A Garden for Butterflies

Written by: Ann-Marie Sedor | Photos by: Melanie McCabe

With their brightly-hued fluttering wings, butterflies provide a beautiful dimension of movement, color and life to any garden.

As advanced insects, butterflies have a complete life cycle from egg to adulthood. Mature butterflies feed on nectar and look for foliage to lay their eggs. Next, caterpillars (or larvae) emerge from the eggs, ready to munch on foliage to sustain their growing bodies.

When tissues within the caterpillar break down, adult butterfly structures are formed and the insect enters the chrysalis stage. Most species overwinter at this point, ready to unfurl their newly grown wings into the warm spring air.

These four stages of development mean that butterflies require a variety of meal options that go beyond the luscious nectar of their favorite flowers. Eggs, caterpillars, chrysalis and adults all require a variety of plant species for different purposes.

Early to midsummer—in other words, right now—is when adult butterflies are looking for sources of nectar. Choose plant varieties with blooms in warm hues of reds and oranges and you’ll have fluttering visitors before you know it.
Umbrella-shaped flowers, such as those found on coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) pictured above left and Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x. superbum) pictured above right are appreciated by butterflies as easy landing pads.

To sustain the three younger stages of butterflies, you’ll have to be willing to sacrifice some greenery. Like a teenager raiding the refrigerator, the caterpillar (larvae) stage of development is a butterfly’s primary growth stage when it becomes a voracious eater.

Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) makes a wonderful host for monarch eggs, who prefer to feast solely on this plant. Beyond that, the plant provides a delicious nectar for adults and the milky sap ingested by the larvae makes the adult taste foul to birds and other predators.

The caterpillar of black swallowtail butterfly is an herb lover, especially focusing on parsley, fennel or dill.
Plant extra for yourself to harvest and leave the rest for them. You’ll be rewarded with the knowledge of helping to create a functioning ecosystem in your garden.

Swallowtail butterflies have large, brightly-colored wings and are so named for the forked bottom section of their wings, much like many swallow birds.
Other types of swallowtails in our area include the zebra swallowtail, with its distinctive black-and-white stripes and the eastern tiger swallowtail that enjoys tulip poplar, birch trees and the occasional daylily.

Orange sulphur is another species of Maryland butterfly that have delicate, citrusy-colored wings and bright, lime green eyes.
Though known to be a pest of alfalfa crops, the home gardener can attract them with open areas of foliage, especially clover.

The visually striking red-banded hairstreak, with accents of blood-red against brown-gray wings and the scalloped, orange-hued great spangled fritillary also are known to be common local butterflies.
Hairstreaks usually enjoy meals of fallen leaves of sumac or other trees, while the Fritillary loves a variety of flowers including  milkweed, coneflower and joe-pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum).

Planting a succession of butterfly-attracting blooming plants will help entice them to your garden—and get them to stay. Here are perennials known to offer up a nutritious, nectar-filled meal:

Coneflower (Echinacea)

‘Hot Papaya’

Fragrant, orange-red flowers keep their true color for weeks and hold firm on strong stems

‘Fragrant Angel’

Five-inch long-lasting blooms are reminiscent of daisies with their white petals and golden cones, but these come accompanied by a delicious floral scent

Dark red centers are encircled by deep pink petals that hold flat as they radiate outward

Dianthus (Pinks)
Blue-green foliage is deer-resistant, while long-lasting, very fragrant pink blooms with dark-pink centers are irresistible to butterflies

Hemerocallis (Daylily)
‘Big Smile’
Large blooms have blush pink ruffled edges, creamy yellow-orange centers and green throats for a happy dose of color

‘Crystal Pinot’
Large, cream flowers appear in midsummer with purple ruffled edges and eyes

‘Siloam Paul Watts’
Simply elegant velvety red blooms with ruffled edges are known to last for many weeks

‘Strawberry Candy’
Petite blooms in shades of deep pink and coral with heavily ruffled edges flower profusely for many weeks

‘Yellow Submarine’
Seven-inch rosettes of bright lemon-yellow fragrant petals rebloom throughout the summer

Shasta Daisy (Leucanthemum)
Bright white flowers with fun yellow centers paired with sturdy stems and a three-month bloom period have afforded this daisy a starring role in the garden

Scabiosa (Pincushion Flower)
“Pink Mist”
Continuous blooming from spring to fall, low maintenance and lovely, fragrant pink flowers make this Irish cultivar a winner among butterflies and hummingbirds alike