ACES Publications

Author: Kerry Smith
PubID: ANR-1290
Title: Butterfly Gardens
Pages: 4     Balance: 0
ANR-1290 Butterfly Gardens

Butterfly Gardens

Butterflies have long fascinated humans. The ancient Egyptians, and later the Romans, believed they were symbols of the human soul. To make a wish come true, Native Americans suggested whispering it to a butterfly. They were messengers of the Great Spirit. Some native cultures of Mexico and the western United States believed butterflies were symbols of fertile ground. Today tourists flock to the Monterey peninsula and central Mexico's Transvolcanic Belt to see the monarch masses overwintering there.

To invite butterflies to your garden, you will first need to understand their life cycle. Butterflies have four stages of development: egg, caterpillar (or larva), chrysalis, and winged adult. Accommodate the needs of each stage for greatest success.

Adult butterflies lay eggs on host plants so the larvae will have the necessary food to mature. At the end of this larval stage, they need a sturdy, protected place to attach and form the chrysalis. Adults survive eating sweet flower nectar.

Accommodating Each Stage

Host Plants

Most butterfly caterpillars have specific food preferences. Monarchs, for example, only lay eggs on milkweed. Black swallowtails lay eggs on any member of the carrot family, such as parsley, fennel, and dill, but no other plants. Once a caterpillar eats its first plant meal, it cannot survive on any other plant. See the chart below of host plants for different butterfly species.


Suggested Larval Food Plants Adult Butterfly
Aster (Aster species) Pearly crescentspot
Cherry laurel, black cherry, wild plum
(Prunus species)
Tiger swallowtail
Clover (Trifolium species) and other legumes Sulfur and gray hairstreak
Dill, carrot, parsley, fennel, Queen Anne's lace
(Umbelliferae, parsley family)
Black swallowtail
Dogwood (Cornus species) and viburnum Spring azure
Elm (Ulmus species) and willow Morning cloak, viceroy, and question mark
Hackberry (Celtis species) Hackberry butterfly
Milkweed (Asclepias species) Monarch
Mustard family Cabbage and checkered white
Native grasses Various skippers
Oak (Quercus species) Banded hairstreak
Passion flower (Passiflora species) Gulf fritillary and zebra longwing
Paw paw (Asimina species) Zebra swallowtail
Pearly everlasting
(Antennaria, Anaphalis, and Gnaphalium)
American painted lady
Pipevine (Aristolochia species) Pipevine swallowtail
Plantain (Plantago species) and snapdragon Buckeye
Sassafrass (Sassafrass occidentalis) Palamedes swallowtail
Senna and coffeeweed (Cassia species) Cloudless giant sulfur
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) Spicebush swallowtail
Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) Red-spotted purple

Use a good reference book to identify which caterpillars become which butterflies. For example, by learning that parsley worms become black swallowtails, you will know not to kill those caterpillars. Plant extra host plants if you need any for your own use.


To avoid harming butterflies, which are insects, be careful when applying chemicals on or near plants. Spot treating pest insects with insecticidal soaps or oils leaves no chemical residue to harm caterpillars. You can handpick some pests, such as beetles. A regular, hard blast of water can remove other plant pests, such as aphids, that cause unplanned plant damage.

Another advantage of decreased garden chemical use is the presence of other garden helpers, which pesticides can kill. These are beneficial critters, such as spiders, lacewings, ladybugs, and ground beetles that eat the plant pests. There are also other pollinators, such as honey bees, that benefit from reduced chemical use.


Butterfly gardens should be in full sun. All insects are cold-blooded. Their body temperature is dependent on the environmental temperature. Enhance the suns warming energy with stepping stones or a gravel path. Butterfly adults will bask in these areas to warm themselves from the radiant heat. Your garden will also benefit, because most of the plants used by butterflies grow best in full sun.


Include a few blooming shrubs in your butterfly garden or have evergreens nearby for shelter. Butterflies will hide in these areas on cloudy days or at night and find protection from the rain and wind when needed. Your garden might even be located near the garage, gazebo, or garden shed. These permanent structures also give shelter and protection.

Chrysalids also benefit from these places. After a couple weeks (varies by butterfly species), the caterpillars seek something sturdy for chrysalid attachment. If the host plant is sturdy, such as fennel, they’ll likely just use a rigid, inner stem. However, not all host plants satisfy this need. If you plan accordingly, woody stems, benches, arbors, or other solid supports will be ornamented with various chrysalids by July.


Male butterfly adults need to puddle. They obtain water and minerals from the shallows of these wet places. To make a permanent puddle, bury a shallow pan of wet gravel or sand to its rim. Fill it with liquids, such as fruit drinks or plain tap water. You might even sprinkle it periodically with liquid fertilizer when boosting the garden plants. Some butterflies, such as the viceroy, like to drink from rotten fruit. Locate the compost pile nearby and allow rotting fruit to occasionally stay on top.


Flowers provide the nectar food adult butterflies need. Butterfly season in Alabama is early spring to late fall. Choose a variety of plants, including annuals, perennials, and woody shrubs, to have flowers continuously through the seasons. This plant diversity also attracts a greater variety of butterfly visitors. Many of our native butterflies more often visit purple, red, orange, and yellow flowers.

How many insects have you noticed flying in a straight line? Remember, butterflies are insects. Their compound eyes have poor vision for distinguishing tiny details. Large sweeps of each flower are most attractive to these near-sighted creatures.

Also, consider their mouth parts. Butterflies suck liquid food with a straw-like mouth. Tubular-shaped flowers are ideally suited. Butterflies prefer clusters of tubular or flat-topped flowers, but remember to have variety. Different species have different preferences for flower size. Compound flowers, such as verbena, daisies, and butterfly bushes, offer numerous nectar containers for sipping in a single stop.


Butterflies have a highly developed sense of smell in their antennae. They seek flowers with rich nectar. Surprisingly, some of our newer plant varieties have little sugary nectar due to the breeding and selection process for other plant traits. Choose open-pollinated, fragrant, flowering plants with a single petal row rather than double. Fragrance is sometimes a nectar signal that you can easily detect.

Keys to choosing flowers in your butterfly garden are long bloom time, a variety of plants, large areas of a single color, tubular-shaped and compound flowers, and rich nectar. See the chart below for recommended flowering plants.

Nectar Sources for Adult Butterflies
Plant Flower Color Bloom Period
Azalea variable spring
Buddleia variable summer to fall
Sumac white spring
Vaccinium spp. white, light pink spring to early summer
Viburnum white spring
Abelia white, lavender summer
Lantana variable summer (this plant may be invasive in south Alabama)
Plant Flower Color Bloom Period
Alyssum violet, white summer to fall
Candytuft white, pink spring to summer
Cosmos white, pink, red, yellow summer
Gaillardia yellow, orange summer to fall
Impatiens variable summer to fall
Marigold yellow, orange summer to fall
Scabiosa blue, rose, white summer to fall
Verbena variable summer to fall (some annual, some perennial)
Zinnia variable summer to fall
Pansy, viola, and pinnola variable fall to spring
Pentas pink, purple, white, red summer
Aster white, lavender, yellow summer to fall
Bee balm red, white, pink summer
Butterfly weed (milkweed) orange, pink, red, yellow summer
Salvias variable summer to fall
Catmint lavender summer
Phlox pink, lavender, white spring, summer to fall
Primrose variable spring
Purple coneflower purple, white midsummer
Sedum spectabile pink late summer
Boneset white, purple late summer
Black-eyed susan yellow summer
Blazing star purple summer
Dandelion yellow spring to fall
Goldenrod yellow late summer
Joe-Pye-Weed lavender late summer
Yarrow variable spring to early summer


Any time you are learning something new, it is best to have some references. For greater success in your butterfly garden, learn more about butterflies. Identify the adults and caterpillars, their food preferences, and where they live.

Brock, Jim P. and Kenn Kaufman. 2003. Butterflies of North America. Kaufman Focus Guides.

Glassberg, Jeffrey. 1999. Butterflies Through Binoculars: The East.

Potter-Springer, Wendy. 1990. "Grow a Butterfly Garden." Storey Country Wisdom Bulletin A-114.

Pyle, Robert Michael. 1981. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies.

Tekulsky, Mathew. 1986. The Butterfly Garden: Turning Your Garden, Window Box, or Backyard into a Beautiful Home for Butterflies.

Wagner, David L. 2005. Caterpillars of Eastern North America: A Guide to Identification and Natural History. Princeton Field Guides.

Wright, Amy Bartlett, and Roger Tory Peterson. 1998. Peterson First Guide to Caterpillars of North America.

ANR-1290, Reprinted February 2011.   Kerry Smith, Extension Home Horticulture Associate and Alabama Master Gardener Program Coordinator, Auburn University.

For more information, contact your county Extension office. Visit or look in your telephone directory under your county's name to find contact information.

Published by the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (Alabama A&M University and Auburn University), an equal opportunity educator and employer.

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