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What is a Butterfly Garden?

Updated on April 26, 2013

The Butterfly Effect for your Garden

Frosted Elfin, Empress Leilia and Sunrise Skipper sound like fairy names from a mystical land, and, in a way they are just that. They're names of real fluttering flower fairies: the butterflies.

Butterflies are the ultimate garden accent. They delight the gardener with their carefree flutter and brighten the garden with their golden wings, all the time adding a touch of flower fairy magic to the yard.

Why not invite more butterflies to your garden this year? It's easy to do if you follow the steps outlined below. I must warn you though: once you do, you'll be hooked. Butterflies have a captivating way about them. Once a butterfly gardener, always a butterfly gardener.


Photo Credits

"But these are flowers that fly..."

~Robert Frost, Blue-Butterfly Day

What's a Butterfly Garden

And why would I want one?

photo copyrighted © 2011 Justramblin

The North American Butterfly Association states that within any given region in the U.S. no less than 100 butterfly species can be found. A butterfly garden is a way to prepare your garden to entice these wonderful creatures to your yard.

Butterflies have specific needs. By studying their habitat preferences, nectar needs and egg-laying habits, it's easy to know how to properly equip your yard to accommodate them.

By providing readily available nectar flowers and host plants in the safe environment of your garden, you are not only acquiring a fancy show of flying flowers, but also helping to sustain the butterfly population.

How Should I Plan a Butterfly Garden? - Butterflies have specific tastes & needs.

Painted Lady on Coneflower

Photo Credit

Many butterflies tend to stay in a small area their entire life cycle. They're very particular when it's time to lay eggs. Butterflies can be observed flitting and fluttering about for hours. What may be misinterpreted as random playfulness to the untrained eye is really serious scouting. They are quite deliberate and focused when it comes to picking real estate.

And what are they looking for?

     ~First they are searching for their favorite nectar sources. Each species fancies different flowers.

     ~Next they want the perfect first meal for their hatchlings. Caterpillars have voracious appetites, and, just like many kids, they're extremely picky eaters. So like any good mom, these butterflies search for just the perfect egg-worthy plants.

     ~Not only does the plant have to be just the right one, it also needs to be in the perfect location. They want to find a spot that will be safe for their eggs; one that is sheltered from the elements. Gardens with a hedgerow to act as a wind break are prized to the butterfly.

It's easy to entice butterflies to your garden if you provide these three basic needs:

1. Nectar Flowers

Provide blooms for your butterflies throughout late spring to early fall.

2. Host Plants

Provide proper host plant for caterpillars.

3. Butterfly-Friendly Environment

A garden that is pesticide free, has shrubbery for hiding spots and windbreaks, and lots of sunshine is the most butterfly-friendly.

Nectar Plants - Flower favorites of butterflies

photo copyrighted © 2011 Justramblin

When selecting plants for your butterfly garden, select ones that are favorites of butterflies and caterpillars. Since each species has specific tastes, it's best to plant a variety of flowers.

The best planned butterfly garden has flowers blooming from late spring to early fall. Since butterflies are most active in late summer, your garden should have the most color then. It's a good idea to plant both perennials and annuals to keep the garden at a constant bloom. Try to stagger bloom time to keep the blossoms going continuously.

A butterfly doesn't see color the way we do. They see ultra violet light. They do tend to favor yellow, light pink and light purple shades and are also attracted to reds and purples.

They are also a bit near-sighted, so to get your nectar flowers noticed, do plant large groupings of flowers rather than single one.

Butterflies love the sun, so your plants should be sun-loving also.

It seems flowers with many florets, as in the Lantana above, are a favorite of butterflies.

If you want information on a specific butterfly's preference, please check the links at the bottom of the page. Here's a list of a few butterfly nectar favorites:

Anise Hyssop, Aster, Black-eyed Susan, Buddleia, Butterfly Bush, Butterfly Weed, Coneflower, Coreopsis, Cosmos, Joe Pye Weed, Fennel, Grape Hyacinth, Lantana, Lavender, Marigold, Mexican Sunflower, Phlox, Salvia, Thistle, Verbena, Violet, Zinnia

By the way, did you know that not all butterflies elect to dine on the nectar of flowers? Some have very strange and unsavory dining habits. More on that below.

Host Plants - Favorite snacks of caterpillars

Monarch Caterpillar's Host Plant, Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

photo copyrighted © 2011 Justramblin

When it comes to dining, caterpillars are about as picky as can be. The plant in the photo above is the only plant that a Monarch caterpillar will eat. It's called Milkweed. If you don't have Milkweed in your area, you will not see a Monarch butterfly hanging around for long.

Butterflies are careful to find these host plants for egg laying. They will not linger long in your garden if the right host plants are not available.

Provide egg-worthy plants and your butterflies will return each year.

Caterpillar-Approved Host Plants - Know the egg-worthy plants for your butterflies.

Monarch caterpillar on Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Photo courtesy Marshal Hedin - click for photo credits

The caterpillar breaks out of its egg with a voracious appetite and immediately begins snacking on its host plant. It's a good thing this little guy's mom took the time to find just the right spot for his arrival.

Below is a short list of a few common caterpillars and their host plants. Notice some only approve of one plant. If there is a particular species of butterfly you want to attract, do some research and discover the caterpillar's host plant. (Links provided at the bottom of page)

The only way to the butterfly's heart is through the host plant!

Common Caterpillars and their Host Plants

A butterfly garden should have plants that

attract butterflies - (Nectar Plants)


caterpillars - (Host Plants)

Butterfly-Friendly Environments - How to make your garden welcoming to butterflies

Along with the necessary nectar and host plants, your garden should be a safe and butterfly-friendly place. Here are a few tips for making your yard more attractive to the butterfly:

  1. Mind Your Chemicals

    Avoid using harsh chemicals and insecticides near your butterfly garden. They have an adverse effect on these fragile creatures.

  2. Plant in Full Sun

    Butterflies depend on the sun to keep them warm. Your garden will need to have full sun for a good period of time. (4-6 hours)

    Place large, smooth stones in your garden for sunning spots..

  3. Provide Windbreaks and Hide Outs

    Butterflies don't like fighting the wind. On windy or stormy days, they want to rest in a protected area. Hedgerows that form windbreaks are perfect for a butterfly garden. A windbreak on three sides of your garden is ideal. If you select shrubbery or trees that are also host or nectar plants it is doubly good.

    They also like mulch, rock, shrubbery and trees for hiding away from wind or bad weather.

  4. Make a Butterfly Puddle

    Your guests will certainly appreciate a place for puddling! A puddle in your garden will allow them to easily get the essential salts and minerals they need without ever leaving your yard.

  5. Provide a Supplemental Food Source

    Not all butterflies flock to the flowers for their nectar. Some appreciate the stinky juices of over ripe fruit. Why not try leaving some out for these fruit lovers? You may also want to try a butterfly feeder as a supplemental food source. Just remember to keep it clean and replace the sugar syrup daily.

Butterfly Garden Accessories

Audubon Butterfly Shelter, Wooden
Audubon Butterfly Shelter, Wooden
Butterflies don't like breezes and they especially don't want to sleep out in the open under a blowing wind. They make their beds under large leaves, between large rocks, in the nooks of trees and even between blades of grass. There they will hide away for the night or stormy weather. These boxes are built to provide alternative shelter for your butterfly guests. Gardeners report that butterflies are not keen on these shelters, they much prefer to find their own homes, thank you very much. So don't plan on any moving in in the near future. Although they are not the perfect rest stop for your butterflies, they still add much charm to the butterfly garden. These butterfly shelters are more like a "Butterflies are Welcome Here" sign for your butterfly garden. As long as you purchase them with the knowledge they are only a butterfly garden accessory, not a functioning butterfly home, you will not be disappointed.

More Butterfly Shelters and Dining Stations

Songbird Essentials Butterfly Habitat
Songbird Essentials Butterfly Habitat
This butterfly home is 17" tall and 7" wide. It has different sized slots to accommodate many various sized butterflies.
Songbird Essentials SE78200 Butterfly Feeder (Set of 1)
Songbird Essentials SE78200 Butterfly Feeder (Set of 1)
Use the Butterfly Cocktail recipe below in this feeder. Be sure to thoroughly clean before use and clean between each filling.
Woodlink NABFLY Audubon Classic Butterfly Feeder
Woodlink NABFLY Audubon Classic Butterfly Feeder
Use the Butterfly Cocktail recipe for this feeder, too. Make sure you keep it clean. Never add color to the sugar water!

Butterfly Buffet - Extra snacks for the winged vsitors

photo copyrighted © 2011 Justramblin

One most often associates flowers as the butterfly's source of nectar, but did you know that some of these elegant creature's tastes are not quite as refined?

Some, such as this Caligo or owl butterfly, pictured above, prefer to forgo the dainty flowers and dine on the juice of smelly, rotten fruit.

Some butterflies prefer to sip the sap from trees.

The Harvester butterfly catches aphids and sucks out its juicy fluids.

Others' taste are even more crude, and just down right disgusting. It's an amazing sight to behold a beautiful creatures such as the Tawny Emperor in action. It's a paradox of nature. Their nectar of preference? Dung juice.

Butterfly Snack Recipes - Special suppliments for the butterfly buffet

Having a good variety of blossoms throughout the summer is the best way to entice butterflies to your garden. Once they have found your special spot, keep them coming back with a few extra goodies on the butterfly buffet.

  1. Butterfly Cocktail Recipe

    This recipe is 4 parts water to 1 part sugar. It's the same as hummingbird feeder solution. Please, never add color to the sugar water

    Boil 1 cup water. Add 1 cup sugar and stir until completely dissolved. Add 3 cups cold water stir. Recipe is 4 parts water to 1 part sugar.

    You can store this in the refrigerator.

    Add this solution to a butterfly feeder.

  2. Homemade Butterfly Feeder

    This homemade butterfly feeder is simple to make. A colorful sponge attracts the butterfly and provides the perfect landing spot as it holds sweet sugar water in all its pores.

    Use one sanitized*, new sponge in a bright color. Place in shallow dish. Pour Butterfly Cocktail (sugar water) on sponge to wet completely. Place near butterfly feeding flowers. Ideal spot is higher than the flowers making it easier for the butterflies to discover it. For example, hang it from the limb of a small tree.

    Remove sponge, rinse and add new Cocktail daily.

    *Hint: Sanitize sponge by wetting and placing in microwave for 1 minute. Allow to completely cool.

  3. Rotting Fruit Tray

    What guest wouldn't adore this? While not all butterflies go for this stinky fruit, it's a favorite for most varieties of Owl butterflies, the Tawny Emperor and the Hackberry Emperor, just to name a few.

    In a shallow dish or plate, place ripe, sliced fruit; bananas, apples, grapes are all Butterfly approved.

    Add a small amount of stale beer* over the fruit to give the brew an extra kick. You can substitute the beer for a small portion of sugar water (recipe below)

    *Hint: Make stale beer by pouring a glass of beer, drink 3/4. Leave remainder of the glass on counter overnight. You just made stale beer.

Social Butterflies - Butterfly puddling activities

Lemon Emigrants and Swallowtails Puddling

Photo credit

If you've ever come across a large congregation of butterflies playing on the edge of a shallow puddle you may find it a bit unusual. This is common behavior for butterflies, especially males.

Butterflies often can be seen on the perimeter of small creeks, near rain puddles on sandy trails or in garden mud puddles. This activity is called puddling. They're sipping the water from these shallow pools to take in extra salt and minerals not provided in their nectar diets. Males need these extra ingredients to provide stronger sperm.

If you want to further enhance your butterfly garden, provide a spot for puddling. You can make a shallow mud puddle (not deep for the butterfly) right in your garden.

Another method is to use a shallow pan, such as a flower pot tray, or a bird bath, and fill it with sand. Add a few flat stones for perching and fill with water until sand is saturated, but not covered with water. Keep your butterfly puddle wet at all time. Give it time, and they will find it. Don't forget to fill it often in the summer. Rain water is best!

I hope you'll try a butterfly garden. - Here are some great books to help you get started.

It's easy to start a butterfly garden. If you want to learn more about butterflies, here are some great resources.

Butterfly Garden Bling

Add your own butterfly garden accents. The real ones won't mind at all.

The butterfly counts

not months

but moments,

and has time enough.

Rabindranath Tagore

Before You Flutter Off - Drop me a line

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    • favored profile image

      Fay Favored 

      7 years ago from USA

      How wonderful it would be to have all these lovely creatures in a yard. I appreciate the plant list and will be posting this on my twitter page for others to see. Thanks.

    • profile image

      TeresaM LM 

      7 years ago

      Another lovely, well-written and informative lens with beautiful array of photos to match! I've never heard of a butterfly shelter before, thanks for sharing this! Now all I need is garden to attract these eye-pleasers!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Wow I love these colorful butterflies - especially the fluttering butterflies

    • Girlwiththorns profile image


      7 years ago

      Gorgeous images and very well written. Thanks !

    • Vera-S profile image


      7 years ago

      Beautiful pictures and useful tips for creating butterflies garden. I love butterflies puddling.

    • maryseena profile image


      7 years ago

      I love to see butterflies in my garden. I loved that tip on how to make stale beer too!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Nice lens, I love to watch butterflies did not know about puddling.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Wonderful tips for butterfly gardens. I loved the photo of the butterflies puddling.

    • Elsie Hagley profile image

      Elsie Hagley 

      7 years ago from New Zealand

      Nice lens, great info and photography, yes I love butterflies in the garden also.

      You have to have a lot of food for Monarch butterflies, in NZ I used the swan plant, which can disappear very quickly with the caterpillars eating it, one year they ran out, I used pumpkin to feed them.

    • mbgphoto profile image

      Mary Beth Granger 

      7 years ago from O'Fallon, Missouri, USA

      I love this lens!! Great tips for butterfly gardening. You are right once you attract butterflies to your garden you will be hooked. They are so delightful to watch.

    • Sharon Weaver profile image

      Sharon Weaver 

      7 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      My garden is very butterfly friendly and I love seeing them flit around from flower to flower. I learned some additional things I didn't know. Thanks.

    • Rosanna Grace profile image

      Rosanna Grace 

      7 years ago

      Gorgeous photography and very informative too! I learnt a great deal more about these magical creatures! :)

    • Rosanna Grace profile image

      Rosanna Grace 

      7 years ago

      Gorgeous photography and very informative too! I learnt a great deal more about these magical creatures! :)

    • GoodGirlSEO profile image


      7 years ago

      Beautiful pictures! I love butterflies and love when they hang out in my garden.

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 

      7 years ago from Arkansas USA

      Beautiful! Your pictures are amazing. I learned a lot about butterflies, too. As we work on landscaping, I'll keep these butterfly-friendly ideas in mind. Thanks for a great lens!


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