Planning A Garden To Attract Butterflies

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit an indoor butterfly exhibit. It was wonderful, walking through the plant-filled display as brightly colored butterflies flitted past me, some even coming to rest on a shoulder or arm of a visitor. Some were resting on the walkway and many were drinking the juice of various fruit slices set out for them. Talking to the exhibit guide, I asked about whether the exhibit was ongoing, that is, were the butterflies producing new generations.

Butterflies are attracted to brightly colored flowers

No, he explained. While the butterflies in the exhibit did mate and lay eggs, the facility was not licensed to breed butterflies. So, the exhibit’s solution was to make sure that plants which the larvae would eat were not in the exhibit. They imported the butterfly chrysalis periodically. In fact, a new “crop” had just hatched.

The butterfly garden

This reminded me of how important it is, if you are trying to attract butterflies to your garden, for you to have plants available for all stages of the butterflies’ existence: a place for them to lay eggs, plants which provided food for the larvae, a resting place for the chrysalis and flowers with nectar for the butterflies to drink.

• Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), a native to Long Island, is an example of a great plant to grow to attract butterflies. The leaves provide food for the larval stage and the flowers produce lots of nectar for the adult butterfly, particularly for the Queen and Monarch butterflies. Butterfly weed, with its beautiful orange flowers does well in dry, sandy soil making it ideal for Long Island.

• Milkweed is another plant that Monarch butterflies prefer. They lay their eggs on the plant and the resulting caterpillar will consume copious amounts of the plant. Monarchs are one of a very few butterflies that migrate, wintering in warmer climates. They can live for months and even overwinter, something unusual in the butterfly world where life span is usually measured in weeks.

Butterfly weed, asclepious tuberosa, is native to Long Island

• Purple coneflowers, (Ecinacea) begins blooming in early to mid-summer and continues throughout the growing season. It provides nectar for many butterflies and is somewhat drought tolerant, another plus for Long Island gardens.

• Sunflowers make great host plants (place for them to lay eggs) for a wide variety of butterflies, especially the Painted Lady.

• Butterfly bush (Buddleja, Buddleia, summer lilac) is a very popular plant in the butterfly garden. It provides nectar for a wide variety of butterflies. But, beware as many people consider the butterfly bush “a weed” and invasive due to its very aggressive habits. Butterfly bush flowers can be found in a variety of colors from purples to whites and even burgundy.

• Lavender is another popular butterfly magnet. It has the added attraction of being somewhat drought tolerant (perfect for our occasional droughts).

Some added ideas:

• Butterflies are attracted to brightly colored flowers, particularly reds, oranges and purples. Many flowers which attract butterflies also attract hummingbirds.

• It’s easier for butterflies to see a fairly large clump of a particular plant as opposed to a single one.

• Since different species of butterflies have different preferences for nectar and places to lay eggs, it makes sense to have a variety of different plants in your garden.

• Most of the plants that are attractive to butterflies need a fair amount of sun, so plan accordingly. Remember that butterflies themselves are cold blooded, that is, they depend on the sun to warm them. A bit of shade, however, a place for them to rest on a really hot day, is nice.

• Butterflies, like birds, need water, so a shallow birdbath or puddle will be welcome.

• There is an interesting website,, which has extensive information on butterfly gardens, including which butterflies you can expect to see in New York State.

• Butterfly exhibits on Long Island include Sweetbriar Nature Center in Smithtown (only during the warm weather) and the butterfly exhibit at Atlantis Marine World in Riverhead (open year round).


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