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Butterfly Gardens

1.  This NebGuide (Univ. of Nebraska at Lincoln extension) outlines planting schemes and arrangements that will help attract butterflies to a garden area.   One of the best resources for butterflies is at the USGS Northern Prairie Wildlife Center.   See link at the Wildlife Page.

Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Kenneth R. Bolen, Director of Cooperative Extension, University of Nebraska, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Dale T. Lindgren, Horticulture
Stephen M. Spomer, Entomology
Amy Greving, Horticulture


Butterflies can be found in almost any part of Nebraska, from the Pine Ridge's coniferous forests and across the grasslands of the Sandhills to the deciduous forests along the Missouri River. Watching butterflies, much like bird watching or observing wildflowers has become a popular and enjoyable pastime. Since many natural butterfly habitats have been lost to urbanization and other development, some environmental organizations have incorporated butterfly conservation into their programs. Many people are taking a personal interest in attracting these fascinating insects to their gardens. By choosing the right plants, you can attract many different butterflies, adding a moveable mural of color to your landscape.

Butterflies and moths belong to the insect order Lepidoptera. They are well-known for their beauty, may act as pollinators for some plants, and are a food source for certain animals. The presence or absence of butterflies is an indicator of the health of our environment.


Butterfly Anatomy and Life Cycle

Butterflies go through a four-stage developmental process known as metamorphosis (egg, larva or caterpillar, pupa or chrysalis, and adult). Understanding a butterfly's life cycle can make butterfly watching more enjoyable, and the knowledge is an important asset to people who want to understand the principles of attracting butterflies to their gardens.

Depending on the species, the life cycle of a butterfly (one generation) may take anywhere from about one month to an entire year. Nebraska butterflies may have one, two, or more generations (broods) per year. Usually, the most common butterflies are multiple-brooded and provide a continuous array of color and activity to your butterfly garden throughout the season.


Commonly Attracted Butterflies in Nebraska

In Nebraska, some of the most readily-attracted butterflies include:

Attracting Butterflies

Although plant selection and placement are the most effective methods to attract butterflies, site selection for a butterfly garden is also important. Butterflies like sunny sites and areas sheltered from high winds. Warm, sheltered sites are most needed in the spring and fall. Provide rocks or bricks for pupation sites and for basking and warming in the sun.

Butterflies require food plants for their larval stages and nectar plants for the adult stage. Some larvae feed on specific host plants, while others will feed on a variety of plants. If possible, include both larval host plants and adult nectar plants in your butterfly garden.


Types of Plants to Attract Butterflies

Plants that attract butterflies are usually classified as those that are a food source, a nectar source, or both. Some of these plants will also provide protection from predators, offer shelter, a place to lay eggs, and a place to attach chrysalides. It can be relatively simple to attract butterflies and still have a garden that suits your tastes and needs. Nectar flowers and other favorite butterfly plants come in many forms--annuals, perennials, herbs, vines, grasses, shrubs, and trees. The plants can be native or non-native.

If you just want to attract a few more butterflies than you have seen in past years, simply plant more of the nectar flowers commonly visited by adults. If you want to attract many different species and you live in an urban or suburban area where there are few pasture or woodlands, you will need to add plants that are a good source of food for butterfly larvae (caterpillars) as well. Include an assortment of plants for season-long bloom. The time of flowering, duration of bloom, flower color, and plant size are all important considerations when selecting plants to attract butterflies.

Many plants which attract butterflies, especially trees and shrubs, may already be present in a specific area. Although weeds and some native plants are generally not welcome in a garden, allowing them to grow under supervision may be an option, as these plants help attract butterflies. Try to avoid plants like blue flax and grayhead prairie coneflower that readily reseed and may take over and dominate garden sites.

Plants with clusters of flowers are often better than plants with small, single flowers because it is easier for butterflies to land on clustered and/or larger flowers. Planting in mass (several plants of the same kind) will usually attract more butterflies, as there is more nectar available to them at a single stop. Select plants adapted to your site and location, and develop a plan for the butterfly garden. Several books are available with butterfly garden plans. (For a sample plan, order the hard copy of this NebGuide. Check with your local Extension office.)

It is difficult to have a successful butterfly garden in locations where insecticides are used. Pesticides, specifically insecticides, can kill butterflies as well as a host of other useful insects. Even biological controls, such as BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) will kill butterfly larvae. When treating for insect pests, always consider non-chemical methods of pest control before turning to pesticides.

Plants that attract butterflies may also attract bees and wasps. Most bees and wasps, busy with their pollen and nectar collecting tasks, are not likely to sting if left undisturbed. However, if you are allergic to bee and wasp stings, be careful! Butterfly gardens may also attract other forms of wildlife, both wanted and unwanted species.


List of Plants to Attract Butterflies

{L} = Larval Food Plants
{N} = Nectar Plants
(Refer to references [additional information] for flowering periods.)


Annuals grow, flower, and complete their life cycle in one season. There is a wide range of flower types, colors, growth habits, and heights to choose from. Removal of old flowers (deadheading) of annuals may be necessary to encourage continued blooming.

Common annual flowers that attract butterflies include:


Biennials form a rosette plant the first year, flower the second year, and then die. Biennials to consider for use in butterfly gardens include:


Herbs are used for flavoring food. Butterflies are also attracted to them as a nectar source as well as a larval food source.


Most shrubs have a limited flower duration. However, they can provide good, short-term nectar sources, as well as butterfly habitats.


Trees can serve a vital function as a larval food host, a nectar source, or protection.

Herbaceous Perennials

Perennial herbaceous plants are nonwoody plants that live and flower for more than 2 years. Some plants, like alfalfa and clover, may not be suitable for a small flower garden, but they may be found or encouraged to grow in surrounding areas.

Herbaceous perennials to consider include:


Grasses can be annuals or perennials. Height can vary from a few inches to several feet. They can be native or introduced and can be larval food and/or nectar plants.


For additional information

Damrosch, B. 1982. Theme Gardens. Workman
Publishing Co., New York.
Dennis, J. V. & M. Tekulsky. 1991. How to Attract
Hummingbirds and Butterflies. Ortho Books, Chevron
Chemical Co., 6001 Bollinger Canyon Road, San Ramon, CA 94583.
Lindgren, D. T. 1992. Wildflowers for the Home Landscape. University
of Nebraska Cooperative Extension NebGuide G-1074. 3 pp.
Opler, P.A. 1992. A Field Guide to Eastern Butterflies. Houghton
Mifflin Company, New York.
Opler, P.A. & W.S. Cranshaw. 1986. Attracting Butterflies to the
Eastern Colorado Yard and Garden, No. 5.504, Service in Action,
Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension.
Sedenko, J. 1991. The Butterfly Garden. Running Heads, Inc.,
55 West 21 Street, New York, NY 10010.
Steinegger, D. H. & L. Finke. 1990. Annual Flowers for Nebraska.
University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension NebGuide G-739, 4 pp.
Steinegger, D. H. & L. Finke. 1991. Ornamental Shrubs for Nebraska.
University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension NebGuide G-1014, 4 pp.
Steinegger, D. H. & L. Finke. 1991. Perennials. University of
Nebraska NebGuide G-1015, 4 pp.
Steinegger, D. H. & J. H. Locklear. 1988. Growing Perennials. University
of Nebraska NebGuide G-828, 2 pp.
Stokes, D., L. Stokes & E. Williams. 1991. The Butterfly Book.
Little, Brown & Company, Boston.
Tekulsky, M. 1985. The Butterfly Garden. The Harvard Common Press, Boston.
Tylka, D. 1987. Butterfly Gardening and Conservation. Urban Wildlife
Series, No. 2, NH-6/87-10M. Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri.
Xerces Society/Smithsonian Institution. 1990. Butterfly Gardening. Sierra
Club Books, San Francisco.

A-15, Miscellaneous

Paper version issued December 1993; 5,000 printed.

         Find this and other topics in publications at University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension - Nebguides


Wildlife Series

Michigan State University Extension, Genesee County - (810) 244-8547

Why Attract Butterflies

The aesthetic and entertainment value of butterflies ranks very high for
many people, but butterflies are more than beautiful; they are important
"threads" that keep the "fabric" of nature from unraveling. Butterflies are
extremely important as plant pollinators, and as food for other animals
(birds, mammals, amphibians, spiders and other insects). There are about
120,000 species of butterflies in the world (10,000 in North America

How to Create a Butterfly Garden

Grow Nectar Plants - The main food for adult butterflies is nectar from
flowers. As they gather nectar, they also inadvertently do some
pollination. When planting flowers, group them together to entice
butterflies. Butterflies will generally choose a mass of flowers, rather
than one or two appealing flowers.

Grow Caterpillar Food Plants - To produce even more butterflies in your
garden, provide food for caterpillars (the larval stage of butterflies).
They require a different menu than adult butterflies. Caterpillars eat the
leaves and sometimes flowers and seeds of certain plants. They are often
highly selective compared to adult butterflies.

Caterpillars eat the leaves and sometimes flowers and seeds of certain
plants. They are often highly selective in their tastes, and some species
will eat only one species of plant. It is the adult female butterfly that
chooses these plants and then lays her eggs on them. So by planting larval
food plants you will attract egg-

laying females to your garden. Many larval plants are wildflowers, weeds,
and grasses that belong in an informal setting, not in a flower border. You
may want to designate a separate area for these, away from the main flower

Choose a Sunny Location - Sun is extremely important for butterflies.
Butterflies need sun to keep their bodies warm enough so that they can fly.
This can only be done when their body temperature is about 85-100 degrees
Fairenheight. You can help butterflies by providing some rocks or
evergreens in your garden in spots that get sun early in the day. The rocks
will absorb the heat from the sun and the butterflies can perch on them to
bask, warm up, and start flying earlier.

Provide Shelter - A butterfly garden should be planted in a location that
is sheltered from the wind. This helps the butterfly in two ways: they are
not cooled by breezes, and they do not have to spend extra energy fighting
the wind currents as they try to feed, mate and lay eggs.

Do Not Use Pesticides - Butterflies are insects, so pesticides that rid
your garden of insect pests will also rid your garden of butterflies. This
includes the use of bacterial insecticide BT, Bacillus thuringiensais. It
will kill butterfly larvae. When necessary, use a homemade spray of
soapsuds, garlic, chives, and tabasco to control such insects as aphids.

Other Butterfly Attractions

Some butterflies like to drink from the wet edges of mud puddles or wet
sandy areas. Some butterflies never feed on nectar; instead, they feed on
rotting fruit, sap and even dung, urine, and carrion, from which they get
nutrients and minerals. Rotting fruit can be put on a tray to attract
butterflies, but be aware that other animals, such as raccoons and possum
may also be drawn to it.

How to Get Plants

How you obtain larval food plants varies with the type of plant. Many
flowers, shrubs, and trees can be bought at nurseries. Vegetable plants can
be bought as seedlings or seeds. Plants that are generally considered weeds
can often be encouraged simply by turning over the soil in an area and
leaving it alone. For others, look for them growing naturally, try to
gather some seeds and spread them over the bare earth. Some wild flowers,
such as milkweed, everlasting, aster, turtlehead and lupine should not be
dug out of wild areas. It is better to acquire these plants from native
plant societies that propagate them.

Ten Primary Larval Food Plants
(and the butterflies that use them)

Plant Butterfly
Aster Pearl Crescent
Bean Long-tailed skipper
Cabbage Cabbage white
Dogwood Spring azure
Elm Mourning cloak
False indigo Dog face
Marigold Dainty sulphur
Snapdragon Buckeye
Thistle Painted lady
Tulip poplar Tiger swallotail
Milkweed Monarch

Top Nectar Plants

Allium Aster
Bee balm Black-eyed susan
Blazing star Butterfly weed
Coreopsis Blanket flower
Purple coneflower Yarrow

Sources of Information

A Field Guide to Eastern Butterflies by Paul A. Opler, The Peterson Field
Guide Series, Houghten Mifflin Co., Boston, 1992

Butterfly's Gardeners Quartely, P.O. Box 30931, Seattle WA 98103

The Butterfly Book, by Donald and Lillian Stokes and Ernest Williams,
Little Brown, and Co., Boston, 1991



Michigan State University
Extension, Genesee County.
G-4215 W. Pasadena
Flint, MI 48504

nr/butterflies 4/99

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