in our house before us had moved out about eight months before we moved in. The lady of the house had created a bit of a garden, but after eight months, that garden was pretty much non-existent. One thing that remained, however, was a butterfly bush. In fact, there were three of them on the property line, but they were in sad shape. One of the three did not make it through the first summer.

The two butterfly bushes that remained became the start of my butterfly garden. I began to immediately research what butterfly garden plants I could grow in central Georgia.

Swallowtail Butterfly Photo

Swallowtail Butterfly Photo
Swallowtail Butterfly Photo

One of my first butterfly photos is this Swallowtail on one of the butterfly bushes.

Provide a butterfly-friendly Environment

Ways to make your butterfly's heart go "pitter-pat"

A butterfly garden does not necessarily need to be designed by an expert, nor is there a set plan to go by. What you really need to do is meet some basic needs, and butterflies will come.

In a perfect world, you would have plants for babies and plants for adults.

The "baby" plants are called hosts, a name that implies that the plant meets the requirements for nourishment and growth of butterfly larvae (caterpillars).

"Adult" plants are those that provide for the nourishment of mature butterflies. These are plants that have a safe landing area and access to the butterfly's favorite energy producing food, nectar.

Here is a checklist of things to be aware of as you plan and implement your own butterfly garden:

  • Choose plants that like full sun, because butterflies are sun-loving insects.
  • Use pesticides with caution - the best forms of pest prevention are natural/organic.
  • Provide water - an area of very shallow water is best such as the edge of a bird feeder.
  • Some rock or concrete helps butterflies get minerals - when a butterfly is seemingly resting on a concrete drive or a flat rock, it is really getting nutrients that are not in its nectar diet.
  • Provide large areas of color to attract more butterflies.
  • Provide flowers that bloom at different times throughout the warm season so that there is always a butterfly diner available.
  • Add some rotting fruit such as bananas or citrus, because not all butterflies are nectar lovers - a flat table-like serving area is perfect for this.

Feature photo is a Monarch Butterfly on Butterfly Weed, which is a host plant as well as a nectar provider.

Fritillary Butterfly - Another butterfly bush victim

Fritillary Butterfly picture
Fritillary Butterfly picture

The Fritillary Butterfly has really beautiful marking. The key to getting these kinds of butterfly pictures is to be parallel to the butterfly so the whole insect is in focus.

Here is that same Fritillary Butterfly with wings open. Notice how different it looks.

Live Butterfly Garden - Teach children about the wonders of Creation

Insect Lore Butterfly Growing Kit Toy - Includes Voucher Coupon for 5 Live Caterpillars to Butterflies
Insect Lore Butterfly Growing Kit Toy - Includes Voucher Coupon for 5 Live Caterpillars to Butterflies

This is THE #1 best seller at Amazon. An experience of watching their own butterflies emerge from cocoons is so much more enriching than reading it in a book.

From Caterpillar to Butterfly  (Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science, Stage 1)
From Caterpillar to Butterfly (Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science, Stage 1)

Combined with the Live Butterfly Garden, this little book will seal the deal of retaining the learned concepts for a lifetime.


Grow Your Own Butterflies

Accidental Success

The photo here is a itsy-bitsy Black Swallowtail Caterpillar. You can get an idea of just how small it is when you realize that it is on a parsley leaf.

I found out quite by accident that these butterflies lay their eggs on the bottom side of parsley leaves. Then, the caterpillars proceed to consume large quantities of parsley. Since my parsley was not originally meant for consumption by "butterfly wanna-bes," I was totally surprised when they took over my herb garden.

Now, I plant extra parsley mainly for my little friends. Many, if not most, become food for the birds before they have a chance at metamorphosis. But I just accept that as my little part in helping along the food chain.

Once the caterpillars have had a chance to gorge on the parsley, they look like the one below.

Notice that there are no parsley leaves close by.. haha.

Black Swallowtail Butterfly - Zinnias are a favorite

The caterpillar will become one of these beauties!

My second year, I planted some zinnia flowers. They did really well and filled the area where I planted them. Then, the following year, to my surprise, they reappeared without me having to plant again.

Zinnias are not supposed to be perennial. But they reseeded themselves and saved me lots of time and money.

But the best news of all is how popular these flowers are with the butterflies. They attract Black Swallowtail butterflies like the one pictured here. The Tiger Swallowtails like zinnias just as well as the blacks.

Fritillary butterflies are also very fond of these beautiful flowers. Zinnias are quite hearty and they come in lots of colors and shapes, just one more plus for these blooms.

Sulfur Butterfly - Petunia provides food and color

Sulfur Butterfly Photo
Sulfur Butterfly Photo

I think it is no mistake that this sulfur butterfly prefers the purple petunia for its food source. The color wheel confirms that the insect and the flower are a perfect match, color-wise.

Skipper Butterflies - Skippers like lots of different venues

Here are a couple of the most numerous butterflies in my garden. They are the Skipper Butterflies.

There are many different varieties of Skipper Butterflies. Most are quite small, as butterflies go. These guys measure about an inch and a half.

They like most flowers too. Here, I combined two different photos. The one on the left is a photo of a Skipper on Verbena, and the other is a Skipper dining on Lantana flowers.

Monarch Butterfly - PhotoShop Assist

Nearly everyone that sees a Monarch Butterfly gets excited. Just look at the beauty!

I don't get as many Monarchs as I would like in my backyard butterfly garden, so when one makes its appearance, I am quick to grab my Canon Rebel to snap a picture.

The Monarchs stick to the butterfly bushes almost exclusively. This picture is the result of an experiment I did in PhotoShop. I kind of like the "out-of-the-frame" look.

Which one is your favorite?

This is a Painted Lady on one of my butterfly bushes.

I would love for you to express your opinion about which butterfly garden photo you like best. If your favorite is not listed, feel free to enter it into the comments.

Which Butterfly is your favorite?

See results

Butterfly Flowers

The butterflies that visit my yard love these flowers. Most of the flowers in the teapot are zinnias, but daisies, black-eyed susans, and morning glory flowers are also represented here.

List Of Flowers For A Butterfly Garden

Knowing what types of flowers butterflies are attracted to helped me to develop a game plan for building and maintaining a garden that is not only pleasing to the eye, but it is pleasing to my "flying flowers" which is sometimes the name given to butterflies.

The zinnias above are by far the most attractive (to butterflies) flowers in my garden.

I would say that the second most visited group of flowers in my garden are the phlox. Now, there are several varieties of phlox, but the kind that draws the most attention is a purple phlox that grows on a tall stalk. This plant is also self-regenerating. I got a few of these phlox plants from a neighbor, and I will never have to plant again. They just keep comin' back.

Butterfly weed is another favorite. Again, it returns each year without me having to plant.

This gang of caterpillars showed up on my butterfly weed a couple of years back. They proceeded to devour every plant down to the nub, and all I got for it was this photo. I don't even know what kind of butterfly (or moth) would result.

Purple cone flowers populate my garden, too. They are not only butterfly attractors, but bees and American Goldfinches love them. This is yet another aspect of gardening for butterflies. Other insects and birds like the same diet as the butterflies.

Characteristics of a "butterfly flower": butterflies like flowers that offer a nice landing area, so flat petals seem to fit that bill, along with many flowers clustered together. Of course, a source of nectar is paramount, since that is what these frequent flyers are seeking.

The most popular flowers for a butterfly garden include:

  • Zinnia
  • Butterfly bush
  • Brazilian Verbena
  • Phlox
  • Sedum
  • Yarrow
  • Salvia
  • Joe Pye Weed
  • Heliotrope
  • Bee Balm
  • Purple coneflower
  • Aster

You can check at your local garden centers to determine which specific flowers attract butterflies in your neck of the woods.

Add Beauty To YOUR Backyard

Attracting Butterflies & Hummingbirds to Your Backyard: Watch Your Garden Come Alive With Beauty on the Wing (A Rodale Organic Gardening Book)
Attracting Butterflies & Hummingbirds to Your Backyard: Watch Your Garden Come Alive With Beauty on the Wing (A Rodale Organic Gardening Book)

You will not believe how much interest these little winged creatures add to your life around the house.


Swallowtail Butterfly - One of my personal favorites

Swallowtail Butterfly
Swallowtail Butterfly

Photographing butterflies is not an exact science. You need to take lots of pictures because these creatures are always moving.

This 100mm lens attached to your Canon DSLR camera will get you some of the best macro (close-up) photos you can imagine.

Movement changes things. It obviously changes the focus of your lens. That's why using a fast shutter speed is really important.

But equally important is the focus speed of your lens and camera. If you are using a point and shoot camera, you may experience the dreaded "shutter lag" syndrome. This is usually a function of how fast the camera focuses on the subject.

Another thing that changes is the lighting. As butterflies move, the light changes. Adjusting to different light is another function that requires a good camera.

In the photo of the Swallowtail butterfly above, everything came together, shutter speed, focus, light adjustments. I then ran it through my Perfect Photo Suite by OnOne software effects to boost the clarity and add a feathered border. (I LOVE the OnOne software).

Your Comments Are Welcome

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    • Wayne Rasku profile image

      Wayne Rasku 3 years ago

      @asereht1970: Thanks very much asereht1970. I enjoy the whole process, especially the photography part.

    • asereht1970 profile image

      asereht1970 3 years ago

      Beautiful pictures of butterflies and even the flowers.

    • Wayne Rasku profile image

      Wayne Rasku 4 years ago

      @TechDad: Yes, TechDad, they always come back. I am also anxiously awaiting their return. Thanks for your comment.

    • profile image

      TechDad 4 years ago

      Very nice photographs! We just started filling our back yard with flowers. Spring is in the air and hopefully the butterflies and other interesting bugs will come back (they always do;) !

    • LauraHofman profile image

      Laura Hofman 4 years ago from Naperville, IL

      Beautiful photos! I want to attract more butterflies to my gardens. Thanks for the tips!

    • profile image

      golfspice 4 years ago

      Just shows you do not have to go far to get great photos - enjoyable lens.

    • profile image

      DecoratingMom411 4 years ago

      I like what you have done here. Lovely and nice set of pictures. :) Would love to make butterfly gardens. This is a very informative lens. Thanks for sharing. :)