Butterflies add a sense of peace and tranquility to gardens with their gentle, floating flight patterns and jewel-like colors. Planting a butterfly habitat that attracts and supports butterflies also adds an element of surprise and wonder each time a new species is encountered. Gardeners who have had the pleasure of discovering a monarch chrysalis dangling under a leaf, or watched an eastern tiger swallowtail emerge, unfurling its wings before taking off, can tell you that butterfly gardening is pure magic.

There’s no secret potion for attracting butterflies to your yard; all you need to successfully entice butterflies to your garden is a basic understanding of butterfly feeding habits and preferences. From there, it is only a matter of making sure your butterfly habitat is a safe haven for these beautiful insects to eat, drink and complete their life cycles.

Flowers are the primary nectar source for adult butterflies. Flower color and shape play an important role in attracting them to a specific plant. Many native butterflies prefer plants that have pink, red, purple, yellow or orange flowers. Butterflies generally visit areas with large masses of a single flower color or closely related colors, rather than habitats containing several mixed colors.

Most butterflies prefer plants with either clusters of short tubular flowers or those with large flat petals. It is important to grow a mixture of plants that favor color constancy and produce flowers from spring until fall, while butterflies remain active. That means planting a combination of annuals, perennials, vines, shrubs and trees that will ensure flowers with nectar are present when adults are looking for food. For a more complete list of pollinator-friendly plants, refer to the Clemson Home and Garden Information Center Factsheet 1727 “Pollinator Gardening.” (https://bit.ly/2FYR8DZ)

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Butterfly garden

Provided/Barbara H. Smith

Here are a few easy-to-grow perennials that attract butterflies to their nectar producing flowers:

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida) is a yellow-flowered perennial plant that is visited by many species of butterflies and native bees. This tough plant will re-seed and fill in sunny spots in the garden, providing a smorgasbord of nectar-rich flowers throughout the growing season. Birds also enjoy eating the seeds in winter.

Blazing star (Liatris spicata) This delicate native perennial showcases purple flowers along 3- to 4-foot spikes that shoot up from grass-like foliage. Sometimes it is called dense gayfeather because of the feathery appearance of the flower stalks. Blazing star flowers from late summer to early fall and is attractive to hummingbirds as well as butterflies.

Goldenrods are an important nectar source for migrating monarch butterflies as well as other native butterflies. Two to consider are: Seaside Goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens), a salt- and drought-tolerant species for coastal gardens. Rough goldenrod (Solidago rugosa) ‘Fireworks’ blooms from August through October with golden sprays of flowers that live up to their name.

Native milkweed (Asclepias sp.) species are critical larval host food for monarch butterflies, but their flowers also provide abundant nectar for other butterfly species. There are more than 20 species of South Carolina native milkweeds, each adapted to their own ecological niche. Three native species that are fairly easy to find are swamp milkweed (A. incarnata),which prefers moist soil; common milkweed (A. syriaca), which is drought-tolerant; and butterfly milkweed (A. tuberosa), which boasts bright orange flowers all summer long.

Purple coneflower (Echniacea purpurea) is a beautiful, tough native perennial that is a beacon to butterflies, bees and hummingbirds all summer long. Plant in full to partial sun in well-drained soil.

Although adult butterflies obtain most of their nutrients from nectar, their caterpillars need to eat the foliage of certain plant species to complete their development. These plants provide shelter while eggs hatch and through critical growth stages of the caterpillar. Tiny caterpillars are unable to travel long distances in search of their own food; therefore, the female butterfly locates and lays her eggs on a specific type of host plant. This makes it easier for the caterpillar to feed immediately after hatching.

Many native trees, shrubs and flowering plants found in and around home landscapes are host plants for caterpillars. Incorporate host plants into a butterfly garden to encourage the survival of immature caterpillars and the number of adult butterflies. Defoliation caused by caterpillars may appear unsightly to some, but damage should be expected and appreciated by the butterfly gardener.

Try planting a few of these native plants in your garden to attract specific butterflies: spicebush (Lindera benzoin), spicebush swallowtail; tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), Eastern tiger swallowtail; passion-vine (Passiflora spp.), Gulf fritillary; pawpaw (Asimina triloba), zebra longwing; milkweed species (Asclepias sp.), monarch; dill (Anethum graveolens), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), parsley (Petroselinum crispum), black swallowtail. Butterfly larvae feed specifically on these plants.

Once you have provided food for adult and young butterflies, there are a few other things you might consider when creating your butterfly haven.

Water: Butterflies primarily get water when consuming nectar from flowers. However, having a clean water source within the butterfly garden is helpful. Just remember, most flying insects do not swim. Create landing pads in a containerized water source, such as a shallow birdbath,by placing rocks or sticks in the water.

Minerals: Butterflies gather in groups on wet sand or mud. “Puddling” allows butterflies to obtain minerals and salts found in the soil. To create a puddling place in the butterfly garden:

  • Place a shallow pan or dish flush into the soil, in an open area.
  • Fill the pan with moist, coarse sand. Locate puddling places under a soaker hose or near a drip emitter, as this works well to keep the sand constantly moist.
  • Option: Add salt to the damp sand at a rate of ½ to ¾ cup of table salt or rock salt to 1 gallon of sand.

Sun: Butterflies need to warm their bodies on cool mornings. To do this, they often sit on a reflective surface, such as a flat stone, spread their wings, and turn their backs to the sun. Butterfly wings work like solar panels to absorb the sun’s heat. The captured heat raises the muscle temperature high enough to allow flight. Both butterflies and their associated plants thrive in bright sunny areas.

Protection: All the plants in your butterfly habitat need healthy soil, proper fertilization, and sufficient water to grow successfully. Use results from a soil test to determine soil pH and fertilization needs of plants. Choosing the right plant for the right place and keeping nectar and host plants healthy in the butterfly garden will go a long way toward reducing the need for pesticides in the garden. Remember, butterflies and caterpillars are insects, and the use of insecticides will kill them.

When designing your butterfly garden, look for areas that have at least six hours of sun each day. Sections of landscape with morning to mid-afternoon sun and dappled afternoon shade provide adequate sunlight, as well as a heat buffer for heat weary insects and plants. Areas that offer protection from high winds and predators will ensure safe harbor as well.

By Amy L. Dabbs, Clemson Extension, with excerpts from Clemson Extension HGIC Factsheet 1701; LayLa Burgess, horticulture extension agent, Clemson University; and Joe Culin, Extension entomologist/professor, Clemson University.