Attracting butterflies to your garden is easy. Your butterfly* garden can be as simple or sophisticated as you choose. You can also add elements over time to provide better resources. If you don’t have a spot to plant things in the ground, you can even use containers.
*Your garden may also benefit a number of other important pollinators such as hummingbirds, bees or even bats.
Supporting Butterflies Throughout Their Lives
Butterflies have several stages of development in their lives. To really support the butterflies, it is useful to provide the basic appropriate resources for each stage. This means they will need:
- Plants for the caterpillars to eat (referred to as “host plants”).
- A safe place for them to form their chrysalis and complete their metamorphism.
- Plants that provide rich sources of nectar from flowers that are easy for the adults to access (referred to as “nectar plants”).
Each species of caterpillar (the larval form of butterflies and moths) feeds on specific and different plants all referred to as “host plants.” These plants are also where adult butterflies lay their eggs. Because each species has different needs, providing a variety of plant species will attract different types of butterflies.
Note: Be prepared for the caterpillars to nibble on the leaves. This is how they eat. If you’re uncomfortable with having plants that may not always look pristine as a result of caterpillars feeding on them, try tucking them in a less visible (to humans) location.
Common Native Butterfly Species and their Host Plants
- American Painted Lady: Artemisia, Hollyhock, Thistle, Pearly Everlasting
- Cabbage White: Mustards, Broccoli, Cabbage, Kale, Nasturtium
- Checkered White: Mustards, Broccoli, Cabbage, Kale, Clammyweed
- Cloudless Sulphur: Legumes -Partridge Pea, Sennas
- Dainty Sulphur: Shepard’s Needle, Greenthread, Marigolds
- Eastern Black Swallowtail: Parsley, Dill, Fennel, Rue, Queen Ann’s Lace, Wild Carrot, Rattlesnake Master
- Gorgone Checkerspot: Sunflowers, Coneflowers, Loosestrife
- Giant Swallowtail: Prickly-Ash/ Hercules Club, Hoptree, Rue, Citrus Family
- Gulf Fritillary: Passionvine, Maypop
- Monarch: Milkweeds
- Painted Lady: Thistle, Sunflower, Lamb’s Quarters, Mallows, Pearly Everlasting
- Pearl Crescent: Asters
- Phaon Crescent: Frogfruit
- Pipevine Swallowtail: Pipevines (Wooly Dutchman’s pipe, Texas Dutchman’s pipe, Virginia Snake Root
- Queen: Milkweeds
- Silvery Checkerspot: Sunflowers, Frostweed, Coneflowers, Black-eyed Susan, Buckeye, Snapdragon Vine, Indian Paintbrush, Ruellia, Snake-herb, Plantain, Frogfruit
- Sleepy Orange: Legumes (Partridge Pea, Sennas)
- Spicebush Swallowtail: Spicebush, Sassafras
- Texan Crescent: Flame Acanthus, Mexican Petunia, Snake-herb
- Tiger Swallowtail: Cottonwood, Ash, Sweet Bay, Cherry, Hoptree, Plum
- Variegated Fritillary: Passionvine, Maypop, Violets, Pansies, Flax
- Viceroy: Poplar, Willow, Apple
Adult butterflies feed on fluid called “nectar” that is made by flowering plants. Nectar is mainly made up of carbohydrates (sugars) and water; however, the concentration of sugars varies across plant species.¹ Small amounts of other chemicals can also be found. Because nectar composition can vary from plant species to plant species, different plants may be attractive to different species. By planting a variety of nectar plants that are attractive to butterflies, you may encourage a greater variety of butterflies to visit your garden. In this section, you'll also learn about:
Common Nectar Plants
- Texas native perennial favorites include: Lantana, Purple coneflower, Prairie Verbena, Frogfruit, Monarda, Milkweed (Green or Antelope Horns), Salvias & Sages, Gregg's Blue Mistflower, Late Blooming Boneset, Liatris, Ironweed, Yarrow, Turk's cap, Fall Aster, Goldenrod, Phlox, Frostweed, Purple Prairie Clover, Coreopsis, Flame Acanthas, Coral Honeysuckle, Maximilian Sunflowers*
- Texas native annual favorites include: American Basket Flower, Cypress Vine, Sunflowers*, Brown Eyed Susan, Clammyweed, Partridge Pea, Texas thistle, Indian Blanket, Cutleaf Daisy, Barbara's Buttons, Cowpen Daisy
- Texas native small trees: Kidneywood, Redbud, Buttonbush, Mexican Plum, Rusty Blackhaw Viburnum
- Non-native favorites**: Butterfly Bush, Pentas, Mints, Gomphrena, Zinnia, Mexican Sunflower, Autumn Joy Sedum
*Note that some sunflower species are annual and some are perennial.
**When possible, it is best to utilize native species.
Beginner Nectar Plant Tips
- Butterflies are near-sighted and can more easily see large groupings of flowers that are the same color. As a result, planting multiple plants of the same kind in clusters may make them easier for the butterflies to find.
- Butterflies have a strong sense of smell (through their antennae) and may be more attracted to flowers with a stronger smell.
- When possible, use native species. The native butterflies have co-evolved with them and so they are best suited for their needs.
Advanced Nectar Plant Tips
- Try including plants that have staggered bloom times to provide food throughout the year rather than just in one season. For a list of bloom periods for many native nectar sources for areas in Texas and Oklahoma, click here. (See pages 16-17)². To find a guide for a different location, click here.
- Butterflies feed through a tubular mouthpart called a proboscis. Their body structure (namely long, delicate wings) requires them to be able to easily reach their food. So the length of their proboscis can determine which flowers they may or may not be able to use. (As humans, we could compare this to trying to drink from the bottom of a tall cup with a short straw.) Provide plants that have flowers with easily accessible nectar. For example, some of the plant varieties that have been bred for human landscaping have extra petals that hinder access.
Other Butterfly Gardening Tips
- Don’t use chemical pesticides. Many of the pesticides that you may use to target what you consider a “pest” insect may also affect butterflies.
- A source of water can be beneficial to some butterflies in some conditions. This can easily be done by providing a dish of wet sand for them. They will likely not use a deep dish of water.
- Native plants can sometimes be difficult to find. Be sure to check out the Heard's annual Spring Plant Sale (see event page for future dates). Also, here are some tips from the Native Plant Society of Texas on how to find them.
- Nicolson, Susan W.; Nepi, Massimo (2007). Pacini, Ettore, ed. "Nectaries and Nectar; Nectar Components". Springer Publications. pp. 8–9. ISBN 9781402059377. Click here to read more.
- Ley, Elizabeth L., Stephen Buchmann, Ph.D., Larry Stritch, Ph.D., and Gil Soltz. "Selecting Plants for Pollinators: A Regional Guide for Farmers, Land Managers, and Gardeners in the Prairie Parkland (Subtropical) Province." Pollinator Partnership. Pollinator Partnership, n.d. Web. 06 July 2017. <http://pollinator.org/guides#all>.