When I became a certified Green Spring Master Gardener eight years ago, I learned many things about horticulture and eco-savvy gardening. The personal revelations were eye-opening. The first was that I didn’t know as much about gardening as I thought, and the second was that if I wanted to attract and keep butterflies in my garden, I had to change my plantings.
I always had butterflies in my garden, but they never stayed long enough to make my garden their home. They liked the flowering plants, but my garden wasn’t their sanctuary. I set out to change this. My goal was to attract a variety of butterflies while providing a place where they could grow and multiply. Most flowering plants will attract them but not keep them around. All flowers are not equal in their compound eyes. Butterflies want plants that produce nectar to feed on, but also plants that will allow them to lay eggs and feed caterpillars.
Alonso Abugatto, co-founder of the Washington Area Butterfly Club, says that the butterflies’ favorite flower colors include purple, yellow, white and blue. Red is not usually visible to many species of butterflies. They also prefer fragrant flowers. Their favorite is milkweed of all types. Milkweed is the only host plant for the monarch larvae. Butterflies also like native violets, asters and the native wisteria vine. Some non-native plants can have value, such as Queen Anne’s lace, parsley and dill, to name a few.
I plan my perennial planting and annual selections by observing what works in my garden. I choose plants that do double duty by providing both nectar and caterpillar food. It’s important to remember that different species of butterflies rely on different host plants to lay their eggs and they have their preferences for nectar sources. I recommend that you focus on a few butterfly species you especially want to attract and select host and nectar plants accordingly.
The wider range of nectar plants I plant, the more species I attract. I like structured gardens but butterflies like gardens that imitate the way plants grow in the wild and provide shelter. They also want sun, water and puddling stations. The Virginia Cooperative Extension office has a free and informative publication on creating inviting habitats for pollinators.
The North American Butterfly Association (NABA) also has a great deal of useful information. It’s a paid membership organization that promotes awareness of butterfly conservation and the benefits of butterfly gardening. They also offer a “Butterfly Garden Certification Program.” I proudly hang my certificate outside my garden gate, and it draws people of all ages inside to visit and talk about butterflies.
If you want to see butterflies in a habitat they love, visit Green Spring Gardens at 4603 Green Spring Road, Alexandria, Virginia. Pollinators of all kinds and people alike find their happy place at Green Spring Gardens.
To learn more about the Green Spring Extension Master Gardener Program, visit Green Spring Extension Master Gardeners.
Author Gioia Caiola Forman is a Green Spring Extension Master Gardener and Friends of Green Spring (FROGS) Board member.