How to attract butterflies to your garden

Jul 05, 2013
You can always find butterflies at our protected lands, but why not bring them to you? Here are ten tips to make your garden more butterfly friendly!

Who doesn’t want more butterflies in their garden? Not only will it make you smile and give you an instant pigment pick-me-up, your plants will thank you for the extra pollination. Here are 10 tips to make your garden butterfly-friendly.

Tip 1: Plant native blooming plants.

Butterflies and native plants depend on each other. Many butterflies use native plants for food, shelter, and sites for reproduction. They also recognize these plants more easily than most non-natives. The popular, non-native butterfly bush isn’t recommended for planting because it’s invasive. Healthier alternatives would be the California lilac (Ceanothus thrysiflorus) or chastetree (Vitex agnus-castus).

Tip 2: Choose nectar plants that attract adult butterflies.

Certain plants are magnets for adult butterflies. Think of the types of butterflies you’d like to attract and plant their favorite nectar plants. For a list of species and their preferred nectar plants, click here.

Tip 3: Pick plants that immature caterpillars eat, known as "host plants."

When a female butterfly finds a plant that’s a suitable food source for caterpillars, she may lay eggs on it. If you plant the host plants near the nectar plants that a species prefers, you will encourage butterflies to stay in your garden from generation to generation. For a list of species and their host plants, click here.

Tip 4: Think large patches of solid color.

Fun fact: butterflies are near sighted! They are more attracted to a large patch of a single, brightly colored flower than they are to a mix of blooms. Studies have also shown that butterflies are less attracted to flowers that are blue or blue-green. Most butterflies prefer violet flowers and some species are partial to orange, red, or white.

Tip 5: Consider the shape of the flowers.

Large butterflies, like swallowtails, like flowers with large, compact heads.  These provide a resting place while they feed. Examples include yarrow, asters, zinnia, goldenrod, and marigolds. Butterflies also like densely packed clusters of flowers like lantana, honeysuckle, and milkweed. 

Tip 6: Choose flowers that bloom at different times.

With a round-robin of blossoms you’ll provide nectar through the spring, summer, and fall, drawing different species as they migrate through the area.

Tip 7: Plant a wind break at the edge of your garden, but choose one that doesn't block sunlight.

Protect the butterflies from wind by planting large shrubs, vines or trees that break the wind. You could plant trellis with clematis or honeysuckle—these won’t block the butterfly’s rays.

Tip 8: Make a mud puddle.

Butterflies drink from wet areas around water. They don’t drink from open water. You can make a mud puddle by burying a bucket or non-toxic container in the ground and filling it almost to the top with wet sand. Put a few sticks or rocks on top of the sand for perches. Male butterflies need extra sodium during the mating season, so sprinkle a little salt on your puddle.

Tip 9: Provide a basking site.

Butterflies like to absorb the sun in open, bright areas. A large, flat, light colored rock with a lot of sun exposure makes a great basking spot where the butterfly can warm up.

Tip 10: Maintain a pesticide free garden.

Pesticides have a negative effect on all the stages of a butterfly’s life cycle. If you want butterflies in your garden, opt for organic oils or soaps.

Allen, S., Chambers, S., & Allen, N. (2002). “Create a Butterfly Garden.” Oregon State University Extension Service.