9 June 2008
Virginia Cooperative Extension, Charlottesville/Albemarle County Office
460 Stagecoach Road, Charlottesville, Virginia 22902
phone: 434.872.4580 fax: 434.872.4578
All it takes is one chance planting of a species favored by butterflies to hook a gardener on a lifetime of planning to attract these beautiful creatures. A few butterflies flitting from plant to plant can be the strokes that complete the perfect garden picture. It is so simple and rewarding to attract them that no garden should be without a few.
Adult butterflies are attracted to a number of nectar producing plants. They favor plants that have large petals to provide a perch, though multiple small florets work as well. Purple flowers seem to be most attractive to butterflies, followed by yellows, pinks, and whites. Avoid double flowers, many of which are low in nectar supplies. Butterflies are sun-loving insects, so choose a site in full sun for the butterfly garden. Avoid spraying any insecticides in a butterfly garden, and encourage neighbors to limit their use of insecticides, as well.
Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) and butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) are named for their ability to attract butterflies. Other popular nectar plants include marigold, primrose, sedum, dandelion, goldenrod, aster, yarrow, honeysuckle, viburnum, lilac, and zinnia.
More adult butterflies will visit the garden if provided with food plants for the caterpillar, or larval, stage of the insect. Caterpillar damage to vegetables and flowers is not a concern; many attractive butterflies prefer plants that are usually considered weeds for larval food. Often, caterpillars will feed on only one species, so take care to provide the correct larval food for the desired species. If the unkempt appearance of a bed of milkweed and nettles (demanded by larval monarchs and red admirals, respectively) doesn't sound appealing, plant to grow the caterpillar border in an out-of-the-way corner of the yard or interplant some dazzling annuals to feed the adults and draw attention away from the less attractive plants.
Some common butterflies of Virginia and their caterpillar food plant are listed below. Unfortunately some of these plants are invasive and not to be recommended for inclusion into the home garden so gardener beware.
- Monarch butterfly - Common milkweed, swamp milkweed
- Zebra swallowtail - Common pawpaw
- Spicebush swallowtail - Spicebush
- Pipevine swallowtail - Dutchman's pipevine
- Question mark butterfly - American elm
- Alfalfa & common sulfur butterflies - Red and white clover
- Red admiral - false and stinging nettle
- Painted lady butterflies - Thistles, burdock, sunflowers, hollyhock, pearly everlasting
- Red spotted purple butterfly - Wild cherry, apple, hawthorn
- Viceroy - Willows, apple
- Eastern tiger swallowtail - Wild cherry, tulip tree
- Great spangle fritillary - Violets
- Black swallowtail - Apiaceae family (carrot, parsley, Queen Anne's lace, fennel)
Abelia grandiflora, glossy abelia, is a great plant for attracting butterflies and hummingbirds to the garden. Dark green glossy leaves stay on the plant all year long and flowers fill the tips of the branches from late May to frost. The flowers are white or pink depending on the cultivar and are lightly scented. One of the newer abelias, Mardi Gras, has variegated foliage of green, white and pink that stay true to their colors through out the seasons. As the weather warms up in the spring the leaves develop brighter and wider white margins. By late summer the white margins become colored with pinks and those colors stay with the plant through the fall and into winter. Mardi Gras flowers start as dark pink buds which open to pure white trumpet shaped flowers that are lightly fragrant and attract many brightly colored hummingbirds and butterflies to the plant. Glossy abelia can grow 6 feet tall and wide, making it a plant that either needs a lot of pruning each year or it needs to be planted as mass plantings away from home foundations. The cultivar Mardi Gras is more compact at 3 feet tall and no more than 5 feet wide. The smaller size is easier to fit into modern landscapes as a specimen, in mass plantings or even in mixed containers. To maintain the best color of foliage and flowers, Mardi Gras prefers to be planted in the full sun in acid, moist well drained soils.
For more information about this and other landscape topics contact your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office. The local Virginia Cooperative Extension office numbers are Albemarle 872-4580, Fluvanna 591-1950, Greene 985-5236, Louisa 540-967-3422, and Nelson 263-4035.