PHOTO: Jessica Walliser
February 29, 2016

North America is home to well over 700 species of butterflies. Sadly, many of them are suffering from a dramatic population decline due to habitat loss, pesticide exposure and other factors. While the monarch butterfly and its epic migration have become the poster child for helping imperiled butterflies, there are dozens of non-migrating species who also need our help.

If you’re excited to support butterflies, one of the simplest things you can do is create a butterfly habitat garden. Many of the plants that support adult butterflies in their quest for nectar also happen to be gorgeous garden flowers. While incorporating as many of these plants into your existing landscape as possible is one way to help butterflies, building a dedicated butterfly garden takes the concept one important step further.

Step 1: Plan Out Your Butterfly Garden

Begin by selecting a site for your butterfly garden. Ideally, the site should receive full sun and be protected from high winds. Many of the nectar plants preferred by butterflies thrive in average garden soil that’s relatively well-drained. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, including milkweed and boneset, which prefer slightly damp soils, but for the most part, a well-drained site is best.

While size does matter, even small butterfly gardens can have a positive impact on local butterfly populations. Of course, the larger the area, the more plants—and the more butterflies—it can house.

Step 2: Research Butterfly Species Near You

It’s smart to conduct a bit of research into what species of butterflies reside in your part of the country. Learn about their life cycles and needs before selecting the plants for your garden. Many butterfly species have very specific host-plant needs, meaning their larvae can only feed on one species or family of plants. A good field guide is a must for this step. Two good choices are the Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006) and The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2002).

Step 3: Select Plants For Adult Butterflies

Adult butterflies primarily feed on flower nectar, though they may occasionally be found using their straw-like proboscises to lap up nutrients or salts from mud puddles, rotting fruit and even fecal matter.

A wide diversity of nectar plants is absolutely essential to a butterfly garden. Be sure to select plants with a variety of bloom-times, floral structures, growth habits and flower colors. The goal is to have multiple butterfly-friendly species in bloom all season long, from last frost to first. Thankfully, there’s a plethora of nectar-providing plants available for every climate. Be sure to reference your field guide if you’re looking for more targeted plant selections, but excellent general choices include:

Step 4: Select Plants For Butterfly Larvae

To create a welcoming place for butterflies, you’ll want to provide them with everything they need throughout all life stages, not just as adults. Because the larvae of nearly all butterfly species have very specific host-plant needs, incorporate as many desirable host plants as possible into your butterfly garden.

Most gardeners are aware of the importance of milkweed to the monarch butterfly. It’s their sole larval food source, meaning monarch caterpillars can eat nothing else. But in addition to milkweed, you should also include:

  • members of the carrot family, such as dill, parsley and fennel, for the black swallowtail
  • violets for the meadow fritillary
  • stinging nettles for the Milbert’s tortoise shell
  • alfalfa for the orange sulphur
  • thistles for the painted lady
  • nettle for the satyr and the red admiral
  • hops for the question marks
  • hollyhocks for the hairstreaks

A good field guide will likely offer many other ideas for appropriate host plants for your part of the country.

Trees, such as oak, cherry, poplar, willow, hawthorn, serviceberry, locust, sassafras and poplar, also provide critical larval food needs for many common butterflies across North America. While trees aren’t typically incorporated into butterfly gardens, planting a few on your property is another helpful way to support butterflies.

Step 5: Provide Watering Holes And Sunning Spots

In addition to providing suitable plants for both larvae and adults, here are a few other things to include in your butterfly garden:

  • a shallow pan of water filled with rocks so butterflies can land for a drink.
  • several large, flat rocks placed in the garden where butterflies will receive morning sun; these basking rocks will become a gathering spot for butterflies warming their wings on cool mornings.
  • pieces of over-ripe fruit, such as pineapples, watermelons, mangoes and oranges, placed in bowls or trays during the day to provide another source of nutrients for resident butterflies; to keep ants away, set the bowl or tray of fruit in a larger container of water.

Step 6: Provide Winter Butterfly Habitat

One final and very important step in building and caring for a healthy butterfly garden is to create as much over-wintering habitat as possible. While monarchs migrate to Mexico for the winter, most butterflies do not. Instead, they spend the winter as adults, taking shelter in rock fissures, in leaf litter or under tree bark; as a chrysalis, hanging from dead plant stems or tucked into the leaf litter or soil; or as a caterpillar, rolled into a fallen leaf or inside the stem or pod of a host plant. Cutting down and cleaning up the garden in the fall eliminates critical over-wintering sites for butterflies and many other pollinators. Leave the garden stand throughout the winter and do your clean up in the spring.


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