Attracting  butterflies to your yard with a Flower garden

by Randy Korb

No matter where you live, at least some of Wisconsin’s 149 species of butterflies live near you. Some places just naturally attract more butterflies than others, though. Sunny roadsides, meadows, thickets, orchards, shorelines, and parks are butterfly magnets that offer just what wandering butterflies are looking for: a variety of flowering plants.

Butterflies depend on plants at all stages of their life cycle. Adults sip nectar from flowers. Some butterflies drink tree sap, especially in early spring before flowers bloom. The "kids," or caterpillars, munch on the greenery of specific host or food plants.

You can enjoy the beauty of butterflies without leaving your yard by planting a butterfly garden and inviting butterflies to come to you. Butterfly gardening is the practice of attracting butterflies by growing plants that they use for food and nectar. A complete butterfly garden provides nectar sources (flowers) for adults and food plants for caterpillars.

It is important to consider two basic attributes of butterflies when choosing a site for your garden: they worship the sun and dislike strong winds. Your garden should be in full sun, especially between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., hours of peak butterfly activity. Plant your garden along a natural or  artificial windbreak. Hedgerows, edges of woods, walls of buildings, and even foundations of abandoned buildings shelter butterflies from the wind. And remember to locate the garden near a water outlet for easy watering.

Butterfly gardens range in size from a single potted plant chosen for its butterfly-attracting qualities to a garden of several acres. Your garden will attract more butterflies if you grow native plants that local butterflies are already using. Spend an hour or two watching butterflies. Note the flowers at which adults drink and the plants on which the females lay eggs, then grow these plants in your garden.

Though native and wild plants seem to work best, butterflies also visit exotic and cultivated flowers. Butterfly bush, a native of China, is perhaps the most popular plant among butterfly gardeners.

Choosing a mix of annual and perennial flowers that bloom from early spring through late summer will enable butterflies to depend on your garden as a steady source of nectar. Use short plants in front as borders, medium-sized plants in the middle, and tall plants in the back of your garden in stair-step fashion. Growing plants of the same species in clumps of three to six will lure butterflies better than isolated individual plants.

Caterpillars relish the leaves and stems of herbs and many plants we consider weeds. For instance, nettles are food plants of red admirals and question marks, and painted lady caterpillars eat thistles. Milkweeds serve a dual role as nectar sources for several butterfly species and food plants for monarch caterpillars. Therefore, it is a good idea to let grasses and weedy species grow in out-of-the-way places near your garden. Butterfly weed, a milkweed with bright orange flowers, is an excellent choice for any garden. Herbs such as parsley, dill, and carrot, food plants of the black swallowtail, are also suitable for the garden.

Many gardens and other habitats in which butterflies would normally flourish are devoid of butterflies due to spraying of insecticides and herbicides. To control unwanted insects or vegetation without spraying, try other control methods such as predatory insects, species-specific pesticides or bacteria, or insecticidal soaps, barriers, and traps that allow beneficial insects like butterflies to thrive.

Butterfly gardening is a relaxing activity combining two popular outdoor hobbies: gardening and nature observation. The pleasure of watching a colorful butterfly quietly probing for nectar is doubled knowing that you planted the flower on which it is feeding.

Butterfly Gardening Tips


•Butterflies like lots of sunshine. Locate your butterfly garden in a sunny area.

• If you live in an exposed, windy area, plant your butterfly garden in a protected spot next to a fence, building, or hedge.

•Butterflies get thirsty, too. Fill a shallow pan or plate with water and sink it into your garden soil.

• When they’re not feeding, butterflies like to relax on a sun-warmed stone or board. Set a few flat stones around your garden for resting butterflies.

• Don’t use chemical pesticides in your garden.

Caterpillar Food Plants,









Queen Anne’s Lace



Flowers For Your Butterfly Garden


Butterfly bush

Butterfly milkweed

Purple coneflower


Blazing star

Wild bergamot













Butterfly Watching  Go Slow, Go Low!


Once the butterflies find your garden, you’ll want to get a closer look to enjoy their intricate beauty and observe their activities. You’ll be most successful if you remember these simple rules:


• Go slow. Sudden movement will alert the butterfly.

• Go low. Try to appear as small and non-threatening as possible. Avoid being silhouetted against the sky.

• Don’t allow your shadow to pass over the butterfly. The sudden change in lighting may frighten it.

In the process of approaching and observing your butterflies, you may work up a sweat. Don’t be surprised if a butterfly lands on you to sip your salty perspiration!


Planting colorful, nectar-rich native species, such as butterfly milkweed and wild bergamot, will attract a variety of butterflies to your garden.


Randy Korb is a gardener and environmental education consultant in Appleton.


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