Planning a Butterfly Garden

Canadian tger swallowtail on phlox. Canadian tger swallowtail on phlox. Photo by Bill Dean

It might not be spring quite yet, but we can certainly set our minds to planning our gardens for the coming year. Simone Hébert Allard, author of Manitoba Butterflies: A Field Guide shares some of her insights and advice on what to plant if you want to create an irresistable garden for our winged friends.


As February snowbanks grow ever higher around us, gardening may be the last thing on your mind. I know for a fact that gardeners are already flipping through catalogues and fingering seed packets in anticipation. Consider it a therapy of sorts to imagine aromatic blossoms bending in the hot summer breeze. And why not add butterflies to complete the picture? Have you ever considered growing plants that will attract butterflies? 

Choose a sunny spot in your yard that is protected from the wind, and you’re off!

Cabbage-White-on-May-Night-Salvia Bill-Dean700Cabbage White on May Night Salvia. Photo by Bill DeanButterfly species emerge at different times, some in the spring, others in early or late summer. In order to accommodate nectar-feeders, it’s important to have something blooming for each new wave of species as the seasons progress. Flowers such as alyssum, dianthus, and petunias, as well as blooming shrubs such as viburnum and azalea, will feed the early spring butterflies. Butterfly Blue pincushion flowers and bachelor buttons are a good choice in late spring. And nothing compares to seeing a Canadian Tiger Swallowtail soaring above, then alighting on lilac flowers.

Monarch-on-Blazing-Star Bill-Dean700Monarch on Blazing Star. Photo by Bill DeanAs summer marches on, the parade of colour might include blazing stars, dahlias, and tickseed sunflowers. Orange, red, and yellow blooms are particularly attractive to butterflies. However, they absolutely love purple flowers such as May Night Salvia, which conveniently blooms from June to October. Late summer cosmos and yarrow are a real draw for butterflies, as are phlox, asters, and marigolds that continue blooming into the fall. It may come as a surprise, but some of your favourite plants, such as roses, peonies, geraniums, and lilies, have very little nectar and are of no interest to butterflies.

If you are feeling really ambitious, you might plant appropriate food plants for caterpillars, as well as nectar-rich flowers for adult butterflies. Some plants do double duty—providing their leaves as food for caterpillars, as well as offering nectar to various species. Tall coneflower blossoms provide nectar for adult Silvery Checkerspot butterflies, as well as Clouded-Sulphur-on-purple-coneflowers Bill-Dean700Clouded sulphur on purple coneflowers. Photo by Bill-Deanfood for their hungry caterpillars. Stiff goldenrod’s yellow blossoms provide fodder and nectar for Harris’s Checkerspot butterflies at both stages of their development.

I personally have had more luck attracting butterflies with food plants. One spring, Red Admirals ambushed my garden to lay their eggs on my wood nettle plant. It is always exhilarating to see a Monarch flap and glide its way to my milkweed plant. And Commas abound because of the currant bush that I have growing in my yard. As a writer, I find it pleasing to have a butterfly named after a punctuation mark fluttering in my yard every year.

Monarch-caterpillar-eating-milkweed-leaves Bill-Dean 700Monarch caterpillar eating milkweed leaves. Photo by Bill DeanTwo non-negotiables, in my opinion, are milkweed and Joe-Pye weed—veritable stars of the butterfly garden. Milkweed plants, of which there are many species, are indispensable for the Monarch butterfly’s reproduction, as its caterpillars consume only milkweed leaves. Butterfly weed’s midsummer showy orange blossoms make it the prettiest plant in the family. Swamp milkweed is best for urban dwellers, but if you have a lot of room, the bulbous pink blossoms of the larger common milkweed is a real favourite. Joe-Pye weed’s feathery flowers are a butterfly magnet. However, it is a very tall and large plant that requires a lot of space to grow.

How about an aromatic herb garden? Smaller butterflies such as Blues, Hairstreaks, and Whites love the tiny flowers of thyme, lavender, chives, oregano, and rosemary. Speaking of gardens, you may have noticed, at times, a large black butterfly with yellow-dotted wings hovering over your vegetable garden. It was likely a female Black Swallowtail searching for a spot on the dill, parsley, or fennel to lay its eggs. If you’re willing to share your garden bounty, put in some extra plants and you may find yourself watching this butterfly species’ entire life cycle from egg to adult.

One last bit of advice: once you have made your final selections, make sure to plant several flowers of the same species together. Butterflies are much more apt to find clusters than one individual plant. And of course, you may not use insecticides if you want to create a healthy habitat.Coral-hairstreak-on-alfalfa Julie-Yatsko-small-file 700Coral hairstreak on alfalfa. Photo by Julie Yatsko

Once the work is done, sit back in your Adirondack chair and enjoy the butterfly-friendly world you have created. If you are very still, one might even land on you!

Butterflying 700webHandy for gardeners and nature enthusiasts across the country, you can read more about what host plants attract butterflies in Manitoba Butterflies: A Field Guide.




Writer and visual artist Simone Hébert Allard was born in St. Boniface, Manitoba. A compelling interest in nature has been a driving force throughout her life, a love that she expresses in both print and images. Besides having published five nature-related children’s books in French, she has taken part in a number of artistic exhibitions and directed a television documentary on the unusual theme of Canada’s lake monsters. Manitoba Butterflies: A Field Guide is her first adult book.

Last modified onWednesday, 05 February 2014 17:06

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