Butterfly Gardens


Provided by:
University of Illinois Extension
Cook County District 1
5527 Miller Circle Drive, Suite A
Matteson, IL 60443
Phone: 708-720-7500 Fax: 708-720-7509


Butterfly Gardening

James C. Schmidt, Horticulturist

University of Illinois


There is no more delightful decoration for a garden than nature’s own– butterflies. On warm sunny days, these visitors provide color and motion that doubles the pleasure of gardening. Fortunately, it takes very little effort to make your yard more attractive to butterflies.


Butterflies will visit and probably stay to lay eggs, wherever there is a variety of a plant for food and shelter, some moisture, and absence of pesticides. While there are typically more species in warm climates than in cooler ones, there are

butterflies everywhere in the country. Their appearance in your back yard ultimately depends on whether their favorite plants are growing there – certain ones to support the larvae, others to support adult butterflies.


Garden Design Tips


  Provide sun, a place for resting, and protection from the wind. Because they are cold-blooded, butterflies are usually not active on cool or cloudy days. As they need to warm up the muscles used in flying, butterflies do best in warm sunny locations. Rocks and logs, which will heat up in the sun, give butterflies places to bask and warm up for earlier take-offs.


  Allow for water. Male adult butterflies require extra sodium for mating and may often be seen at the edges of puddles lapping up the salts left behind for evaporation. This behavior is called puddling. Create artificial puddles in the garden to support male butterflies. Fill shallow pans or plastic saucers with large stones and water. Place large, flat stones in the garden for basking.

 Provide a place for roosting. Add a butterfly shelter mounted to a tree or a stake about 18 inches high in an area among the nectar plants. Butterflies naturally roost in shrubs, tree crevices, under bark or in log piles.


 Choose lots of kinds of plants -- herbs, annuals, perennials. Choose those with flat-topped or short tubular flowers. Use hot colors -- oranges, reds, yellows.


Plan for continuous bloom the entire season. Choose from among annuals and perennials that flower all season.


 Use large masses of plants -- butterflies are attracted to color, not individual plants.


Provide Food for Larvae


Caterpillars eat leaves and sometimes flowers and seeds of certain plants. They are often picky eaters and may only feed on a specific plant or group of plants.




Snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus)



Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Monarch, Queen


Red Cabbage (Brassica oleracea capitata)

Cabbage White, Checkered White

Sweet Pea (Lathyrus odoratus)

Eastern Tailed Blue


Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)

European Cabbage White


Rue (Ruta graveolens)

Eastern Black Swallowtail

Pipevine (Arstolochia tomentosa)

Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor)

Carrots, parsley (Petroselinum crispum), dill (Anethum graveolens)

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes asterius)

Prickly ash (Zanthoxylum americanum)

Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes)




Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), sassafras

Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus)

Wild cherry, birch, ash (Papilia glaucus) poplar, apple, tulip tree

Tiger Swallowtail

Pawpaw(Asimina triloba)

Zebra Swallowtail (Papilio marcellus)

Milkweeds (Asclepias)

Monarch (Danaus plexippus)


Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele)

Thistles, bachelor's buttons

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardut)

Pussy willow, plums, cherries

Viceroy (Limenitis archippus)

Other larvae food sources include dock, elm, hackberry, thistle.


Provide Nectar for Adults


Adult butterflies feed primarily on the nectar of flowers and will feed from a variety of available flowers. While they are attracted by both color and scent, butterflies have difficulty picking out individual flowers, so large masses are best for attracting them. Some suggested plants are:




Ageratum (Ageratum houstonianum)

Sunny Cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus)

Globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa)

Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)

Heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens)

Lantana (Lantana camara)

Melampodium (Melampodium paludosum)

Flowering Tobacco (Nicotiana alata)

Egyptian Star Cluster (Penta lanceolata)

Petunia (Petunia x hybrida)

Blue Salvia (Salvia farinacea)

Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia)

Brazilian verbena (Verbena bonariensis)

Zinnia (Zinnia elegans)




Common yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae)

Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii)

Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum)

Blanket Flower (Gaillardiax grandiflora)

Autumn Joy Sedum (Hylotelephiumx ‘Autumn Joy’)

Blazing Star (Liatris spicata)

Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) also M. fistulosa

Goldenrod (Solidagohybrids)


Trees and Shrubs


Hawthorn (Crataegussp.)

Privet (Ligustrum amurense)

Fruit trees (Prunus, Pyrussp.)

Lilac (Syringaspp.)




Blazing Stars (Liatris)

Black-Eyed Susan

Boneset (Eupatorium)


Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)


Goat's beard



Ironweed (Veronia)

Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium)



New England Aster




Wild Bergamot (Monarda)


Remember that butterflies are attracted to the flowers. Look for plants that bloom in the late spring and summer. That may be difficult for most trees and shrubs but there are some forms that bloom later. Check with a nurseryman.


Sources for More Information


Pyle, Robert M. 1981 The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies.

Sixth printing 1992. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 928 pp.


Stokes, Donald and Lilian. 1991. The Butterfly Book. An Easy Guide to Butterfly Gardening. Little, Brown and Co. Boston. 96 pp.


Butterfly Gardening: Creating Summer Magic in Your Garden. 1990. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco. 192 pp.


Klots, Alexander. Peterson Field Guide Eastern Butterflies. 1979