Gardening for Butterflies

Butterflies and pollinators are fundamental to our ecosystem and way of life and just plain fun to see and observe. You can help support these colorful and important insects by selecting the plants they prefer.

If you want adult butterflies flying around your gardens, you need host plants in or around your yard that allow butterflies to complete their life cycles. Host plants, including annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees, are necessary for butterflies as nectar sources and as places to lay eggs and feed caterpillars. Different butterflies require a different host plants, and some have quite a short list of plants support butterfly larva (caterpillars).  Here is a short list of some notable host plants and the butterflies they attract:

Regal fritillary male butterfly. Photo by Nathan Brockman, Reiman Gardens, Iowa State University.

Trees

  • Willow: Mourning Cloak, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Viceroy
  • Oak: Red Spotted Purple
  • Birch: Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Mourning Cloak

Perennials

  • Violet: Regal Fritillary, Great Spangled Fritillary, Variegated Fritillary
  • Asters: Pearl Crescent
  • Zizia: Black Swallowtail

Annuals

  • Sunflowers: Painted Lady
  • Dill and Parsley: Black Swallowtail

For a larger list of butterfly and caterpillar host plants see the Reiman Gardens Butterfly/Pollinator Gardening.

A varied flower garden will attract all-important pollinators, and the best design is to have flowering plants throughout the growing season, as pollinators will consume nectar and pollen from flowers on trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals all season long. A goal should be to plant as many types of flowering plants with varied flower shapes to meet the needs of a range of pollinators.

Native perennial plants that are useful as nectar sources in the butterfly and pollnator garden include buttonbush, ninebark, gray dogwood, swamp milkweed, New England aster, and little blue stem.

For more detailed information, check out the Extension publication: Gardening for Butterflies and Pollinators.

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Links to this article are strongly encouraged, and this article may be republished without further permission if published as written and if credit is given to the author, Yard and Garden, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. If this article is to be used in any other manner, permission from the author is required. This article was originally published on March 12, 2021. The information contained within may not be the most current and accurate depending on when it is accessed.