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Summer Issue

Nectar and Host Plants







Butterfly Gardening

Grow a Real Butterfly Garden!

By Doug Collicutt (Click links for more images.)

Any gardening magazine worth its compost will contain at least one article or advertisement on how to grow a "Butterfly Garden". The reader is encouraged to give nature a helping hand by growing plants with showy, nectar-rich flowers that attract butterflies. And who wouldn't want to have these beautiful, graceful insects flitting around our gardens, sipping daintily from colourful blossoms?

Sulphur and CaterpillarA Sulphur butterfly and its caterpillar; same animal, different stages!

"Look, there's a butterfly now, bright yellow with black patches along the wings, stopping by to sip from my nasturtiums. But wait, what's that ugly green worm crawling up the flower stem? Quick, get the malathion! Ugh, what was that disgusting creature? Well, maybe it was a caterpillar of that butterfly you were enjoying just a moment ago!"

A real "butterfly garden" shouldn't be a place where only winged adults are welcome. That's like having a garden where the plants have only flowers, no leaves or branches. And that's a better analogy than you might think because the winged or adult stages of the insects we call butterflies are often no more than short-lived reproductive stages that wither and die after mating and egg-laying. Just like flowers, their main purpose is to reproduce their kind. It just happens that the forms they have evolved are as pleasing to us as the flowers on which they alight.

Click for some images of a Monarch butterfly Life Cycle.

Many adult butterflies require nectar to sustain them while they search for mates or suitable places to lay their eggs. So growing plants that provide this vital resource is important, but there is much more we can do if we truly want to give butterflies a hand.

To produce a garden that is really butterfly-friendly takes a little effort and a change in attitude. For one thing, wherever possible, stop using insecticides in the garden. Few pesticides are specific enough to harm only troublesome pests. If you must use them, use pesticides that break down rapidly. Read the labels and become more aware of what you're spraying on old mother earth.

Any individual species of butterfly requires a certain habitat to survive and reproduce. That habitat will consist of plants and structures that together fill all of the needs of these insects throughout their complete life cycle. There must be host plants for the caterpillars to feed on, secure sites for the chrysalis and good shelter for the adults. If any of these components is missing in a given area then the species will not persist there. By attracting butterflies away from their natural habitat to feed on flowers in a garden we may actually be doing them a disservice, exposing them to predatory birds or the dangers of crossing busy streets or roads. (Remember what your radiator grill looked like after you last trip to the cottage!)


Growing plants to serve as food for caterpillars is probably the most important aspect of a real butterfly garden. And that's where the change in attitude comes in. I realize that this may seem like horticultural heresy; that's right, growing plants for bugs to eat, but if you want butterflies, then there have to be host plants for their caterpillars. If not in your garden, then at least nearby. But what's wrong with growing plants for caterpillars to feed on in your garden? Many caterpillar host plants make attractive additions to a garden. And so what if you have a few chewed-up leaves when the end product is a graceful Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) or a Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele)?

While adult butterflies often choose from a wide array of flowers to draw nectar, their offspring are usually very picky eaters. Caterpillars of a particular species will seldom eat more than a few types of plants, usually within a single plant family. Often one species of plant will predominate in the diet of caterpillars in a given region. For example, Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus, see our article: Marvelous Monarchs!), renowned for their beauty and prodigious seasonal migrations, feed exclusively on milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) of which there are 7 species in southern Manitoba. Dwarf milkweed (Asclepias ovalifolia) makes an attractive garden plant as does the larger, but unfortunately named, Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).

Click here to see Manitoba's Milkweed species.

Caterpillars of Black Swallowtails feed on members of the parsley family (Umbelliferae), but in Manitoba one species, Heart-leaved Alexanders (Zizia aptera), is by far their most important host plant. Fritillaries (Spyeria spp.) feed on violets (Viola spp.), the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) feeds on thistles (Cirsium spp.), and so on.

You'll find a list of some host plants for some of Manitoba's common butterflies on the next page of this article. Follow the link below.

Something to bear in mind when attempting to grow host plants for caterpillars in your garden is the type of surrounding habitat in your area. If you live near coniferous woodlands there's not much point in growing plants for prairie butterflies. Conversely, coniferous forest plants won't attract many prairie butterflies, and so on. And, by the way, don't overlook trees and shrubs as hosts for caterpillars. A little research into the types of butterflies you can expect to have in your area and their habitat requirements will serve you well in your efforts to create a real butterfly garden. The Butterflies of Manitoba by P. Klassen et al. and The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies by R.M. Pyle contain ample information to get you started.


The most appealing method of feeding adult butterflies is by growing nectar-rich flowers. Most bedding plants, or garden annuals, are not a butterfly's first choice, but some such as Zinnias and Nasturtiums produce enough nectar to be attractive. Perennials tend to be better nectar produces, but most of these have fairly short flowing seasons. To produce a garden that has nectar available throughout the growing season means growing a variety of perennials with overlapping flowering times.

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) | Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

Milbert's Tortoiseshell (Aglais milberti )

There is a list of good nectar producing plants on the next page of this article. Follow the link below.


While having the appropriate host plants is the foundation of a real butterfly garden, you shouldn't ignore the butterflies' other habitat requirements. Food for adult butterflies of many species consists of things other than nectar. Some draw sustenance from decaying fruit or tree sap and many draw vital nutrients from mud puddles, where salts and other organic substances accumulate, and even from animal feces. Obviously, you should use discretion when choosing to provide for certain types of butterflies. I wouldn't want to be accused of giving people an excuse not to clean up their doggie droppings under the pretext of feeding butterflies!

A simple butterfly-feeder can be made by suspending a small tray from a branch or pole and placing some pieces of over-ripe fruit on it. Some commercial butterfly-feeders are now available. They are similar to hummingbird-feeders, but usually with a yellow or blue coloured "flower" and sugar water to mimic nectar. Their effectiveness remains to be proven, though. (I've never had much luck with mine.)

Certain physical features of your home and garden benefit some butterflies as well. Many species require protected areas for the chrysalis (Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio canadensis), the seemingly inert stage in a butterfly's life where the incredible process of metamorphosis occurs. Caterpillars will often search out areas such as the eaves of buildings, under tree branches or in brush piles as sites to hang their chrysalis. Secure sites are particularly important to species that overwinter in the chrysalis, like the Tiger Swallowtail and Black Swallowtail. Butterflies that overwinter as adults, such as the Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), often make use of tree cavities or loose shingles or boards to provide them with hibernacula. A little less fastidiously maintained yard and house could benefit such butterflies.

Final Thoughts

So there you have it, a different concept for a butterfly garden, and a different attitude towards gardening in general. Why not give some thought to the way your garden could benefit other living species on this planet? Take the girdle off your yard and try growing a real butterfly garden. You might be surprised at what could flutter by!

Carry on for Nectar and Host Plants for Your Butterfly Garden

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