We love watching butterflies wherever our travels take us across the country. When at home, we enjoy butterfly gardening in the backyard, and designing our landscape to provide food and shelter for a variety of butterflies.
The Needs of the Butterfly
Yellow Zinnia with Buckeye Butterfly in a backyard garden
Butterflies, like birds and other animals, need food, water, and shelter, the basic necessities of life. In addition, butterflies like direct sunlight, and heat. They are cold blooded creatures, and thus need warm resting places such as flat stones, or bricks.
Butterflies use sunlight to regulate their body temperature. They need sunlight to keep themselves warm, but the outside temperature can also become too hot for them.
A good butterfly garden should provide both sunny places and shady places where butterflies can cool off while they eat. They also need shelter from wind, and inclement weather.
We often provide a shallow pan or plate filled with sand, small rocks, soil and water, and perhaps manure. Butterflies won't typically get their bodies wet in the water, but don't mind getting their feet wet! This process is called "puddling". Butterflies can extract dissolved salts from the mud.
There are two different functions that plants serve for butterflies. Nectar plants, and host plants on which butterflies can lay their eggs on. Different species of butterfly prefer different flowers.
Butterflies only lay eggs on the plant that the caterpillar will eventually eat, usually on the underside of leaves. When planning your backyard butterfly garden, consider providing both nectar plants and host plants.
Rocks set among nectar plants provide a great place for butterflies to rest, and warm up!
While most butterflies prefer flowers, some don't. Overripe, even fermenting fruit will also draw many butterflies. We use a shallow pan filled with slices of melon, overripe bananas, peaches, or grapes. Just make sure that you relocate the pan to a safe place at night to avoid curiosity seekers such as raccoons.
We often have Mourning Cloaks, Red Admirals, Question Marks, Red Admirals, Red-Spotted Purples, Zebra Longwings and others enjoying our leftover fruit.
Puddles and Stones
Male butterflies sometimes gather together at mud puddles. This "puddling" process is a way to sip needed amino acids and salt. We dig shallow depressions in our beds, sink a small saucer or pan, fill it with sand, dirt or small pebbles, and keep it moist and wet.
Our backyard landscape also includes a generous supply of stones and flat rocks. These absorb energy from the sun, and provide a warm basking place for butterflies.
Our Home Landscape
Our landscape features a number of different ecological environments. It is in the country, and backs up to hundreds of acres of forest and wetlands, with nearby fields and pastures.
View of part of our home butterfly gardens!
We've included in our landscape several types of Lantana (45 plants at last count!), Zinnias, Butterfly Bushes, Pentas, Milkweed, Salvia, Batface Cuphea, Verbena, Coreopsis, Fire Bush and other butterfly-friendly plants, annuals and perennials.
We also plant lots of dill and fennel seeds to provide food sources for black swallowtails. The woods nearby provide additional butterfly host plants such as Sassafras, Spicebush, Hercules' Club, Sweet Bay and others.
Other landing and feeding spots include (depending on the season) dozens of Azaleas, Pansies, Impatiens, Knockout Roses, Creeping Phlox, Daffodils, Hydrangeas, Portulaca and Gladiolas.
Our landscape also caters to hummingbirds. We often have over 40 Ruby-Throat hummingbirds on our feeders at one time during the fall migration southward through Texas.
At times we are also blessed with several brightly colored Baltimore Orioles on our feeders!
We are proud to be a Certified Monarch Waystation. By creating a Monarch Waystation you can assist in Monarch butterfly conservation and help the preservation of the species.
What We Grow in Our Butterfly Garden ... and Some Suggestions for You!
Included below is a discussion and photos of our favorite butterfly plants in our home landscape! Hopefully, some of these will work for you in your butterfly garden, or stimulate some ideas that you might pursue.
We currently have an assortment of butterfly bushes planted, and all are favorites of the butterflies as well as hummingbirds. Butterfly bushes (Buddleia davidii) usually bloom from mid-July through frost, producing long 4-5 inch flower spikes which look and smell like miniature lilacs.
Purple Butterfly Bush with Painted Lady
Buddleias produce a honey-scented fragrance that lures butterflies to its blooms, and then once there, they find the flowers super-rich in nectar.
We utilize both full-size and dwarf varieties, in white, purple and reddish colors. Full-size species can grow large in just one season in a mild climate, perhaps 6 feet high and 6 feet in diameter.
Make sure they are planted in well-drained soil, and resist the temptation to overwater them.
The major drawback to butterfly bushes is that they never drop their dead blooms. We cut the dead blooms periodically, and also trim the bushes in areas where space is a limitation. They are often frost proof to about 25 degrees; below that, they will freeze to the ground, and in milder climates spout and grow from their base the following spring.
Some favorite varieties of butterfly bush include Adonis Blue, Purple Emperor, Pink Delight, White Profusion, Nanho Purple, Black Knight and many others.
|Pink Butterfly Bush
||Common Buckeye on Butterfly Bush
We love lantana, as evidenced by the fact that we have over 45 plants growing now, consisting of several varieties, from yellow to white to red to orange.
Lantana is super heat tolerant, and are typically pest and disease free. It does best in a minimum of 6 hours of direct sun a day.
Lantanas are perennials in warmer climates, and will flower in full sun or light shade, preferably in well-drained soil. As semi-desert natives, they bloom best when not overfed or over watered. Lantanas are frost proof to about 25 degrees; when they do freeze, in milder climates they will spout from their base in the spring.
||Lantana ... and One Ant!
|Sulphur on Lantana
Milkweed is a critical food plant for Monarch larval (caterpillar) stages, which feed almost exclusively on several different species of milkweed (Asclepias).
A commonly grown variety is Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias currassavica), an introduced species of the subtropics that has naturalized throughout North America. The bright orange and yellow flowers are concentrated in compact clusters at the top of branching stems. Tropical Milkweed prefers full sun to partial shade and is not extremely sensitive about soil types. It can be cut back and will resprout rather quickly.
We often see milkweed loaded with aphids, those yellowish tiny, sap-sucking insects that crowd toward the tops of milkweed. Sometimes we wash them off with a water blast from the hose, but they usually return, and don't damage the plant.
|Monarch on Tropical Milkweed
In 2021, we are growing an additional variety of milkweed in our butterfly garden.
Showy Milkweed (Asclepais speciosais) is a tall, robust native herbaceous perennial with widespread rhizomes, with stems that grow from 1.5 to 5 ft tall. The gray-green leaves are covered in velvety hairs. It is native to the western United States.
Flowers are rose-purple, aging to yellow, and have the appearance of crowns. Its thick seed pods are 3 to 5 inches long, with each pod producing up to 240 blackish seeds.
Growing Milkweed at Home
Each spring we start growing new Tropical Milkweed plants from seeds harvested from the previous year. They spout consistently and grow quickly, and are ready for transplanting in about a month. And if the winter is mild, young plants will come up from the roots of frozen Milkweeds.
|Tropical Milkweed planted from seed
||Milkweed sprouting after winter
Zinnias are among the favorite flowers in our landscape. They are easy to grow from seed, provide all sorts of colors in the landscape, make perfect long-term cut flowers for inside .... and butterflies love them!
We grow California Giants from seed each year for those areas that are suited for these big 3-4 foot plants ... their blooms are spectacular, up to 4-5 inches in diameter! And we buy Dreamland Hybrid Zinnias seeds every year from Park Seed Company. These germinate quickly, and produce 2" blossoms on short, compact 12" plants ... ideal for spaces where we don't want height.
A large variety of butterflies enjoy our zinnias ... we have included several photos below.
|Budding California Giant Zinnia
||Painted Lady on Giant Zinnia
|Female Tiger Swallowtail
||Fiery Skipper on Zinnia
||Giant Swallowtail Couple
Verbena is a part of our home landscape every year, and the butterflies love it!
We use several different colors, including orange (shown below), red, purple and pink. They are fairly cold tolerate and most years return after winter.
||Tiger Swallowtail on Verbena
Dianthus is easy to grow, and comes in many colors and varieties, some sold colors like the red shown below, and mixed shades. They are also known as "pinks", and "Sweet William" due to their spicy fragrance. The plants are compact, typically 6"-12" in height.
Depending on location, Dianthus may be grown as a hardy annual, biennial or perennial. They can bloom all year, are fairly cold tolerant and come back quickly in the spring from last year's growth.
|Brilliant red Dianthus in the landscape
Pentas are a favorite of butterflies, and we make sure we plant various colors each spring: red, pinks and solid whites!
These star-shaped flowers feature five petals, and are sun lovers. Sometimes they are known as the “Egyptian Star Flower”.
|Gray Hairstreak on Pentas
Passion Flower Vine (Passiflora)
Gulf Fritillary caterpillar on Passion Vine
The Passion Flower is a perennial vine producing delicate 3-5" flowers, and a host to a number of butterfly species. They are typically light blue or lavender in color, and a great climber on fences or trellises.
There are nearly 500 varieties of Passiflora in the world, with a common variety being Passiflora incarnata, often called Maypop. Unfortunately, a couple of species (the tropical red-flowered and even some of blue-flowered) are actually toxic and deadly to caterpillars. So do your research before purchasing your passion vine!
The Passion flower species are revered by many for their extraordinarily intricate blooms, which have become symbols of the Passion of Christ's crucifixion. Its name orginates from Roman Catholic priests of the late 1500s when they realized the flower told the story of Christ's passion, suffering and death. The flower's five petals and five petallike sepals represented the 10 apostles who remained faithful to Jesus throughout the Passion. The circle of hairlike rays above the petals suggested the crown of thorns that Jesus wore on the day of His death.
The vines are a host for a number of butterflies, including the Gulf Fritillary, Variegated Fritillary, Julia and Zebra Longwing.
The native Passion Vine here in Texas is agressive, putting up shoots from underground roots several feet from the original vine. The vines will produce a hollow, green egg-shaped fruit that produces a loud popping noise when crushed, hence the common name of "Maypop".
|Purple Passion Vine
||Red Passion Flower (non-toxic variety)
|Native Texas Passion Vine Flowers
||The Maypop ... fruit of the Native Passion Vine
Salvia and Sage
||Black & Blue Salvia
|Hot Lips Salvia
We have grown hibiscus for years, actually decades! Their giant 6-8" blooms provide huge amounts of various summer color. Here in Upper East Texas, the winters are too harsh for their suvival, so we grow them more like an annual, replacing them with new plants each year.
|Yellow Hibiscus with Red Throat
||Delicate Pink Hibiscus
||Buckeye on Hydrangea
Pansies have been a favorite of ours for decades! We plant them in mid-October, they survive even brutal winters and snow, and last until May when the heat returns. They add valuable color to the landscape through drab, dark winter days, and provide joy as cut flowers inside!
|Happy Yellow Pansy
||Black Swallowtail on Pansies
||Skipper Enjoying Portulaca
|Pink Rose Bud in Morning Dew
||Yellow Rose Bud Waiting to Open
|Delicate Pink Roses
||Pair of Skippers on Roses
More Flowers in our Landscape!
||Azaleas & butterfly yard art!
|Dill ... with Swallowtail Eggs!
||Marigolds ... an American favorite
|A bright, frilly Tulip in Spring
||Easy to grow Periwinkles
A Few More Flowers That We Enjoy in our Home Gardens!
Learning from Public Butterfly Gardens
Another way to learn about gardening is to visit public butterfly gardens, parks and nurseries in your area.
Seeing what attracts butterflies at various gardens can help you plan and execute your butterfly garden. Be sure to read plant tags and identification markers for information about sun and shade requirements, soil, bloom times and other environmental needs of the plant.
Often docents or volunteers are available to give you their personal experiences and knowledge about various species that grow best in your local area.
View of the gardens at the Charlotte Rhoades Park Butterfly Garden in Southwest Harbor, Maine
Square-bud Primrose flowers and identification sign. Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
|All Passion Vines are not purple ... here is a beautiful red Passiflora at Butterfly World in Florida
Need gardening inspiration? Visit these beautiful gardens on our other website!