Butterfly Bushes ≠ More Butterflies

Sometimes I feel like I’m stuck in my own twisted version of the movie Groundhog Day, reliving the same conversation over and over again. As a professional landscape designer, I meet lots of homeowners with varying degrees of interest in their gardens. Some are die-hard gardeners, others are newbies, and others could care less about what’s happening outside the front door. But one thing they all have in common is the desire to see butterflies in their gardens. And they all seem to think butterfly bushes are THE answer to attracting more butterflies.

The conversation goes something like this…

Me:  ‘Tell me about your favorite part of your garden.’

Client:  ‘I love when I see butterflies in my garden. I’d really like to have as many butterflies as possible so I planted (want to plant/need to have) a butterfly bush.’

Me (trying not to beat myself over the head with my clipboard):  ‘Ahh, yes, butterfly bushes. Let me tell you a few things about butterflies you might not know…’

Getting to Know You

If you are trying to attract more butterflies to your garden, the first thing you need to understand is that more butterfly bushes do not mean more butterflies. Yes, butterflies do feed on the nectar of butterfly bushes but that’s where the attraction ends.

The real key to having more butterflies in your garden is to find out which of the more than 700 species of butterflies in North America are common to your region. Once you know which butterflies are likely to visit your garden, you can start making of a list of appropriate plants to entice them into making your garden their home.

Clouded sulphur butterflies are common in my Connecticut garden

One of the easiest ways to find out which butterflies are likely to be found in your area is by visiting Butterflies and Moths of North America. Click on the Regional Checklist tab, input some general  information and you’ll have a list of butterflies common to your backyard. You’ll also find the names of plants to attract them to your garden. Other great resources for identifying local butterflies include The North American Butterfly Association, the Xerces Society and your state butterfly society. Joining the Connecticut Butterfly Association was the best $10 I’ve spent in a long time!

Provide The Basics

Your goal should be to have butterflies do more than drop your garden by for a quick snack. You want them to make your garden their home so you’ll  need to provide the basics – water, shelter, a place to lay their eggs and food during all stages of a butterfly’s lifecycle.

The good news is many butterflies feed on an array of nectar plants. But each species has its favorite flowers, that’s why it’s important to know which species are most likely to visit your garden.

What many gardeners don’t realize is that butterflies only lay their eggs on certain plants (aka larval hosts plants). If you want butterflies to stay in your garden and lay their eggs, it’s essential to provide larval host plants that feed caterpillars, too. Caterpillars eat leaves and are much more finicky about their diets than butterflies, another reason why identifying the species of butterflies common in your area is so important.


Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar © Carole Sevilla Brown

Monarch butterflies only lay their eggs on milkweed (Ascelpias spp.). Fritillaries search out violets when it’s time to lay their eggs and spicebush swallowtails need, you guessed it, spicebush (or sassafras). The availability of larval host plants in your garden is a key component to a sustainable butterfly habitat that is often overlooked.

In case you’re wondering, there is not even one species of North American butterfly that uses butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) as a larval host plant. In addition, butterfly bushes are invasive in many areas so there are definitely better plant choices for a butterfly garden.

Tips for Designing a Butterfly-Friendly Garden

Once you’ve identified the butterfly species that are most likely to visit your garden and have made a list of the larval host plants and nectar plants they prefer, you’re ready to start designing your butterfly garden.

Here are a few design tips to follow to make your garden attractive to you and to the butterflies.

Think open, yet sheltered. Butterfly gardens can be any size. Keep in mind that many nectar-rich plants require full sun and butterflies prefer to feed in areas that are protected from winds. If possible, site your butterfly garden where you’ll be able to see it from different rooms in your home.

American Lady butterflies are another common sight in my Connecticut garden

Go native. Not only are native plants better adapted to your climate, some of them will perform double-duty but acting as nectar sources and larval hosts plants. Using native plants is especially important when garden space is limited.

Mix it up. Not only is it important to provide nectar sources during the spring, summer and fall, it’s alsocrucial to have flowers of different shapes, sizes, heights and colors.

Think like a butterfly. Butterflies want flowers whose nectar is abundant and easily accessible. That means most plants with double-flowers are not butterfly friendly because their nectar is hidden.

These double impatiens are beautiful but where’s the nectar for the butterflies? © Provenwinners.com

Color matters. Butterflies seem to prefer flowers that are red, yellow, orange, purple and dark pink.

Plant in drifts. Large quantities of the same flower are more attractive to butterflies than one of this and one of that. Whenever possible, plant 3- 5 of the same kind of nectar plant together. Not only will this help attract butterflies, it will also add to the visual appeal of your garden.

Annuals are OK. Since many butterflies are generalists when it comes to nectar sources, it’s OK to use annuals to supplement the bloom time of native shrubs and perennials. Just don’t rely too heavily on them and remember to choose annuals that have readily available nectar.  Using butterfly-friendly annuals in containers is also a great way to bring butterflies to where you spend the most time in your garden.

Maintenance Matters

Like any wildlife friendly garden, one designed for attracting butterflies requires some  specific maintenance, or lack thereof. Rather than getting into the details now, here are links to some info-packed posted on maintaining a wildlife friendly garden written by some of my fellow NPWG team members that can guide you when it comes to maintaining your butterfly friendly garden:

A Love of Untidy Wildlife Gardens and Why! ~ Pat Sutton

How to Create a Certified Wildlife Habitat for The National Wildlife Federation ~ Genevieve Schmidt

Confessions from a Native Gardener  ~ Donna Donnabella

I am the Lorax, I Speak for the Leaves ~ Carole Sevilla Brown

So, remember, when it comes to having more butterflies in your garden, butterfly bushes are not the answer.

© 2012 – 2014, Debbie Roberts. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    Debbie I loved this post…so much info for folks. I actually am seeing Black Swallowtails visiting and looking around for nectar..we are in between but they are finding some here and there. The dill is not up yet in the veg garden. May need to plant it sooner next year. I do hope they lay some eggs on the milkweed which I read they will do. I have lots of that…thx for the link to my post :)
    Donna@ Gardens Eye View recently posted..Simply The Best-May

    • says

      Donna, It sounds like you have lots of larval host plants in your garden. My asclepia seems to have succumbed to the wierd winter weather, along with several other perennials. Perhaps the lack of snow cover was a bad thing for some of the plants. I really need to plant some more as soon as possible, I’d love to see some monarch eggs, too.
      Debbie recently posted..Garden Designers Roundtable: Our Home Gardens

  2. Kathy Walters says

    Thank you for this valuable post. I keep a butterfly native garden for a National wildlife refuge, and struggle with how to ‘keep’ it. Some staff want a very formal, neat as a pin garden-not my style.
    Kathy in Delray Beach

    • says

      Kathy, As you know, a little ‘mess’ is a good thing in wildlife garden but unfortunately not everyone sees it that way. Perhaps more structure (with low evergereens or something similiar) would give your butterfly garden the formal look your colleagues are looking for while still allowing you the freedom you need to make it attractive to the butterflies. Good luck!
      Debbie recently posted..Garden Designers Roundtable: Our Home Gardens

  3. says

    This is what I have been trying to do for the past 2 years..I have joined several of the same organizations..finding the local expertise and plants has been difficult..Michelle

    • says

      Michelle, I struggle with the same issues and imagine others do too. Hopefully the availablity of local native plants will improve as more people become aware of their importance in our gardens. As for the knowledge base, I find that challenging too. In this area, it often seems each group has their own agenda that needs to be taken into account when listening to their ‘advice’. I think as native plant and wildlife advocates, the best we can do is try and educate people in our local communities — become the experts we’ve been searching for.
      Debbie recently posted..Garden Designers Roundtable: Our Home Gardens

  4. says

    Wonderful ideas! I hope that people get inspired and start creating true butterfly gardens, rather than planting butterfly bush (I also wish we could change its name).
    I want to put a good word for moths; some of them deserve the title of honorary butterflies because they are just as beautiful. Take for instance the enchanting hummingbird moth. There are four species and some of them are only moderately finicky, so the range of planting choices is rather broad: mountain laurel, several species of viburnum, native honeysuckles and high bush blueberry, to name a few.
    If you grow natives, you probably already have a butterfly/moth garden without even trying. It is still nice to know what your plants are good for.
    Beatriz Moisset recently posted..Moths as pollinators

    • says

      Beatriz, Butterfly bush certainly has a positive brand image that it shouldn’t have. While some plants suffer from their common names, this one gets a boost it does not deserve. Thank you for giving a shout out to moths, I totally overlooked them in my post. And it’s nice to know I have several of those plants in my garden already. BYW, I think every garden should have a few high bush blueberries, they are such under-rated plants, in MHO.
      Debbie recently posted..Garden Designers Roundtable: Our Home Gardens

    • says

      Benjamin, When you’re on the front lines like many of us are, you soon realize it’s all about education. It’s wonderful that gardeners want to do have more butterflies, it’s just amazing how focused they are on butterfly bushes. As Beatriz mentioned, it would be great if we could chnage its common name to do something less inviting and more indicitive of it’s real value in our gardens. Until then, it’s back to the classroom and garden expo tables!
      Debbie recently posted..Garden Designers Roundtable: Our Home Gardens

  5. Ruth Parnall says

    Thanks for the cross-reference to other posts on the same subject. I frequently find myself making mental links to earlier posts as I am reading the newest ones…but can’t remember who wrote it.

  6. Emily DeBolt says

    great post! I often suggest summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) as a native alternative to butterfly bush when people really won’t give up on it. you can get the different cultivars that come in varying colors and heights – so I find that it can often make people happy.

    we have had so many butterflies in the nursery this spring – my husband has been getting tired of me stalking them to take their photo instead of doing work! I don’t think I had ever seen a giant swallowtail butterfly before we started the nursery – but the last 2 years now they have been cruising around – they are so big – they are so fun to watch. I posted a bunch of the photos on my own blog, http://fiddleheadcreek.com/butterfly-bonanza/


  1. […] Butterfly Bushes ≠ More Butterflies “Your goal should be to have butterflies do more than drop your garden by for a quick snack. You want them to make your garden their home so you’ll  need to provide the basics – water, shelter, a place to lay their eggs and food during all stages of a butterfly’s lifecycle.” by Debbie Roberts […]

  2. […] The real key to having more butterflies in your garden is to find out which of the more than 700 species of butterflies in North America are common to your region. Once you know which butterflies are likely to visit your garden, you can start making of a list of appropriate plants to entice them into making your garden their home. ~Debbie Roberts in Butterfly Bushes Do Not Mean More Butterflies […]

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