Perennials for Butterfly Habitats

Perennials can be the backbone of anyone’s garden – they certainly are for mine. I choose perennials that bloom in succession, support native insect populations, are pretty, and attract lots of butterflies! Despite living in Zone 5 in Northeast Kansas, where the weather is constantly changing, I have a very diverse garden.

So what are the best perennials for attracting butterflies?

There is a long list of perennials that attract butterflies. I will need to break down that list into subcategories so you can understand what plants will work best for you in your situation. Not everyone lives in a protected oak-hickory remnant forest like me. Let us look at the following categories, one at a time.

What colors attract butterflies?

Swallowtail butterfly flying through the lavender flowers of Brazilian verbena

Butterflies are attracted to a wide array of colors, from white to orange, depending on the species of butterfly. However, blue and green flowers are seldom visited, and many butterflies shy away from these at all times. The following colors are regarded as the best for attracting butterflies.

  • Lavender
  • Pink
  • White
  • Purple
  • Yellow
  • Orange
  • Red

What shade loving plants attract butterflies?

Silver spotted skipper on creeping bellflower

When it comes to shade loving plants, it can be difficult to find ones to attract butterflies. However, the following list includes several species that are greatly attractive to many butterflies, as nectar plants.

  • Elm-Leaf Goldenrod
  • Cutleaf Toothwort
  • Various bellflowers
  • Virginia Waterleaf
  • Hostas
  • Coral Bells
Regal fritillary butterfly on butterfly milkweed

What sun perennials are best for attracting butterflies?

When it comes to sun perennials for butterflies, the list can be nearly endless. However, the following ten plants are best for attracting butterflies with nectar production.

  1. Milkweeds (all species that are adapted to your growing area)
  2. Salvia
  3. Agastache
  4. Tall sedum (cultivars may include ‘Thundercloud’, ‘Autumn Fire’, and ‘Autumn Joy’)
  5. Rudbeckia (all species are great)
  6. Allium (cultivars include ‘Millenium’, ‘Serendipity’, ‘Mongolian Gem’, ‘Summer Beauty’)
  7. Asters ( all species and cultivars)
  8. Blazingstars (Liatris species)
  9. Coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea, paradoxa, pallida, and others)
  10. Verbena (native, perennial verbenas)

Should I plant host plants for butterflies?

Yes you should. However, because you are planting the above perennials for attracting butterflies, you are also getting the benefit of their hosting ability. Most of the above perennials support various butterflies and moths with food for caterpillars. The following is a short list of perennials and the butterflies and moths they are host plants for.

  • Milkweed : Monarch butterfly, Milkweed tussock moth, Unexpected Cyncia Moth
  • Coneflowers : Silvery checkerspot, Gorgone Checkerspot
  • Baptisia : Silver Spotted Skipper, Wild Indigo Duskywing, Genista Broom Moth
  • Fennel : Black Swallowtail
  • Tall Sedum : Gray Hairstreak
  • Violets : Variegated Fritillary, Great Spangled Fritillary, Regal Fritillary
  • Verbena : Common Buckeye, Yellow Woolly Tiger Moth
  • Agastache : Painted Lady
  • Aster : Asteroid Moth, Silvery Checkerspot, Goldenrod Hooded Owlet Moth
Silvery checkerspot butterfly and caterpillars

What do I plant to attract Monarch butterflies?

If you want to have more monarchs in your garden, plant milkweeds and any of the above sun perennials. I have been observing monarch and milkweed interactions in my own gardens for the last 5 years. I have seen the most caterpillars on butterfly milkweed (A. tuberosa), rose milkweed (A. incarnata), and common milkweed (A. syriaca). So plant these milkweeds first.

Purple milkweed flowers
Purple Milkweed attracts many butterflies and is a host for monarchs

What plants should I add to attract swallowtail butterflies?

This is a difficult questions, because the swallowtails butterflies use a variety of plants as host plants, from garden herbs to large trees. To attract swallowtail butterflies I would recommend using flowers in the sunflower family. The following plants are very attractive to swallowtail butterflies for nectar sources.

  • Joe Pye Weed
  • Native Thistles
  • Blazingstars
  • Purple Coneflower
  • Tall Garden Phlox
  • Purple milkweed
  • Sullivant’s milkweed
  • Agastache

Now that I have my perennial list, how do I put them together?

The following picture is a simple design of 7 sun perennials put together in a 10 foot by 10 foot square garden bed. By choosing just a few plants, you can optimize your new butterfly experience.

Simple design for butterfly garden

Use this design for a full sun area. It can be changed as needed, but remember to put tall plants in the middle and shorter plants on the edge.

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