There are about 725 species of butterflies in the U.S. and Canada, with the smallest having a wingspan of a mere half-inch (the western pygmy blue) and the largest measuring about five inches across (the giant swallowtail). Butterflies come in a rainbow of hues, including black, orange, yellow, and red and blue. Each species calls a different geographic region home. Regardless of their size, color and home territory, almost all adult butterflies feed on flower nectar. Yes, some lap up tree sap or consume decaying organic matter, but most require nectar. To enjoy these fluttering beauties in your garden, include a broad range of nectar plants for butterflies in your landscape. Here are some of our favorites.
The Best Nectar Plants For Butterflies
Perennials For Butterflies
- Garden phlox
- Butterfly weed
- Blazing star
- Bee balm
- Joe-pye weed
- New England Asters
- Jupiter’s beard
Annuals For Butterflies
- Purple-top vervain
- Mexican sunflower (Tithonia)
Shrubs for butterflies
In addition to this short list of plants are many regionally native plant species that appeal to butterflies. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation has more specific regional plant lists that you can access here. It is a great resource for information on nectar plants for butterflies as well as our many species of native bees.
What To Include In A Butterfly Garden Besides Nectar Plants
In addition to including plenty of nectar plants for butterflies, there are a few other things you should include in your garden to attract and support these pollinators.
A Water Source
Butterflies primarily access the water then need via the nectar they drink, but having a shallow pan or bowl filled with small rocks and a bit of water can help keep them hydrated dSring summer’s warm weather. The butterflies will perch on the rocks and suck the water through their proboscis as needed. Be sure to clean out the bowl and refill it twice a week.
Many butterflies supplement their diet by feeding on rotten or fermenting fruit. In my own garden, the red admirals are particular fond of any overripe fruit I leave sitting out for them. Slices of old oranges, mangos, pineapples, watermelons and bananas are favorites. Put the fruit out on a shallow tray, but take it in at night to keep nocturnal critters, such as raccoons and opossums, from finding it. Putting the fruit tray in a shallow pan of water will keep ants off the fruit, too.
Many butterflies are also fond of lapping up the mineral nutrition found in manures and other rotting organic material. To satisfy this need, fill a shallow bowl with sand and mix in two or three tablespoons of old horse or cow manure (do not use pet or human waste, please). Wet the sand until it’s moist and let the butterflies do their thing. Refill the bowl with fresh sand and manure every two to three weeks.
Caterpillar Host Plants
In addition to needing nectar, butterflies also need a place to lay their eggs. Most gardeners know that monarchs need milkweed because it’s the only plant their caterpillars can eat, but did you know that lots of other butterflies have very specific host-plant needs? Include as many of these caterpillar host plants as possible and you’ll see plenty of adult butterflies as a result. Here’s a great list of specific butterfly host plants.
For more information on the best nectar plants for butterflies, as well as their caterpillar host plant needs, check out Pollinator Friendly Gardening by Rhonda Fleming Hayes and Attracting Native Pollinators by the Xerces Society.