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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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