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How to Attract Butterflies and Create a Butterfly Garden

Painted Lady butterfly Butterflies are not only beautiful, they play an important role in preserving the health of our environment. They pollinate fruits, flowers and vegetables, and provide food for other animals. Like many other creatures, butterflies are becoming endangered because the wild places they inhabit are lost to development, or they fall victim to pesticides. This guide will show you how to help bring them back by creating your own backyard butterfly garden.

To attract the greatest number of butterflies, you will need to have plants that serve the needs of all life stages of the butterfly.

To attract the greatest number of butterflies, you will need to have plants that serve the needs of all life stages of the butterfly. They need a place to lay eggs, food plants for the larva (caterpillar), a place to form a chrysalis, and nectar sources for the adult.

Plants to Attract Butterflies: Food for the Larval Stage

Most caterpillars are picky about the plants they feed on. Female butterflies will only lay eggs on caterpillar food plants. Be sure to provide a variety of caterpillar food plants to meet the needs of the species in your area. Some plants, like milkweed, provide both nectar and food for many caterpillar species. If a butterfly is found near your area, you can probably attract it and increase its population by planting the correct foodplants for it’s caterpillars.

Clusters of flowers are easier for the butterflies to locate than individual plants.

Caterpillars will feed on the leaves of these plants, but the damage is minor and only temporary. Caterpillars of some species feed on plants which are considered weeds, so you can benefit some species by not removing all of your weeds.

Common Caterpillar Host Plants for Attracting Butterflies: Natural host plants

  • Milkweed
  • Thistle
  • Nettle
  • Clover
  • Queen Anne’s lace
  • Wild lupine
  • American Elm
  • Common pawpaw
  • Tulip poplar
  • Spicebush
  • Wild aster
  • Goldenrod
  • Vetch
  • Black Cherry

Cultivated host plants

  • Butterfly weed
  • Parsley
  • Fennel
  • Apple
  • Dill
  • Passionflower

Attracting Butterflies with Nectar-producing Flowers

Adults searching for nectar are attracted to red, yellow, orange, pink, or purple blossoms, flat-topped or clustered flowers, and short flower tubes. Short flower tubes allow the butterflies to reach the nectar with their proboscis. Nectar-producing plants should be grown in open, sunny areas, as adults of most species rarely feed on plants in the shade.

Nectar Plants for Attracting Adult Butterflies

  • Aster
  • Azalea
  • Bee balm
  • Butterfly bush
  • Butterfly weed and other milkweeds
  • Cardinal flower
  • Clover and other legumes
  • Columbine
  • Coneflower
  • Delphinium
  • Fuchsia
  • Honeysuckle
  • Jewel weed
  • Lobelia
  • Lupine
  • Penstemon
  • Phlox
  • Salvia
  • Trumpet creeper or vine
  • Weigela
  • Zinnia

Another option for attracting butterflies is soil enriched with urine. Animal urine contains a variety of salts enjoyed by butterflies, and it is used by many collectors as bait. One good source to purchase pure urine from the wild is ButterflyPee.

Attract Butterflies with Garden design

Choose a variety of plants that will bloom at different times in a season to make your garden more attractive to a wider assortment of butterflies. Plant the flowers in clusters of each species, and create a garden that includes several different colors and flower heights.

Clusters of flowers are easier for the butterflies to locate than individual plants. A mixture of annuals, perennials, and biennials will let you experiment with different flower combinations each year as you discover which species work best for your area.

Furnish basking stones or boards for butterflies to perch on while sunning. Provide caterpillar food sources in both sunny and shaded areas. Allow small, unused areas to grow up with the weeds necessary for healthy butterfly caterpillars. Butterflies cannot drink from open water sources, so be sure to provide damp areas such as moist sand, earth, or mud to provide the best watering holes.

Build a Butterfly House

If your yard doesn’t provide enough dense foliage to allow butterflies to hibernate and nest, build them a home that offers protection from predators and weather. The interior walls of the box should be rough to allow butterflies to grab a foothold. Scatter small twigs and leaves inside to promote hibernation and egg laying, and include thin vertical slats on the front to allow the butterflies to enter and exit. Make sure the box is hung no more than four feet above the ground and has a south or southwest exposure.

Avoid Insecticides

Insecticides like Malathion, Sevin, and Diazinon are sold to kill insects. Don’t use these materials anywhere on your property. Even “benign” insecticides, such as Bacillus thuringiensis, are lethal to butterflies in the caterpillar stage.

Certify Your Backyard as a Wildlife Sanctuary

After you have followed Sage’s How-to Attract Butterflies Guide and our other How to Attract Wildlife Guides to providing habitat to attract butterflies and other wildlife to your backyard, you can certify your backyard as a wildlife sanctuary. As long as you are providing the four basics for habitat specified in the Sage How-to Attract Wildlife Guides, including food, water, shelter and a place to live, you qualify.

Along with a personalized certificate, you will receive a Backyard Wildlife Habitat sign to post in your yard. This sign is a great way to show your neighbors and community that you’re working to attract butterflies and other wildlife and provide a natural habitat for the animals that visit and live in your yard. Your backyard will also be entered in the National Registry of Backyard Wildlife Habitat Sites.

For an application to certify your backyard as a wildlife sanctuary, please visit the National Wildlife Federation’s Application for Certification.

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