Butterflies are the flying flowers of the garden. Everyone notices them and everyone loves them. To attract a wider range of butterflies to your garden, you need to have a variety of host plants and nectar plants, and even a variety of ecosystems would be helpful. The best butterfly populations are going to be common among those who have both prairie and woodland areas around their home. However, as long as you can incorporate some the following 15 plants into your garden, you will at least be attractive to a wide range of butterflies.
1. Pawpaw Asimina triloba The Zebra Swallowtail butterfly relies on this thicket-forming tree for its host. This medium-sized tree grows 15 to 40 feet tall and forms a large thicket of stems. The small, hanging bell-shaped flowers bloom in early spring. The fruit (if you can beat animals to it), ripens in autumn and is quite delicious. Plant in part sun, on the edge of or into a woodland garden.
2. Prickly Ash Zanthoxylum americanum This shrub is a host for the Giant Swallowtail Butterfly. It is a thicket-forming shrub, growing 4 to 10 feet tall. It is also referred to as the toothache tree, and you can actually numb your gums by chewing on the stems. It has small, bright reddish-orange berries in late summer. Plant in the woodland garden in part sun.
3. Black Cherry Prunus serotina The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly larva feeds on this tall, native tree. The wood of this tree is used in furniture across America. It grows 30 to 60 feet tall and 30 feet wide. It has large, panicled flowers in spring that are sweetly fragrant. The edible, black fruit is usually eaten by birds. It is a great tree for full sun to part shade.
4. Wild Senna Senna marilandica The Cloudless Sulfur Butterfly uses this perennial native as a host plant. It is a stately perennial, with a unique look and texture. It grows 3 to 6 feet tall and 3 feet wide, in full to part sun. It blooms in summer, in part to full sun locations.
5. Woodland Sunflower Helianthus divaricatus The Dainty Sulfur Butterfly uses this member of the aster family as well as others. The woodland sunflower is a good perennial for naturalizing streambanks or the edge of woodlands. It grows in large colonies, 3 to 4 feet tall. It blooms in late summer.
6. American Plum Prunus americana The Coral Hairstreak Butterfly uses this thicket-forming shrub as a host plant. This shrub grows 10 to 15 feet tall and wide. It blooms with white, fragrant flowers in mid Spring. It produces edible plums in late summer that are excellent for jam and jelly, or fresh eating. It grows well in full sun on the edge of the woodland.
7. Hackberry Celtis occidentalis The American Snout Butterfly is one of several butterflies to use this tree for its larval host. This tree grows 30 to 100 feet tall and 30 to 60 feet wide. It is an excellent shade tree for any yard. It does produce some fruit which is favored by birds.
8. Prairie Violet Viola pedatifida The Variegated Fritallary Butterfly can be found where there is a high population of violets in a prairie setting. These and other violets bloom in spring and are nice additions to prairie gardens and edge of the woods. They grow 6 inches tall and wide.
9. Eastern Cottonwood Populus deltoides The Mourning Cloak Butterfly uses the cottonwood and other species for its larval host. This large shade tree grows 60 to 120 feet tall and wide. It has catkin-like flowers in spring. It has excellent fall color (yellow) and is a good tree along streambanks.
10. Late Figwort Scrophularia marilandica The Common Buckeye Butterfly is a frequent flyer in late summer. It uses figwort as one of its larval hosts. Figworts grow 2 to 6 feet tall and 2 feet wide. They bloom in late summer and autumn with small, red flowers. They can be planted in part sun locations in the woodland garden.
11. Black Willow Salix nigra The Viceroy Butterfly uses members of the willow family as larval hosts. The black willow is a common wetland tree, growing on the edge of ponds, streams, and lakes. It grows 30 to 40 feet tall and 10 to 20 feet wide. It blooms yellow in early spring and has yellow fall color. Plant in a wet area in full to part sun.
12. Bluestem Grasses Andropogon species Common Wood Nymph Butterflies use various grasses including members of the bluestem family. There are 3 or 4 bluestems commonly scattered across the U.S. They can grow 2 to 8 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide. Plant them in full sun in massings.
13. Blue False Indigo Baptisia australis The Silver Spotted Skipper uses members of the legume family for its larva. Blue false indigo grows 2 to 4 feet tall and wide, in full sun. It works great in the garden, and is a great cut flower. It blooms in mid Spring.
14. Purple Poppy Mallow Callirhoe involucrata Common Checkered Skippers use mallows as their host plant. This mallow is a wide spreading, perennial plant, that can be used as a groundcover in the garden. It grows 6 inches tall, but 6 feet wide. It has purple-pink flowers in summer.
15. Silky Dogwood Cornus amomum The Spring and Summer Azure Butterflies use dogwoods as one of their host plants. The silky dogwood is a large shrub which is both wet and drought tolerant. It grows on the edge of woodlands in wet soils. It has white blooms in spring followed by blue-black, edible berries. Plant in full sun or part shade.
These are just a few of the many plants that are good for butterflies – I did not even discuss milkweeds and monarchs.