Bring butterflies into your backyard

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More than 700 species of butterflies thrive in the United States and southern portions of Canada. Just a little planning can get a few (or a few dozen) to visit your yard.


Many butterflies love nectar, but they seek their sweets from flowers alone. (Butterflies do not eat from hummingbirds’ sugar-water feeders.) A butterfly’s body parts tiny feet; a thin, straw-like proboscis (feeding tube); and delicate wings hint at the flower shapes that suit it best. The centers of daisy-type flowers (coneflowers, zinnias, sunflowers) give a butterfly a place to perch while feeding. Spikes of single tiny blossoms (gayfeather, butterfly bush) or small flowers that are closely arranged in flat- (yarrow) or round-top (aster) clusters all allow a butterfly uninterrupted space to flutter its wings during landing or departure, while giving it easy access to nectar. Clusters of flowers provide the added benefit of many sips of nectar.


Some butterflies meet their needs for nutrients with a menu that’s not very appealing to our taste: rotten fruit, sap, poop, carrion, fungi, and human sweat. Soft, juicy, rotted fruit has a consistency and fermented aroma that some butterflies commas, hackberries, monarchs, red admirals, red-spotted purples–love. Almost any fruit will do, and the riper, the better: Apples, bananas, berries, cantaloupes, cherries, crab apples, figs, grapes, nectarines, pawpaws, pears, persimmons, tomatoes, and watermelons are favorites.

A fruit feeder is simple to make: Screw or nail a plastic dinner plate or saucer to the top of a flat-top post, deck railing, or fence in a shady spot. Expect to see a few other insects snacking on your fruit buffet. Discard remainders in a compost heap and wash the plate with a garden hose.

Sap that seeps from a cut or injury in a tree (such as where frost or insect damage or a lawn mower nick has occurred) is a huge attraction for the same butterflies that like fruit. After a few days of spring sunshine, sugar maple sap ferments into an intoxicating brew. Chinquapin oak, sugar maple, and weeping cherry are a few sap sources.

Animal manure, including that from a barnyard or dog, cat, or bird, says “mealtime” to certain butterfly species. Place a bit of it in a discreet but observable location.

The juices of decomposing raw meat are especially appealing to emperor and question mark butterflies as well as many of the fruit lovers noted. Understandably, few people want carrion in the garden; bits of fish or meat scraps can serve as satisfying alternatives for butterflies. Serve such food on a tray-type bird feeder covered by wire or a plastic grid to protect it from marauding raccoons or cats.

If fungi form in your yard under a dead log or stump, in wood chip mulch, or in shade gardens butterflies may soon follow. Mourning cloak and hackberry butterflies enjoy molds and fungi.

Finally, you may be a butterfly feeder: On a hot day, hackberries and red emperors may alight on you to sip from a bead of perspiration.


A butterfly bath should be just a foot deep a butterfly’s foot, that is! A spritzed pavement or patio surface is butterfly bliss but can dry quickly or become too warm for wading on a hot day. Instead, place a few smooth stones and gravel in a saucer. Add enough water to wet, but not submerge, the stones. Butterflies will perch on the stones and sip the water in the bottom of the saucer.


Butterflies are not as particular about flower color as hummingbirds, but studies suggest that they have preferences, with purple (especially the magenta hue) at the top of the list and yellow not far behind. Here are a few flowers to try. You can find more at ButterflyPlants.

Aster (Aster spp.)

Daisy, or Composite, family

Eupatorium (Eupatorium spp.)

Garden phlox (Phlox paniculata) (A)

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)

Meadow phlox (P. maculata)

Pink coneflower (Echinacea pallida)

Purple coneflower (E. purpurea) (D)

Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) (C)

Tennessee coneflower (E. tennesseensis)

Verbena (Verbena spp.) (B)


Because many butterflies are limited in their range, the plants on which they lay their eggs are usually natives that thrive in the areas where the butterflies do. You can increase the butterfly population in your yard by offering, in addition to your nectar garden, the plants and shrubs that serve as hosts for hungry caterpillars (they eat a lot!). Butterflies are particular about their host plants, and a comprehensive list of them is as varied as the butterflies themselves. The following plants are favored by many butterfly species.


Dill (Anethum graveolens)

Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)


Alfalfa (Medicago sativa)

Aster (Aster spp.)

Hollyhock (Alcea rosea), biennial and perennial

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) (E)

Violets (Viola spp.)


Ceanothus (Ceanothus spp.)


Elm (Ulmus spp.)

Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis, C. laevigata)

Oak (Quercus spp.)

Willow (Salix spp.)


Dutchman’s pipe (Aristolochia spp.)

Hops (Humulus spp.)

Passionflower (Passiflora spp.)

Sally Roth has written numerous books on gardening and nature, including Attracting Butterflies & Hummingbirds to Your Backyard (Rodale, 2001). She has befriended birds, butterflies, and hummingbirds all across the country.

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