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Monarch butterfly

For success in your butterfly garden, learn about butterflies—identify the adults and caterpillars, their food preferences, and where they live.

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 the 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 table 1 for host plants for different butterfly species.

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.


Table 1. Suggested Food Plants for Larval Stage Butterflies

Plant SpeciesAdult Butterfly Species

Aster (Aster species)

Pearly crescentspot

Cherry laurel, black cherry, wild plum (Prunus species)

Tiger swallowtail

Clover (Trifolium species) and other legumesSulfur 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)


Mustard familyCabbage 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, andGnaphalium)

American painted lady

Pipevine (Aristolochia species)

Pipevine swallowtail

Plantain (Plantago species) and snapdragon


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



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 beneficial critters, such as spiders, lacewings, ladybugs, and ground beetles, eat the plant pests. Other pollinators, such as honey bees, also benefit from reduced chemical use.


Butterfly gardens should be in full sun. All insects are cold blooded. Their body temperature depends on the environmental temperature. Enhance the sun’s 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. 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 of 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 a 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 Alabama’s native butterflies 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 mouthparts. Butterflies suck liquid food with a strawlike 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 because of the breeding and selection process for other plant traits. Choose open-pollinated, fragrant, flowering plants with a single rather than a double petal row. Fragrance is sometimes a nectar signal that you can easily detect.

Keys to choosing flowers in your butterfly garden are a long bloom time, a variety of plants, large areas of a single color, tubular-shaped and compound flowers, and rich nectar. See table 2 for recommended flowering plants.


Table 2. Nectar Sources for Adult Butterflies

PlantFlower ColorBloom Period





variablesummer to fall



Vaccinium spp.

white, light pinkspring to early summer




white, lavendersummer


variablesummer (this plant may be invasive in south Alabama)



violet, whitesummer to fall


white, pinkspring to summer


white, pink, red, yellowsummer


yellow, orangesummer to fall


variablesummer to fall


yellow, orangesummer to fall


blue, rose, whitesummer to fall


variablesummer to fall (some annual, some perennial)


variablesummer to fall

Pansy, viola, pinnola

variablefall to spring


pink, purple, white, redsummer



white, lavender, yellowsummer to fall

Bee balm

red, white, pinksummer

Butterfly weed (milkweed)

orange, pink, red, yellowsummer


variablesummer to fall




pink, lavender, whitespring, summer to fall



Purple coneflower

purple, whitemidsummer

Sedum spectabile

pinklate summer


white, purplelate summer

Black-eyed susan


Blazing star



yellowspring to fall


yellowlate summer

Joe-Pye weed

lavenderlate summer


variablespring to early summer



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.


Download a PDF of Butterfly Gardens, ANR-1290.

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