September 10, 2014

Gardening for Butterflies

My children and I have really enjoyed watching the butterflies in our backyard this summer.  Above is a fritillary, which was the most common visitor after the cabbage whites.  After buying a book on butterflies (Kaufman's Field Guide to Butteflies of North America), I learned that fritillary caterpillars eat violets.  I checked the clumps of 'Queen Charlotte' violets growing at one corner of the house and sure enough, they were chewed to pieces, which was perfectly alright.  I'm planning to spread the violets around even more so we can attract more of these beauties next summer.
Please forgive my poor photos - it's really hard to get good photos of moving creatures without scaring them away, so I ended up cropping a lot.  And of course butterflies prefer to fly in midday when the light is awful.  Maybe someday I'll get a better macro lens.  We have also seen plenty of skippers, a large black and white unknown butterfly, a swallowtail, and a quick glimpse of what looked like a Monarch. 

I have been researching how to attract more butterflies to our garden.  The adults really do love the butterfly bushes, like 'Buzz Purple' above.  'Miss Molly,' below, is another favorite.  They seem less excited about the 'Blue Chip' butterfly bushes, which have a differently shaped flower, though some flutters land there.  'Walker's Low' catmint, 'May Night' and 'Caradonna' salvia, Russian sage (Peroskvia) and 'Rozanne' geraniums also attract a lot of butterflies.  I plan to add a few Liatris and try seeding Verbena bonariensis again (though I've tried and failed with that plant before).  In spring I have seen whites on my Chionodoxa bulb flowers.  But what I've been especially researching is the larval plant foods of the various butterflies that live in our area.

I was pleased to find that I already have many types of larval foods in my garden.  I knew that Swallowtails liked parsley, so I've been using that as an edging plant along the path.  I will also plant fennel for them next year.  Some swallowtail larvae eat willow and buckthorn, so they can have at my dwarf Arctic willow and 'Fine Line' buckthorns.  Some comma, mourning cloak, admiral, hairstreak and duskywing larvae also eat willows.  Swallowtails also eat aspens, which are planted in my neighbor's yard right along the fence.  Neighboring yards also have birch for commas and mourning cloaks.  Crescents like asters, of which I have a few, and checkerspots eat snowberry like my 'Vivid Pearl' snowberry bush.  Skipper larvae eat grasses, and though I don't plant ornamental grasses because they give me a rash and we probably keep our lawn too short for caterpillars, we have seen the adults regularly on the butterfly bushes.

The photo above shows popular butterfly foods like 'Walker's Low' catmint and 'May Night' salvia (for adults), plus a 'Fine Line' buckthorn for swallowtail larvae.  Other larval foods already in my garden include wisteria, Baptisia and other legumes for skippers, duskywings, sulphurs, hairstreaks and blues.  Copper larvae eat blueberry bushes, of which I have three.

My daughter grew a cabbage for a school project this summer, which provided food for many cabbage white butterfly larvae.  We're not big fans of eating cabbage, but I'll find space for one each summer so we can attract the cute little whites.  Also on my 'To Plant' list is Malva fastigiata, which is in the mallow family so hopefully will provide food for hairstreak, painted lady and west coast lady larvae.  I've had milkweed seeds (Asclepias incarnata 'Milkmaid') for Monarch larvae for over a year but have hesitated to plant them because they can be invasive.  I'm going to go for it next year and get them in the ground.  I've found a few places to squeeze in some 'Morello Cherry' and 'Noble Maiden' lupines for duskywing and blue larvae, as well as a 'Ritro' Echinops (ornamental thistle) for crescent, painted lady and west coast lady larvae.  I'm hesitating over planting nettles for satyrs, though.  Ouch! 
I'm also thinking of how I can make a permanent muddy puddle (not too large, dear hubby, in case you read this), since many flutters love mud.  Of course we won't attract all of these types to our garden, but with all of these foods available I hope that we will see more over the years.  Watching butterflies on a summer afternoon is one of life's sweet and simple pleasures.


  1. The garden looks beautiful with all that purple! In my last garden I used to get tons of butterflies, with all the larval food and nectar plants around. In my new garden I haven't gotten that many butterflies yet, though we have seen a few fritillaries thanks to all the wild violets. I, too, am on a mission to get some more plants for the wildlife!

  2. Hi VW,

    You may find that the butterflies will go to different plants from year to year - at least that's what I've experienced so they can be difficult to predict what they will be attracted to sometimes. Also, although clearly I can't be sure of US flutters, but Asters will definitely be a big hit with those on the wing late into the season and of course will be a valuable source of nectar on sunny autumn days for all insects.


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