Monday, August 17, 2015

Designing and Planting Your Very Own Butterfly Garden: Part 2

The Plants

In my last post we discussed selecting a location for your butterfly garden, now it's time to choose the plants you wish to include in your landscaping.

I explained last week why I prefer natives over non-natives, and I have had great success using them in my wildlife gardens.

It's good to include not just flowering plants, but a selection of trees and shrubs in your design as well. Aim for creating as much diversity in your plant selection as possible. The more diverse your plant community is, the more stable and diverse the ecosystem will be.

Here are a few native plants I like to recommend for starting out...

(Remember, I live in middle Tennessee, so these may or may not work well depending on your location.):

These are plants that do best in full sun or partial sun (at least 6 hours of direct sunlight).

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

This is my go-to plant for butterfly gardens. It is usually easy to find, easy to grow, has a long blooming season, and attracts a wide variety of butterfly species. It also doubles as a good medicinal plant to have on hand for ourselves and our livestock. Also, in late summer there is no lovelier sight than bright yellow goldfinches perched on those purple blooms, eating the seeds. I consider this plant an all-around win-win-win. (Echinacea also doubles as a larval food plant for Silvery Checkerspot butterflies.)

Honestly, if you were to plant nothing else, you would have a successful butterfly garden. Supposedly deer resistant, but I've seen some eat it like candy.

Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata)

While there are multiple native phlox species that attract butterflies, this one is my favorite. Once again, it is usually easy to find in nurseries, and often comes in a dazzling array of colors. It has big, beautiful blooms that are usually fragrant and butterflies find them irresistible. It will also bloom throughout the growing season if you dead head it (trim off the spent blooms). Deer seem to love this one. 

Showy Tickseed (Coreopsis pulchra)

Again, there are many native Coreopsis species that would work well, but this one has become my favorite. It has lovely, lacy foliage and a spreading, bushy growth habit, making it attractive along rock walls and sidewalks. It's typically an annual, but self-seeds readily. You may have a difficult time finding it in local nurseries, however. Other good Coreopsis species are C. auriculata, C. major, C. pubescens. Not deer resistant.

Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)

This is a member of the mint family with lovely pale lavender, pink or white blooms. It is usually easy to find, (often in many colors) and butterflies of the skipper family especially love it. So do hummingbirds! (The variety you find most often at nurseries is Monarda didyma or Crimson Beebalm, which typically has red blooms. I've found that it doesn't do too well in my locale, but you may have better luck with it.) Sometimes susceptible to powdery mildew. Deer resistant.

(You can read more about Wild Bergamot at my Wednesday's Wildflower post, here.)

Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia sp.)

Another popular and easy-to-find plant, Rudbeckia is also a good one to include. The blooms aren't as attractive to butterflies as Echinacea, for instance, but it is a great attractant for other pollinators. It's hardy, drought-resistant, and compliments so many other great butterfly garden flowers, it would be a shame to leave it out. The foliage is also a larval host plant for Silvery Checkerspot butterflies. Not deer resistant.

Blazing Star (Liatris spicata)

This is another easy-to-find plant, sometimes even available at Wal Mart as rootstock. The blooms are gorgeous and attract all kinds of butterfly species. They only bloom once per season, but usually self-seed pretty well. Deer resistant.

Rose Verbena (Verbena canadensis)

Another common nursery plant (at least around here), it typically blooms all summer, comes in a wide variety of colors (although the straight species is probably more appealing to wildlife) and is highly drought resistant. It makes a lovely ground cover, and really likes to spread its legs, so give it plenty of space. Dead head it consistently and it will bloom all summer. This one also attracts a large variety of butterfly species, although it doesn't always come back year after year. Deer resistant.

Gulf Fritillary butterfly

Blue Star  (Amsonia tabernaemontana)

This is another species that isn't commonly seen but should be. It is a member of the dogbane family, which makes it unpalatable for just about everything. It has lovely ethereal blue, star-shaped flowers that Swallowtail butterflies love. The willow-like foliage is lustrous throughout the growing season, and turns yellow in the fall. Self-sows vigorously so be prepared to give away volunteers. Deer resistant. Seriously, they never touch it.

Mountain Mint (Pycanthemum sp.)

Next to Echinacea, this has become one of my absolute favorites. The pale green foliage fades to white at the tops, looking like little snow-capped mountains. It literally blooms right up until frost, attracting virtually every pollinator. Less aggressive than other native mints, but try not to pamper it too much. Also resists powdery mildew better than Monarda fistulosa. Deer resistant, usually.

(You can read more about Mountain Mint at my Wednesday's Wildflower post, here.)

Sunflowers (Helianthus sp.)
Helianthus atrorubens
We're all pretty familiar with the imported European varieties, but our native sunflowers are many! My favorites of the bunch are the Appalachian Sunflower (Helianthus atrorubens) and the Ashy Sunflower (Helianthus mollis). They double as a great food source for seed-eating birds, especially American Goldfinches. If you plant multiple species be aware that they can hybridize. Not deer resistant.

New England Asters (Symphyctrichum novae-angliae)

Virtually anything in the aster family will work great, but I especially like these. Lovely purple blooms and a long blooming time. Somewhat susceptible to powdery mildew. Not deer resistant.

Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis)

This makes a lovely plant in any flower garden, with its tall bloom spikes. While the flowers aren't attractive to butterflies (bumblebees love them!), the foliage attracts several species of butterfly, especially the Indigo Duskywing. You can find their larvae rolled up in the leaves. Usually available in a wide variety of colors. Makes a great feature plant or an attractive hedge. Deer resistant.

Dutchman's Pipevine (Aristolochia sp.)

This vine is the larval food plant of the Pipevine Swallowtail. It comes in two species in the Eastern US: A. tomentosa A. macrophylla. Pipevine was once a very popular as a porch screen, but you don't see it much anymore. It sports interesting pipe-shaped blooms in the spring, and the only thing that eats it are the Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillars.  Does great trained on an arbor or trellis, or let it climb a lattice to shade your porch. 

Passionvine (Passiflora incarnata)

This vine is a common weed in waste places and roadsides. While I wouldn't really recommend planting it in your flowerbeds because if its invasive tendencies, it is a great addition in an out-of-the-way location. The showy flowers are attractive to some species of butterfly and a host of other pollinators, the fruits are edible (and have medicinal properties), and the foliage is a larval food plant for Variegated Fritillary butterflies. A good place for Passiflora is growing on a fence or trailing along the ground at the edge of your yard. Not deer resistant, but it re-grows quickly. 

Butterfly Weed (Asclepius tuberosa)

What butterfly garden would be complete without Butterfly Weed? It prefers drier sites and no mulch, but once it forms its taproot it is virtually indestructible. Lovely blooms that every species of butterfly adores. Also doubles as a larval foodplant for Monarch butterflies. Deer resistant.

Common Milkweed (Asclepius syriaca)

This isn't usually a plant we consider when planting a garden, since it is a pretty common "weed" in most areas. I think the blooms rival just about anything you could find at a nursery, and the fragrance is heavenly! Butterflies and pollinators of all kinds can't get enough of the nectar, and it is an all-around hardy plant. It is difficult to grow from seed, so potted plants or root stock are a good place to start.

There are also more species besides the Common variety: Green Milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora), Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Purple Milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), White Milkweed (Asclepias variegata), Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and more! All would make great additions to your butterfly garden. Deer resistant.

(You can read more about Common Milkweed on my Wednesday Wildflower blog post, here.) 

Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)

This is a gorgeous native honeysuckle species that is usually pretty easy to find. It isn't nearly as aggressive as its Asian counterpart, and can be easily trained over a mailbox, trellis, fencepost or even your front porch. Long-tongued butterflies like the swallowtails can be seen nectaring on it, and it is especially appealing to hummingbirds. It produces attractive red berries after blooming, which provide food for birds. It is also a larval food plant for the Snowberry Clearwing, a type of Sphinx moth.


Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)

This shrub prefers moist sites at forest edges, and is commonly found growing along rivers and streams. It will quickly colonize a moist area, but is easily contained by pruning it back and pulling up suckers. Lovely white blooms in the spring, and scarlet foliage in the fall.


This genus contains numerous species that are great to include in your native plant gardens. Not only do their blooms attract butterflies, but their fruit are enjoyed by a variety of wildlife species, birds especially. The plant pictured is Viburnum nudum "Brandywine," and has a compact growth habit, glossy foliage and two-tone fruit.

American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)

This is the native Beautyberry, unlike the Japanese variety most commonly found at nurseries. The subtle pink blooms provide nectar, and then give way to showy clusters of shiny, purple fruit that birds enjoy in the fall. An easy keeper that looks best when pruned yearly.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
This shrub is the food plant for the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly, and is an understory denizen commonly found in eastern North America. It has lovely, fragrant foliage that smells of allspice, tiny yellowish-green flowers in early spring, and bright red berries in Autumn.

The foliage also turns a lovely yellow in the fall. While it is typically found in shaded areas, I have seen magnificent specimens thriving in full sun. Look for leaf edges folded over with silk, and inside you will find the Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar.

Wafer Ash (Ptelea trifoliata)

This small tree is a larval host plant for the Giant Swallowtail butterfly. It has glossy foliage arranged in leaves of three, and reaches 15-30 feet high. Inconspicuous greenish blooms appear in the Spring, attractive to pollinators.

The decorative, wafer-like seeds are retained through the winter, and the foliage turns yellow in the fall. It is adaptable to a wide range of growing conditions. I would plant several because Giant Swallowtail larvae can be aggressive and defoliate a single tree pretty quickly.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
Missouri Botanical Garden
This is a shrub I have yet to include in my plantings, but it is certainly on my want list! Buttonbush is a shrub of riparian zones, usually found along the banks of ponds, streams and lakes, wherever the soil is wet (it is great for controlling erosion!) Despite its love of wet feet, it does well in moderately moist soils as well. It grows from 5 to 12 feet tall, with a spread of 4 to 8 feet. It is a little coarse and scrubby in its growth habit, but a show-stopper when it blooms!

The showy, white blooms are fragrant and very unique in their appearance; resembling a pin cushion. These flowers are irresistible to butterflies and other pollinators. I think Buttonbush should be more popular than it is. It is also a great choice for a rain garden.

Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)
This native cherry is a great addition to your yard, if you have room for it. A mature Black Cherry tree can reach 80 feet tall and spread 60 feet wide, so it definitely needs some space. The panicles of white flowers are showy and fragrant, and the juicy drupes are an important food source for all kinds of wildlife. They are even edible to humans (albiet a little bitter)! Prunus is the larval food plant for the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, as well as several species of moth. NOTE: It's best to plant Black Cherries away from your house and vehicles, as the fruit stains and can make quite a mess. 

Missouri State University

Common Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis)

Hackberry is a common deciduous tree in the Central and Northeastern US, and species in its genus can be found all throughout the country. It grows into a rather large tree: up to 60 feet tall and spreading just as wide. Hackberry usually prefers rich, moist soil, but is highly adaptable. Besides all of the other benefits large trees provide for your yard, Celtis species are a host plant for many species of butterfly, including Hackberry & Tawny Emperors, American Snouts and Question Marks. The hard berries provide food for all kinds of wildlife, and are edible for humans as well.

Paw Paw (Asimina triloba)

This Southern native is the larval host plant for the Zebra Swallowtail butterfly. It is an understory tree, usually staying under 30 feet in height. It has a unique, tropical appearance (indeed, the rest of the trees in this genus are found in tropical regions). It has waxy, maroon colored, bell-shaped blossoms in the spring, and large, glossy leaves. While it does well in average to moist soil, it is also a great choice for a rain garden. The oblong fruits that appear in late summer are edible, and are great baked into bread or pies (if you can beat the wildlife to them!).

What if you only have shade to work with?

Not to worry! There are both nectar and larval food plants that work really well for shady areas!

Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

Bluebells bloom in early spring, and provide a good source of nectar for a variety of pollinators. They do best in a shady area, and will slowly colonize that spot. The foliage dies back in late spring, so they are a good choice for cramped quarters.

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

This gorgeous member of the lobelia family blooms in late summer, and seeing those scarlet flower stalks all up and down the river is quite a sight! While they are typically found in moist - wet areas, mine has done quite well in a shady spot next to my house that isn't particularly moist. Butterflies and hummingbirds alike go crazy over this beauty

Alumroot (Heuchera americana)

Because it is sold so much in nurseries, many people don't realize that Heuchera is indeed a native plant. It makes a great ground cover for shady flower beds, and usually comes in a dazzling array of colors and patterns. The tiny flowers won't win any beauty contests (they look great in arrangements!), but hummingbirds and the occasional butterfly love them!

Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata

You will find this flower blooming all up and down the wooded creek banks in the spring, usually along side Purple Phacelia and Miami Mist. The fragrant blue blooms are a great lure for butterflies. It is an easy keeper, and usually colonizes quite readily.

Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea)

This member of the parsley family provides a source of food for Black Swallowtail larvae. It has lovely yellow flowers in the spring, and colonize shaded - partly shaded areas rather quickly, so make sure you give it plenty of space. Makes an excellent ground cover. Not deer resistant.

There are many, many more plants to choose from, but hopefully this list gives you an idea of where to start.

Another note about selecting larval food plants: a good place to start is to check which species are found in your region. This link will give you your regional checklist, right down to the county you live in.

For more information on selecting native plants for your butterfly garden, be sure to check out your local chapter of the North American Butterfly Association or see if you can locate a native plant nursery near you.

In my next post, we will discuss designing your layout. See you then!


  1. Just wanted to let you know that your post will be featured at this week's blog hop at My Flagstaff Home. Be sure to stop by on Thursday!


  2. What an awesome post! This post was chosen as the featured post this week at Green Thumb Thursday. Stop by and grab a featured badge for your blog!

    Thanks for linking up! I hope to see you again this week.