Planting Native to Support Butterflies

By Terry Hershberger, Merrifield Plant Specialist

Every year from June 18-24, we celebrate the pollinators – birds, bees, butterflies and other animals – that we depend on to move pollen from flower to flower and fertilize plants to ensure successful seed and fruit production. One of the most beloved pollinators is the butterfly. We have a multitude of varieties here in the Eastern United States, and anyone can support these important creatures by adding native plants they love to their garden, patio or deck.

Supporting Butterflies in a Small Garden or Patio

Luckily for anyone living in a town-home, apartment or condo, there are plenty of plants butterflies love that can be grown in a small space or a container. Consider planting a mix of plants butterflies enjoy and host plants for baby caterpillars. Doing this can allow you to see the full life cycle of these beautiful insects from your home!

Container friendly native plants for adult butterflies:

Milkweed

Not only is this plant popular among many kinds of adult butterflies, it also serves as the host plant for Monarch caterpillars. They bloom mid to late summer and some varieties are drought tolerant.

Garden Phlox 

Phlox needs to be watered weekly during dry spells but is a wonderful plant for attracting butterflies with clusters of blooms.

Black-eyed Susan

This vibrant flower blooms from July to October and is drought resistant once established.

Aster

For a fall blooming flower, add aster. This plant is popular with a wide range of native butterflies.

Joe-Pye Weed

Joe Pye is tolerant of wet soil, so add it to any poorly draining areas in your yard. Blooms from mid-late summer.

Add these plants to your containers if you want to host caterpillars:

Even in a small space you can host a variety of native butterfly caterpillars! In particular, the Monarch, Black Swallowtail, Baltimore Checkerspot and Common Buckeye all lay their eggs on plants that can be grown in small gardens or on decks in containers.

  • For Monarchs, plant milkweed.
  • Add turtlehead – a relative of the snapdragon – for the Baltimore Checkerspot.
  • Plant dill and parsley for the Black Swallowtail.
  • Consider toadflax or spiderwort for the Common Buckeye.

Supporting Butterflies in Larger Gardens

If you are unlimited when it comes to space for setting up your butterfly garden, the options available to you are limitless for both attracting adults and caterpillars! In addition to all of the plants listed above, there are a variety of native trees that butterflies and their caterpillars love. Turn your garden into a butterfly sanctuary by adding these native plants!

Black Cherry

Adult Tiger Swallowtails love this plant, and both eastern tiger swallowtails and red spotted purple butterflies lay their eggs on black cherry trees. Clusters of white flowers bloom in spring.

Sassafras

This tree plays host to both spicebush swallowtail and Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars.

Willow

This is a host plant for the viceroy caterpillar – a mimic of the monarch butterfly – and also a host for the eastern tiger swallowtail.

Pawpaw

Make a home for the caterpillars of the Zebra Swallowtail by planting the pawpaw. As a native edible fruit-bearing tree, this is a fun addition to any garden.

Thank you to Plant NOVA Natives for contributing the plant photos used in this post.