Nothing brings a garden to life the way butterflies do! They are like having your flowers take to the air!
Getting more butterflies to visit and live in your garden is easy; you plant what they like. The most important plants are called “larval host plants.” They are the ones butterflies need to lay their eggs on and that the hatched caterpillars (larvae) need to eat. You see, most butterflies have very specific needs and will only lay eggs on one type or family of plants. Monarchs, for example, only lay their eggs on milkweeds and related plants. Although adult butterflies will visit lots of flowers for nectar, they will pass over a garden overflowing with flowers to get to one of their larval host plants. Finding these plants is essential for them to reproduce, and butterflies will travel long distances to get to them. It is a matter of survival.
Here are some common butterflies of Georgia and some of the larval host plants they need:
Monarch – milkweeds, including butterflyweed, milkweed vines (Matelea)
Spicebush Swallowtail – spicebush, sassafras
Tiger Swallowtail – tulip poplar, green ash, white ash, sweet bay, wild cherry
Gulf Fritillary – mollypop or maypop, green passionflower or other passionflowers
Long-Tailed Skipper – members of the bean family
Silver-Spotted Skipper – black locust and other members of the bean family
Zebra Swallowtail – pawpaw
Pipevine Swallowtail – pipevine, snakeroot
Buckeye – broad-leaf plantain, ruellia, gerardia
Red-Spotted Purple – wild cherry
Snout Butterfly – hackberry
Hackberry Butterfly – hackberry, elms
Giant Swallowtail – Hercules club, members of the citrus family
Black Swallowtail – members of the carrot family including dill, fennel, parsley and Queen Anne’s lace
Painted Lady and American Painted Lady – thistle
Pearly Crescentspot – native asters
Mourning Cloak – willows, elms
Gray Hairstreak – beans, clover
Olive Hairstreak – red cedar
Henry’s Elfin – blueberry
The second thing is to have lots of “nectar plants.” These are plants with flowers that adult butterflies can feed on. The best nectar plants have a large flower head or cluster of flowers that the butterfly can land on and hold to as it goes from individual flower to flower. A gust of wind could blow them off course and it would take a lot of time and energy to get back to feeding, so they like to stay put and feed. Here are some favorite nectar plants that adult butterflies like: ironweed, butterflyweed (also a good host plant), joe-pye weed, summer phlox, thrift, buttonbush, abelia, lilac, liatris, native asters, goldenrod, sunflower, tithonia or Mexican sunflower, purple coneflower and zinnia. Buddleia or butterfly bush is a good nectar source, but it has become invasive in some areas of the country and some people fear it will do so here in Georgia. Just because it is called "butterfly bush" does not mean it is the best or only choice for a butterfly garden. There are many other plants that are just as good and that you don't have to worry about becoming invasive.
If you are going to have a butterfly garden, you must remember that every caterpillar is not your enemy. Learn to tolerate a few chewed leaves. Refrain from using insecticides or use them carefully. They won’t just kill insect pests; they kill the pretty butterflies you want to attract, too.
-- Arty Schronce
Arty Schronce lives and gardens in the historic Cabbagetown neighborhood of Atlanta. He encourages everyone to discover the pleasures of plants and gardening.