How to Attract Butterflies to Your Garden

Everyone pauses to watch when a butterfly flutters by.  There is just something about their beauty and grace that is magical to observe.  Would you like to encourage more butterflies to visit your yard? You can when you bear in mind the important factors provided here. 

Plant a diversity of native plants.  Butterflies are beautiful diverse creatures, and they require a diversity of food sources.  Planting native plants is not only great for attracting butterflies, it benefits the environment and reduces the amount of maintenance your garden requires.  The butterflies local to your area will enjoy and use native plants the most so when choosing native flowers, pick a variety of flower shapes, colors, and sizes to meet the needs of different butterflies.  

Provide a native butterfly maternity ward. Adult butterflies feed on nectar while caterpillars and larvae eat the leaves of specific plants.  While most females will lay eggs on a variety of plants, others can be quite fussy. For example, monarch butterflies will leave eggs only on milkweed (Asclepias) plants. You need both a variety of flowers for nectar, but also a variety of native plants for a maternity ward for butterfly eggs and young caterpillars.  

Provide native food spring, summer and fall.  The key to attracting butterflies is nectar - and lots of it!  Butterflies that overwinter as adults need nectar sources early in the season, and fall migrants, like monarchs, need plenty of nectar to fuel their long journeys south. It's easy to provide nectar in the summer, when most flowers are in bloom, but does your backyard offer nectar sources in March, or October? Plant your native flowers so that you have a succession of flowering nectar plants in bloom from spring through fall.  You can find bloom times for Virginia native plants listed in the Virginia Native Plant Society web site  

Go for color.  Butterflies love bright colors like yellow, red, purple, and blue.  You should plant large masses or groupings of the same color so the butterflies can see the flowers from a distance.  This will entice them to fly closer to see if food is available. Butterflies are rather nearsighted. They can only see well within 10-12 feet of a flower.  They can however, distinguish colors from a distance. Plant a wide variety of colorful flowers with simple open blooms, so butterflies can sit as they feast. Old-fashioned varieties of flowers often provide more of the nectar butterflies seek than modern, more colorful hybrids.  Flowers with large tops like yarrow, zinnias and peonies are very attractive to butterflies.

Colorful nectar plants and the butterflies that prefer them:

  • Baptisia Australis / Wild Indigo Dusky wing
  • Bee Balm / Swallowtails
  • Black Eyed Susan / Orange Sulphur
  • Butterfly Weed / Most types
  • Coneflower / Eastern Tailed Blue
  • Daisies / American Painted Lady
  • Milkweed /Monarchs
  • Phlox / Spicebush Swallowtail and Tiger Swallowtail
  • Salvia / Silver-Spotted Skipper
  • Sunflowers / American Lady and Giant Swallowtails
  • Verbena / Black Swallowtail
  • Yarrow / Milfoil butterfly

Swallowtail Butterfly on Bee Balm

American Painted Lady Butterfly on Daisy

Silver Spotted Skipper on Salvia

Orange Sulphur Butterfly on Black Eyed Susan

Monarch on NY Aster

Fritillary Butterfly on Butterfly weed

Choose a sunny site.  Butterflies thoroughly enjoy basking in the sunshine, especially early in the day, and they only feed in full sun.  Like all insects, butterflies can't regulate their body temperatures internally. Instead, they rely on the sun's energy to warm their bodies so they can function. You'll see a butterfly perched on a rock or leaf in a sunny spot, with its wings extended, warming up its flight muscles. When planning your butterfly habitat, think about providing good basking spots in the sunniest areas of your yard.

Provide a spot to get a drink. Besides offering sun, you need to offer butterflies something to drink.  A complete butterfly habitat will include one or more puddling sites.  Butterflies can’t drink from bird baths or fountains.  Instead, they get water and important minerals by taking up moisture from mud puddles. Sink a dish tub or bucket in the ground, fill it with sand, and make sure to wet the sand down each day.  If you use drip irrigation to water your garden beds, this can also provide puddling sites for butterflies.

Protect your butterfly habitat from the wind.  The calmer the environment, the more attractive it is to butterflies. Try to place your nectar and host plants where your house, a fence, a group of shrubs, or a line of trees will buffer the wind from your butterfly garden

 Keep some distance between bird feeders and your butterfly habitat.  While creating a backyard wildlife habitat for both birds and butterflies is a great thing to do, you need to think of the predator-prey relationship. If you place a birdbath right in the middle of your butterfly garden, you're providing one stop shopping for hungry birds.  Consider placing any bird feeders or birdbaths in a separate area of your yard – away from your butterfly habitat.

Don't use pesticides!  This one should be obvious, right?  If you're trying to support insect life in your backyard, you don't want to use chemicals or other substances that kill them.  One of the reasons that we see fewer bees and butterflies now is the prevalent use of pesticides.  Pesticides don’t discriminate between insects.  They kill the few unwanted pests, along with all the good insects like earthworms, fireflies, and butterflies. The weed killer “Roundup” in particular, targets milkweed, the sole food source of the monarch butterfly.  Find alternatives to pesticides such as crop rotation, companion planting and other organic gardening methods. 

Provide a native pollinator habitat. This is a bit different than gardening for aesthetics. Caterpillars need foliage to feed on, so you'll have to be tolerant of a few leaves with holes, or even plants that have been defoliated.  Some caterpillars will even feed on the plants you intend to eat yourself, like dill or fennel (which are the host plants for black swallowtail larvae). Learn to share. Plant some extra so there's enough for you, your family, and the caterpillars.

Provide cover for overwintering butterflies and caterpillars.  We tend to think of butterflies as summer insects.  Ever wonder where they go in the winter months? Yes, monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico, but most of our butterflies survive the winter by simply hiding out until warm weather returns.  Butterflies may overwinter in any of their four life stages. Swallowtails usually wait out the winter weather in the pupal stage, tucked away inside a chrysalis in a protected location.  Many tiger moths, most notably the Isabella tiger moth which goes by the nickname woolly bear as a caterpillar, overwinter in the larval stage. A number of butterflies survive the cold in the adult stage, by simply tucking themselves under loose bark or hiding inside a tree cavity. So how can you provide winter shelter for butterflies and moths in different life stages?  Hint: don't rake all your leaves. Leave the fall leaf litter in at least part of your yard for hibernating caterpillars. Brush piles and stored firewood also make excellent shelter for overwintering butterflies. Research has shown that butterfly houses are generally not effective. Butterflies rarely use them, but wasps do. Butterflies are more attracted to a natural environment like hollow logs, cracks in stone, loose bark, or a stack of firewood.

A word about the Butterfly Bush:

Butterfly Bush is usually the first plant many homeowners think of for butterflies.  While butterfly bush does bloom for a long time and attract a lot of butterflies, keep in mind that it's an exotic, invasive plant that should probably be avoided. Several varieties of butterflies (like the Monarch) will not lay their eggs on a Butterfly Bush – so you have a food source for the adults, but nothing for the next generation.  

You can find additional information on butterflies here:  

To get more information or answers to any gardening issues please call or contact the Prince William Master Gardeners at 703-792-7747 or  We offer gardening classes and lectures – usually free to the public. 

Janene Cullen, PhD
About Janene Cullen, PhD 4 Articles
Janene Cullen has lived in Haymarket for 16 years. As a retired military officer, this is the longest she has ever lived in one location. She works full time for the Aerospace Corporation as a satellite engineer. She has been a Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Volunteer since 2006 and volunteers with the Master Gardeners of Prince William.

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