Saturday, June 09, 2012
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How to attract more butterflies to your yard

University of Illinois Extension, Illinois Department of Natural Resources and LDN

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[June 09, 2012]  Imagine your garden alive with color and life. Think of seeing a bright yellow swallowtail dancing over the blossoms or watching the transition of caterpillar to cocoon to butterfly. Whether you create a haven for butterflies and moths or just add a few flowers attractive to butterflies, you will add an enchanting new dimension to your yard.

Land development and the widespread use of insecticides and herbicides have endangered many butterflies as their habitats have been degraded or destroyed. Butterflies and moths are significant pollinators, important in the food chain, and are major indicators of environmental quality. A refuge for butterflies improves our world environmentally and aesthetically.

For the maximum number and variety of butterflies you should plant a "butterfly garden." If you don't have the space or inclination to dedicate an entire garden to butterflies, you can make your garden and yard butterfly-friendly by applying the same principles and adding some plants throughout your yard.

When planning butterfly gardens, remember the life cycle of the insects. It is not enough to only have nectar plants for the adults. The garden must also have food for hungry caterpillars. High-quality gardens provide a variety of food sources for both caterpillars and adults.

Caterpillar food plants are often common "weeds," so host plants aren't mandatory, especially if you live in a rural area, but if your garden contains at least a few caterpillar plants, the diversity and number of butterflies will increase. Adults lay eggs on plants that their offspring will eat. Many times these host plants are different from the nectar plants adults require. Caterpillars eat like a group of teenage boys, consuming anything in their path, so expect caterpillars to consume entire leaves of their host plant. Don't worry about the plant; enjoy watching the caterpillar's single-minded devotion to eating. (Remember, one of the cardinal rules of butterfly gardening is no pesticides.)

Eventually the very plump caterpillar spins a cocoon or chrysalis for its amazing transformation into an adult butterfly or moth. If you are lucky and observe carefully, you will be able to watch the new adult struggle out of its cocoon, expand and dry its wings, then take its first flight.

Flying requires tremendous amounts of energy that the butterfly gets from flower nectar. Butterflies prefer a varied diet and visit a number of different flowers.

So what should you plant? Generally if you keep in mind a few general principles on flower shape, color and fragrance, butterflies will come to your yard.

Because butterflies have a mouth similar to a drinking straw, they prefer easy access to nectar. They do not hover, so they also need a landing area on a plant with sturdy stems. A flat, circular center, with or without interior petals, is a perfect landing platform and dining area. Members of the composite or aster family are ideal. Examples are coneflowers, zinnias, marigolds, cosmos, black-eyed Susans and asters. Other good plants have clusters of small flowers, like butterfly weed, butterfly bush, alyssum, mint, verbena and phlox.

Most butterflies favor pink, lavender or purple blossoms, but some may visit other colors. For instance, swallowtails like reds and have been seen on yellow lantana.

Butterflies have a well-developed sense of smell and are attracted to heavily perfumed flowers. They will pass over lightly scented varieties in favor of the most fragrant. Heirloom and old-fashioned varieties tend to have a stronger scent. If you are interested in attracting moths, add sweet-smelling, night-blooming flowers like nicotiana.

Although a mix of flower types is good, large masses of one type are better than a bed with lots of varieties but only one or two plants of each type. For example, an entire bed of purple coneflowers will draw more butterflies than a single coneflower mixed in with other butterfly plants.

Butterfly gardens should have full sun and protection from strong winds. An ideal location is on the south or southeast side of a tall building or fence on a south-facing slope. You can also use tall shrubs to achieve a similar effect. Butterflies, like all insects, are cold-blooded and need to warm themselves in the sun before they are able to fly. A brick or stone pathway or a few dark-colored stones scattered in the garden are good butterfly warmers.

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The final thing you may wish to add is a small wet spot. A large rock with a depression that can be kept full of water is one option. Another is filling a small container with sand, sinking it into the ground and keeping the sand wet. In the wild, butterflies gather around these small wet sites, probably for salt.

[By BARBARA LARSON, University of Illinois Extension, unit educator, horticulture, Winnebago and Boone counties]


The Illinois Department of Natural Resources recommends the following as good choices for the home gardener:

Plants commonly used by various adult butterflies as nectar sources:

  • Black-eyed Susan

  • Blazing star

  • Boneset

  • Butterfly weed

  • Clover

  • Coneflower

  • Dogbane

  • Goat's beard

  • Goldenrod

  • Ironweed

  • Joe-pye weed

  • Milkweed

  • New England aster

  • Phlox

  • Spearmint

  • Thistle

  • Verbena

  • Wild bergamot

Plants commonly used as both nectar sources for adults and as food sources for larvae:

  • Goldenrod

  • Spicebush

  • Milkweed

  • Thistle

The Butterfly Site also offers extensive information on how to attract specific butterflies to your garden:

  1. Butterflies that live in Illinois:

  2. Nectar plants for the specific butterflies you would like to attract:

  3. Host plants that provide a site for the butterfly to lay eggs and that act as a food source for hungry caterpillars:

You will find more links to moth and butterfly pictures and other useful information at this Illinois Department of Natural Resources site:


Visit the 2012 Spring Home & Garden Magazine for these great articles:

  • A fresh coat of paint

  • Marrying technology and decorating

  • Lighting your interior

  • Creating a cool breeze

  • Weekend warrior takes on the bath

  • Manicuring the lawn

  • Happy trees

  • New outdoor blooms and foliage

  • Attracting butterflies to your yard

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