One of the benefits of having a landscape full of flowers is the joy of seeing colorful butterflies flitting from flower to flower to feed on their sweet nectar. It is interesting how much of the summer may go by with only an occasional sighting of a butterfly. Then, suddenly, they seem to be everywhere. Some years butterflies are plentiful, others not so much. The weather and the environment play big roles in the annual abundance or scarcity of many species of butterflies. In some cases, human activity also plays an important role.
If you want to enjoy a wide variety of beautiful adult butterflies flitting about your yard, you should provide various types of plants for both the adult and the larval stages of these insects. A diverse perennial flower garden, mixed with annuals, perennials, vegetables, flowering shrubs and vines, will attract an assortment of butterflies. Caterpillars usually need different food plants than the adults, so having a variety of plants increases the diversity of butterflies attracted to your yard since adults are drawn to larval food plants on which to lay their eggs.
Larvae feed on the leaves and flowers of shrubs, trees, annual and perennials, while the adults require the nectar of flowers and other sweet things such as decaying fruit and wet wood on trees. Of course, don’t spray your flower garden with insecticides or you will kill the very caterpillars you are trying to attract.
I like growing bronze fennel in my garden. It is very attractive with its dark bronzy, finely cut foliage. Fennel is a favorite food of the larvae of the large and showy Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly. Be prepared because if you want it mainly for its attractive foliage, the voracious larvae may strip it after a few days as they grow larger. But, it will survive and flush out more shoots later.
Another wonderful plant that hosts a wide variety of adult butterflies is summer phlox (Phlox panniculata). It has bright, magenta/pink blooms that last for several weeks, and butterflies (and hummingbirds) flock to this easy sun-loving perennial.
Zinnias are easy-to-grow annuals which come in a range of colors, and draw large numbers and varieties of butterflies. Like many annuals, there are a large number of varieties available. Some of the better series (each of which has a several different colors) include Zahara, Dreamland, Magellan, and Profusion.
Here are a few larval plant suggestions for attracting butterflies to lay their eggs on:
Asclepias (several species of milkweeds) – very important hosts for Monarch and Queen butterflies. Asclepias tuberosa (Butterfly Weed) is a long-lived perennial with bright orange flowers (and newer varieties with yellow flowers).
Passionflower (Passiflora) – larval host plant for Gulf Fritillary (beware – this vine suckers beyond where it is planted).
Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia) – vine with unusual blooms with rounded leaves that serve as the larval host plant for the Pipevine Swallowtail.
Pawpaw (Asimina) – medium-sized tree native to east Texas with unusual, tasty fruits. The leaves are the larval host plant for the beautiful Zebra Swallowtail
Parsley, fennel, dill – larval host plant for Eastern Black Swallowtail
Citrus – if you grow Satsuma oranges or other citrus in containers, you might see Giant Swallowtail butterflies visiting and laying eggs on the leaves which serve as their larval host.
Some good nectar plants:
Salvia (all kinds), Lantana, Butterfly Bush, Almond Verbena (Aloysia), Zinnias, Tithonia (Mexican Sunflower), Abelia, Gomphrena, Sedum, Turk’s Cap, Azaleas, Ixora, Penta, Phlox, Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium).
For a very extensive listing of adult and larval host plants, visit the North American Butterfly Association web site, and in particular, the North Central Texas plant list – http://www.naba.org/ftp/nctx.pdf