How to make a butterfly garden: Planning and choosing plants for your region

Some help and suggestions, for planning and choosing plants to put in a butterfly garden

Graceful, stained glass wings lightly fluttering and flitting from flower to flower on a calm summer’s day. Brings an image of calmness and quietness, doesn’t it?

Whether you live in the South or Midwest, suburbia or downtown Manhattan, you can attract butterflies and keep them happily in their habitat for generations. In this article you will find the help, hints and ideas you need to create your own butterfly oasis.

There are two main things to do to attract and keep butterflies in your newly planted habitat. You must plant the right plants AND you must not use any chemical insecticides.

Butterfly gardening Some butterfly garden plant ideas 300x220 How to make a butterfly garden: Planning and choosing plants for your region

How to make a butterfly garden: Planning and choosing plants for your region

Let’s talk a bit about zones and climates. You have probably heard of the USDA planting zones. Areas of the United States are assigned a zone number based on the average annual minimum temperature. These zones range from 1 to 11, with Zone 1 being the coldest and Zone 11 being the warmest. It’s important to know what zone you’re in when planting perennials in order to insure the plant’s survival over winter in your area. Annuals are one-season plants and aren’t expected to over-winter (although some of them do go to seed and re-populate themselves), so zones don’t matter so much.

USDA Hardiness Zones

Zone Average Annual Minimum Temperature (in degrees F)

  • Zone 1 less than -50
  • Zone 2 50 to -40
  • Zone 3 40 to -30
  • Zone 4 30 to -20
  • Zone 5 20 to -10
  • Zone 6 10 to 0
  • Zone 7 0 to 10
  • Zone 8 10 to 20
  • Zone 9 20 to 30
  • Zone 10 30 to 40
  • Zone 11 greater than 40

You can find out your zone by asking at your local garden center. Also, a trip to a nearby arboretum or botanical garden can be a source of valuable information. You’ll be able to see which native plants thrive in your area and maybe even see an established butterfly garden there. If you have a neighbor or friend with a garden you admire, ask them about it. Chances are you’ll learn a ton! Most gardeners love to talk about their favorite hobby.

Plant Considerations for Food and Breeding Grounds

There are a few things to consider when designing your butterfly garden. These beautiful creatures need nectar-producing flowers, shelter from the wind, a mud puddle or pond to drink from and extract minerals and nutrients, and a safe place to rest their weary wings and bask in the sun. In addition to nectar producing plants, they will need a host plant, somewhere to lay their eggs for future generations. Put all of these components together and you’ll not only have beautiful butterflies to watch, but you’ll be able to follow the entire life cycle from caterpillar to chrysalis to mature insect.

Most butterfly species have evolved to the point that they feed on particular plant species and lay their eggs on only certain host plant species. Species vary with geographical area and so you should plant your local butterfly’s favorites. Any good field guide to butterflies (check the library) can fill you in on the types of butterflies found in your area. There are many species that are found all across the country. You’ll find some of them mentioned later in this article.

A good generic butterfly garden should have perennials as well as annuals to ensure there is something in bloom most of the summer. An area with full sun, sheltered from the wind is ideal. Aesthetically, as with any garden, you would want to put the taller plants toward the back and the shorter ones up front. Add some ground cover, a few smooth stones (river rocks work well) and the top half of a birdbath (with water and sand or mud) and you’re all set.

Here is a list of some of the best nectar-producing perennials to lure butterflies to your garden, their common names, scientific names and hardiness zones.

  • Aster – Aster spp., esp. ‘Harrington’s Pink’ – Zones 4 – 8
  • Blanket Flower – Gaillardia spp. – Zones 4 – 8
  • Butterfly Weed – Asclepias tuberosa – Zones 3 – 9
  • Daylily – Hemerocallis spp. – Zones 3 –10
  • Joe-Pye Weed – Eupatorium purpureum – Zones 3 – 8
  • Lavender – Lavendula angustifolia – Zones 5 – 9
  • Pincushion Flower – Scabiosa spp. – Zones 5 – 9
  • Pinks – Dianthus spp. – Zones 4 – 9
  • Purple Coneflower – Echinacea prupurea – Zones 3 – 8
  • Butterfly Bush – Buddleia davidii – Zones 5 – 9
  • Lilac – Syringa spp. – Zones 3 – 8
  • Spirea – Spirea spp. – Zones 3 – 8
  • Snowball Bush – Viburnum spp. – Zones 5 – 8

Here are some of the best nectar-producing annuals to intersperse among the perennials and shrubs: Mexican Sunflower, Zinnia, Cosmos, Verbena, Lantana, Heliotrope, Strawflower, Statice, Pentas, Marigold and Morning Glory. Almost any bright colored, tubular or flat-headed flower will attract butterflies if the annuals are planted among the more permanent perennials and host plants.

The host plants can be considered the incubator of the garden. These are the mature butterfly’s favorite place to lay their eggs. Somehow the mother butterfly knows which plant her baby caterpillar can feed on most successfully. It is here, on the stems and leaves of the host plant, you’ll see tiny specks become larger caterpillars. When it’s time, the caterpillar will create his chrysalis and hang on the stems or underside of the leaves until he’s ready to emerge a beautiful butterfly. The eggs hatch in about 10 days. The caterpillar stage lasts about 3 weeks and the chrysalis stage lasts about 1 week. The complete life cycle of butterflies is only 4 to 6 weeks, depending on the species. A new butterfly is ready to mate and reproduce as early as a week or so out of its chrysalis, ready to start the whole cycle again.

It is absolutely imperative that you have host plants in your garden if you want to have a habitat that your butterflies will return to again and again. Some exceptional host plants for some specific North American butterflies are:

  • Passion Vine (Gulf Fritillary, Variegated Fritillary)
  • Fennel (Anise Swallowtail)
  • Dill (Black Swallowtail)
  • Parsley (Black Swallowtail, Anise Swallowtail)
  • Milkweeds (Monarch)
  • Locust tree (Silver Spotted Skipper)
  • Willow trees (Tiger Swallowtail)
  • Citrus trees (Giant Swallowtail)
  • Mallow (Painted Lady, Checkered Skipper, Gray Hairstreak)
  • Hollyhock (Checkered Skipper, Painted Lady)
  • Clover (Clouded Sulphur, Gray Hairstreak)
  • Dogwood tree (Spring Azure)
  • Aster (Buckeye, Fiery Skipper, Pearl Crescent)
  • Senna (Cloudless Sulphur, Sleepy Orange)

Butterfly Species

The different species of butterflies mentioned can be found in many areas of the country. Here is a general guide to areas where you’ll find these various winged creatures.

  • Gulf Fritillary: Desert Southwest, Southeast, Wisconsin, California
  • Variegated Fritillary: Desert Southwest, Southeast, High Plains, Midwest, New England
  • Anise Swallowtail: High Plains, Pacific Coast
  • Black Swallowtail: Southeast, Desert Southwest, Midwest, New England
  • Monarch: Nationwide
  • Silver Spotted Skipper: Nationwide, except for southern Texas, Arizona and Nevada
  • Tiger Swallowtail: Nationwide, except the Pacific Coast
  • Giant Swallowtail: Southeast, Desert Southwest, Midwest
  • Painted Lady: Nationwide
  • Checkered Skipper: Nationwide
  • Gray Hairstreak: Nationwide
  • Clouded Sulphur: Nationwide, except Florida, Texas and California
  • Spring Azure: Nationwide, except for south and central Texas
  • Buckeye: Nationwide, except High Plains
  • Fiery Skipper: Southeast, Desert Southwest, Midwest, California
  • Pearl Crescent: Nationwide, except Pacific Coast
  • Cloudless Sulphur: Desert Southwest, Southeast, Midwest
  • Sleepy Orange: Desert Southwest, Southeast, Midwest

This is by no means a complete list of all of the species of the amazing butterfly. Creating and maintaining a butterfly garden is a terrific hobby and a most rewarding one, too. I’m betting once you get started, you’ll find sources of information for research all about the butterfly population in your geographical area.

If you follow the advice here, plant according to your zone, include plants that are your area’s butterfly’s favorites and do not use any chemicals in your garden, you’ll be rewarded with native butterfly beauty all summer long.

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