Native plants for butterfly gardens

By on February 22, 2014

Butterfly gardens seem to be gaining popularity. It’s fun to watch the butterflies in a garden. Children naturally love butterflies and enjoy learning about their life cycle.

Monarchs on mistflower. Photo by Kathy Milenki

Monarchs on mistflower.
Photo by Kathy Milenki

Landscaping with certain native plants is a good way to attract butterflies to your yard. Birds and butterflies are naturally more attracted to native plants than to most exotic plants, because over thousands of years our local insects and birds have evolved to depend on indigenous plants for their food and shelter.

Native perennials that never fail to attract flocks of butterflies during the summer and fall are blue mist-flower (Conoclinium coelestinum) and Gregg’s mistflower (C. greggii). Both grow in sun or light shade. Provide a little water and they will spread easily.

A related plant is Ageratina havanensis  or white mistflower. Even when not blooming, it makes an attractive shrub with cascading branches of small shiny leaves. In the fall this plant is covered with clusters of small white flowers. The fragrance seems to attract every butterfly and bee within miles.

Native white honeysuckle  Photo by Bill Lindemann

Native white honeysuckle
Photo by Bill Lindemann

Other shrubs which provide nectar for butterflies are purple coneflower (Echinacea sp), agarita (Berberis trifoliolata), cenizo (Leucophylum frutescens), flame acanthus (Anisacanthus quadrifidis), kidneywood (Eysenhardtia texana), pink mimosa (Mimosa borealis), lantana (Lantana urticoides) and salvias (Salvia sp). All of these are particularly drought tolerant.

Some native vines for attracting butterflies are coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), white honeysuckle (L. albiflora), crossvine (Bignonia capreolata), and passion flower (Passiflora sp.).

A complete butterfly garden will provide not only nectar for the adult butterflies, but also host plants for the caterpillars.

Kidneywood. Photo by Bill Lindemann

Kidneywood. Photo by Bill Lindemann

Just about everyone is familiar with the Monarch and how it lays its eggs on our native milkweeds such as antelope-horns milkweed (Asclepias asperula). Unfortunately, the number of monarchs returning from Mexico is at an all-time low. The Queen butterfly also lays its eggs on milkweed. Antelope-horn milkweed is difficult to find in nurseries. However, the long-blooming orange milkweed or butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is easier to find.

Plant your garden in a warm, sunny area. Butterflies are cold-blooded and use their wings as heat collectors to warm their bodies. Provide flat rocks for them to rest on, and a shallow water source such as a pie pan filled with gravel and water. A wall or fence nearby will help protect the butterflies from wind. Also good is a thick hedge nearby for nighttime shelter.

Pesticides and chemicals have no place in the butterfly garden, as they are deadly to the caterpillars and butterflies. They may keep away unwanted insects, but keep butterflies away as well!

Most of the native plants mentioned are readily available at nurseries. Another good source is the native plant sales sponsored by many of our local chapters during the spring.