How to Attract Butterflies to Your Garden
Monarchs, swallowtails and many other winged beauties call Midwest gardens home. To make your yard more inviting, you'll need both plants that provide nectar to adult butterflies as well as those that offer food for caterpillars. Bonus: By establishing a butterfly garden, you'll help attract native bees and hummingbirds as well since many pollinators like the same plants. Here's what you need to know.
How to Create a Nectar Garden
Choose a Sunny, Protected Spot
Butterflies are cold-blooded so they need lots of sunshine to keep warm. Luckily, the flowers they dine on love the sun as much as they do. Plant your butterfly magnets in a spot protected from the wind that gets at least six hours of sun a day.
Place at least a few rocks for perches; butterflies rest in the sun and warm their wings for flight.
Don't Use Pesticides
Pesticides can't distinguish between butterflies and pests.
Consider Drinking Sources
Butterflies like to drink water and get minerals from puddles. Add a shallow dish of water, or combine wet sand and water in a dish so butterflies can get salt and nutrients not found in nectar.
Serve a Buffet
Whether you fill a couple of pots or a whole bed, big clumps of color are what attract butterflies. Plant groups of five or more of a variety rather than a single plant. Butterflies have different length proboscises (tongues) that determine which flowers they can feed from. So to attract many kinds of fluttering friends, you'll want a variety of flowers. And, you'll want a mix of annuals and perennials that bloom at different times, so you have food throughout butterfly season.
The Best Native Plants for Butterflies, Insects and Birds
Easy-care native plants have co-evolved with butterflies and will attract both beneficial insects and birds. Here are some of our top choices for the Midwest:
Orange butterfly milkweed
Juicy reddish-orange blossoms erupt in early summer, and foliage lasts through fall. Milkweed is essential to the monarch—it's the only place they will lay eggs. Zebra swallowtails are partial to it, too. The plant also attracts hummingbirds.
Striking purple, orange or pink petals decorate these daisylike prairie plants. Expect blooms all summer. Purple coneflower and orange coneflower are especially showy picks. Hummingbirds and butterflies feed on its nectar; goldfinches flock to its seeds.
This tall woodland plant offers clusters of pink or purple flowers from July to September. Adult butterflies love its nectar. It also draws bees and seed-eating birds, such as goldfinches and mourning doves.
Unique spidery dark pink, red or purple blossoms command attention summer to fall. A small black bee serves as a specialist pollinator. Butterflies and hummingbirds adore bee balm, too.
Shaped like a fountain, this prairie grass delights from summer to winter. Expect soft blue-green foliage in the summer, followed by golden or spicy red tones in the fall and faded colors in the winter. Grasses, a natural choice for Midwest prairie landscapes, attract many butterflies, and skippers lay their eggs on native grasses.
This late-summer to late-fall bloomer exudes cheer with its mustard yellow flowers. Try well-behaved stiff goldenrod or Ohio goldenrod. Goldenrod attracts bees and at least 18 butterfly species, such as the painted lady and giant swallowtail. Native sparrows and goldfinches devour the plant's seeds.
Fall blooms are especially important because they provide nectar when many gardens are running low on flowers. Asters bloom from late summer to fall and come in a variety of colors, including blue, purple, and pink. Asters attract a variety of butterflies, including monarchs and painted ladies.
Related: 12 Top Midwest Perennial Flowers
The Best Plants for Caterpillars
The ideal butterfly habitat has not only nectar for adults, but food for caterpillars, too. Unlike adult butterflies, caterpillars tend to be picky eaters, so indulge their needs by growing plants they love. Don't worry about the damage to plants hungry caterpillars cause, just hide it behind taller plants, such as Joe-Pye weed, where adults will sip. (And many butterfly caterpillars don't cause much damage.)
Plants that should attract and satisfy the caterpillars of some of our Midwest varieties: Dill, parsley (pictured above), black swallowtail; hops, commas; milkweed, monarch; pawpaw, zebra swallowtail; snapdragon, common buckeye; violets, great spangled fritillary; wild senna, cloudless sulfur; willow, mourning cloak, viceroy; wormwood, American Lady.
As caterpillars develop, keep an eye out for butterflies-to-be. Chrysalides hide on outdoor structures, pots and chairs; try not to disturb them.
Keep Your Garden Growing
Need more plant ideas? Adult butterflies like plants that have red, yellow, orange, pink and purple blossoms. Think about adding anise hyssop, blanket flower, coreopsis, downy woodmint, ironweed or bearded tongue foxglove to your garden. Ask about butterfly plants at your local garden center or check into native plant recommendations from The National Wildlife Federation.