Butterfly Gardens

Butterflys-WashingtonI did a short stint in pediatric oncology years ago and while I was there one of my patients that I remember most for her infectious smile told me that baby’s who die become butterfly’s.  Of course, I dismissed that at the time, now I wish that I was as smart today as she was then.


Puget Sound is home to several species of butterflies and a wonderful way to view these delightful insects is to entice them to your yard.  You can do that with plants that butterflies need for all phases of their lives. Butterfly life stages include the egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (the chrysalis), and adult. A variety of flowers, trees, shrubs, and ground covers used by adults and caterpillars should be included in your landscape if you want to attract several species of butterflies.   No site is too small to create a butterfly garden. You can even begin by adding flowers and herbs to an existing flower bed or container garden.

Butterfly Gardens

Butterflys - AdmiralButterflies love a sunny area sheltered from wind. All adult butterfly activities are influenced by the sun. They use it to navigate and increase body temperature necessary for strong flight. They only drink nectar from plants that grow in full sun, so it’s important that you locate the butterfly garden in areas of the landscape that get 6 hours of sun per day.

Larval Food Plants

  • Anise swallowtail: Lomatium, fennel, caraway, dill, cow parsnip
  • Cabbage white: cabbage family, nasturtium
  • Lorquin’s admiral: apple, cottonwood, poplar, spiraea, and willow
  • Milbert’s tortoiseshell: aster*, helianthella, nettle and willow
  • Mourning cloak butterfly: birch, elm, hackberry, nettle, pear, poplar, rose, and willow
  • Painted lady: borage, centaurea, burdock, globe artichoke
  • Pine white: pine, Douglas-fir
  • Red admiral: nettle, false nettle (Boehmeria), hop
  • Spring azure: Black snakeroot, crowsbeard, dogwood, spiraea, vaccinium, viburnum and verbena
  • West Coast lady: hollyhock, groundsel, nettles, pearly everlasting, sagebrush, sunflower,
  • thistles, and wormwood
  • Western tiger swallowtail: alder, cherry, cottonwood, elm, maple, poplar, and willow

An additional list of plants by genius and species is available.

Plants for Adult Butterflies

Flying requires a great amount of energy so butterflies must consume high-energy food such as flower nectar. Flower nectar contains energy-rich sugars that have the same basic chemical make-up no matter what flower it comes from. Hence, a hungry adult butterfly may visit several different kinds of flowers to get the same energy. Likewise, a single nectar producing flower may be visited by several different butterfly species. A wide variety of flowers, including many popular garden and landscape plants (can provide the proper nectar for butterflies. However, butterflies do have preferences.  Preferences typically include brightly-colored, fragrant plants especially red, yellow, orange, pink, or purple. Plants with flat flower heads that contain small multiple florets, such as asters, which furnish butterflies with landing pads where they can rest, sip nectar, and pollinate the plants. Flowers with short tubes make it easier to reach the nectar; mints and marigolds are also choices. A list of plants by genius and species is available.


Butterflies take water and trace minerals from patches of wet sand or soil. Having one of these amenities can attract a large party of butterflies to one spot. The mud around the edge of a pond, under a hose bib, or a birdbath may already be a popular spot. To create a small damp puddle site, dig out 2 or 3 inches of soil about 24 inches wide in a frequently watered area. Water will collect there. Another way to provide a drinking place is to sink a small bucket in the ground and fill it almost to the top with wet sand. A shallow terra cotta plant saucer sunk into the ground and kept moist works well and may be filled with over-ripe fruit which butterflies love. Place these water sources in sunny areas out of the wind and near nectar plants. If cats are a concern, put wet sand in a birdbath or other elevated container. They are not going to drink from a birdbath even if it is shallow.

Basking Sites

On cool days, in the morning, and periodically throughout the day, butterflies warm themselves by basking with their wings open to the sun. Place a few large stones or rocks in sunny areas or facing south to serve as basking sites. Again, if cats are a concern, put rocks in a birdbath or other elevated container.

Hibernation Sites

Butterflies that overwinter in colder areas such as Washington do so as eggs (such as the banded hairstreak), furry caterpillars (fritillaries and crescents) and pupae (in the chrysalis stage such as tiger swallowtails and cabbage whites). The best way to help butterflies survive the winter is to adopt a maintenance plan that meets your aesthetic requirements without disturbing the butterfly over­wintering habitat. Don’t be too concerned about tidiness in all areas of your property. Over-zealous fall yard and garden cleanup removes the very stuff that butterflies depend on to get through the winter, including snags, downed branches and wood, thick undergrowth, and brush piles.

Natural Areas

Many butterfly species seek shelter among thick plants and tall grasses at night and during bad weather. If possible, leave or add wild patches in out-of-the-way places in your yard, or discontinue mowing a patch of lawn. A bonus is that you’ll also be growing larval plants.  It has taken four years, but I now have three different kinds of different butterfly’s that feed in my garden.


One Comment

  1. Thanks a great deal for your article. Truly looking forward to read more. Will certainly read on.

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