Plan an Easy Butterfly Garden

By Elizabeth Wilkinson, NTMN Class of 2018

Attracting butterflies to your garden can be a delightful experience.  In the summer, watch as huge yellow tiger swallowtails flutter over a stand of phlox.  Look closely to see a striped caterpillar enjoying a meal of parsley, getting ready for the transformation into a butterfly. With careful planning, a small plot around the mailbox, or along a walkway, or even an entire backyard can be filled with these lovely insects.

Queen butterfly on Gregg's Mistflower

Queen butterfly on Gregg’s Mistflower. Photo by Robert Buechel

In turn, a butterfly garden can help ensure the survival of one of the important pollinators of native plants.  As butterflies lose their habitats to human development, a small garden filled with nectar and host plants can help fill the gap. 

When choosing a spot for your butterfly garden, ideally plant in a sunny, open area with plenty of room for them to sail and glide. In the sun, plants produce much more nectar to attract butterflies, and butterflies bask in the heat, warming the muscles needed for their legs and wings.  A border of dense shrubs gives butterflies a safe place to rest, sleep and escape predators.

Prepare your bed by removing existing plants, incorporating 3” of compost into the top 8” of soil.  Mound the soil higher in the center for good drainage.  Adding 3” of expanded shale will keep the clay soil loose and friable.  After planting, add at least 3” of mulch to retain moisture, moderate soil temps and prevent weeds.  Water efficiently around the root zone with soaker hoses, drip irrigation and hand-watering. Sufficient water is essential.  If plants wilt, they immediately stop producing nectar.  Never use pesticides.

Shape, color and fragrance of flowers

Adult butterflies have two things on their minds: finding nectar and finding love.  Flowers have adapted in many ways to attract butterflies to nectar.  Butterflies need an easy place to land and feed.  Composites, florets arranged in dense heads such as zinnias and asters, are designed so butterflies can perch on the flower’s rays while feeding on the nectar-filled center.

Flowers often provide a colored road map for butterflies and other pollinators to find nectar. As seen in morning glories, these guides might be a ring of lighter or darker color at the base of the petals.  Nectar “maps” can also be patterns of dots, splashes or patches of contrasting colors that we can see, or in other cases, ultra-violet patterns only visible to butterflies.

Butterflies are drawn to purple, pink, yellow and white flowers.  While they will visit red and orange blossoms, greenish-blue blossoms seem to have little appeal.  

An aromatic garden is irresistible to butterflies, and some blossoms have even developed a fragrance trail or guide with a special scent leading to their nectar.  Scented flowers you might try in your garden include butterfly milkweed, Texas lantana, scarlet beebalm, black-eyed Susan and purple coneflower. 

Nectar Plants and Host Plants

The most common North Texas butterflies are black and tiger swallowtails, gulf fritillaries, monarchs and queens, red admirals, sulphurs, skippers and hairstreaks.  A butterfly garden must have both nectar and host plants. Nectar plants provide food for adult butterflies, and hosts are plants on which caterpillars feed. Adult butterflies view nectar plants like a 1980s salad bar—full of delectable and irresistible options.  Female butterflies are the picky insects of the garden, using their feet to “taste” leaves as they look for specific plants for their eggs. 

Choose a succession of nectar plants that bloom from spring through fall. Easy spring nectar plants include prairie verbena, penstemon, and mealy blue sage. Summer choices are Texas lantana, black-eyed Susan, purple coneflower, butterfly bush, pincushion flower, globe amaranth, Mexican sunflower, pentas, abelia, zinnias, phlox and cosmos.   For fall, consider planting Gregg’s mistflower, shrubby boneset, frostweed and asters.

For caterpillar host plants, look to dill, parsley, milkweed (aim for the native varieties), fennel, passionflower, rue, ruellia, Texas kidneywood, frogfruit, flame acanthus and grasses like inland sea oats (shade) and little bluestem.  Plant nectar and host plants in masses.

Some butterflies are more attracted to shallow plates of overripe fruit placed at the edge of a flower garden.  Add a little honey, molasses, beer or even rum to lure mourning cloaks, question marks, and buckeyes.


Butterfly Gardening for Texas by Geyata Ajilvsgi. Texas A&M University Press. 2013

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