Butterfly Gardening

Gardening for butterflies and pollinators has become an increasingly popular and sophisticated activity over the last 15 years. Initially, these gardens were quite simple and involved only the addition of a number of nectar sources for adult butterflies easily obtained through commercial outlets as well as a few host plants for caterpillars of various species. This approach still works and if you are new to this activity it would be wise to start with the tried and true plants with the idea that you can add and subtract plant species in the future. If you are starting a Monarch Waystation at a school, nature center or home garden, a modest plan that incorporates familiar plants my be the best approach.

If you already are an experienced gardener and want to expand your knowledge of plants and provide a more productive habitat for native pollinators, you might consider adding native plants to your garden. Gardening with native plants has become quite popular and lists of plants appropriate for gardens in various regions of the country can be found on many websites. The diversity of native plants is such that you can select plants based on the kinds of pollinators you wish to attract to your garden. There are flowers that predominantly attract hummingbirds, swallowtail butterflies and some large moths, while others attract numerous bee species and yet others attract butterflies, moths and even flies and beetles. If your garden contains a good mix of such plants, it can be a lively and very interesting place indeed (and don't worry about the bees they will be too busy collecting nectar and pollen to sting). To get an idea of how to create such habitats for pollinators and monarchs, please visit the website for the Pollinator Prairie (a list of native plants is included).

To assist those of you who would like to add native plants to your gardens, we have sought the advice of several people who have extensive experience with native plants. Two plant lists are included here, the first encompasses most of the northeastern portion of the country and the second deals with native plants that can be effectively used in different regions of Texas. The notations indicate whether the plants are native, are host plants and whether they are annuals or perennials.

The plant lists below may be over the top for those of you who are just beginning and, if so, remember the advice is to keep it simple at the outset. To help you do this, the "must have" plants for basic gardens are in bold type.

For those creating gardens for schools, remember gardening for butterflies and pollinators is both fun and educational. Butterflies and pollinators are easy to watch and easy to identify. Pocket cameras and smart phones can be used to take pictures of the visitors to your garden so you they may be identified using some of the large number of websites devoted to different groups of insects. Pollinator gardens are also a good way to introduce students to insect diversity. The attributes of the flowers that attract certain types of pollinators or conversely the attributes of the pollinators and the flowers they visit could be the subject of many student projects. Further, the seasonal progression of bloom, or phenology, could also be tracked from year. The maintenance activities in the garden, the flower phenology and visitors, unusual sightings, etc., could all be logged on a website dedicated to the garden, a website that could be shared with other schools with similar gardens. Remember you are also gardening with another purpose - to attract specific butterflies to the host plants you have added to the garden. Some may show up soon while others may take some time before they discover the resource you've created. These arrivals can be quite gratifying.

One last note: your butterfly garden can be any size, from a window box to a portion of your landscaped yard to a wild, untended area on your lot. You can include native plants, cultivated species, or both. But before you get started, read the hints here in our gardening section to make your garden as successful as possible.



The plants listed here are suitable for school and home gardens for most of the eastern United States -- defined here as 35N to 46N latitude from east of the 98th parallel to the Alantic, (or roughly from central MN to southeastern KS and east to the coast). Many of the plants listed as native do not occur throughout the eastern United States. Please note that for your convenience we have subdivided the region to allow you to choose the native plants that are most effective in your area. Further information on the distributions of native plants can be found by consulting the North American Plant Atlas or by consulting the USDA Plants Database provided by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). For a list of plants that are suitable for butterfly/pollinator gardens in Texas, please see the Texas Plant List below. If you plan to create a Monarch Waystation or butterfly/pollinator habitat in a region other than the northeast and Texas, it is advisible to consult with local gardening experts and those who specialize in native plants to determine the plants that can be used to greatest effect, given the climate and soil conditions in your area. It is also suggested that you check the cultural requirements (soil, moisture, light exposure) for each species before purchasing/planting.

Diversity is the key to a successful butterfly/pollinator garden or Monarch Waystation. Select a location in full sun or one that receives at least eight hours of direct sunlight daily. When choosing plants, whether native or non-native, use only single-flowered varieties. To create a showy block of color and fragrance, plant each species in clusters of 7-9 plants. Grow your own plants organically or purchase plants from nurseries whose growers DO NOT use systemic insecticides or any other pesticides on their plants. Ask about this before you make your purchase.

Enhance your garden by incorporating other elements besides plants. Include places for pollinators to seek shelter from the wind and rain. Create wet, sandy or muddy spots for butterflies to imbibe salts and other nutrients. A location with dark stones or tiles for butterflies to perch on to warm up on cool mornings adds to the activity in the garden. Most importantly, discontinue use of all pesticides (insecticides, herbicides and fungicides) in the area, and ask bordering neighbors to do the same.

Milkweeds for monarchs can be obtained through Monarch Watch or vendors listed in the Milkweed Market. Native plant nurseries can be found in most areas, and native plants are often offered for sale at Farmers' Markets. Additional information can also be obtained by contacting local or regional Native Plant Societies.

For more information on creating a Monarch Waystation and instructions for certification, please see monarchwatch.org/waystations/. If you have questions or need guidance, please contact us.

Key: N=native, P=perennial, A=annual, B=attracts bees, BF=attracts butterflies, BFh=butterfly host, HB=attracts hummingbirds, M-A= Mid-Atlantic region (IN=Inland/C=Coastal Plain), MW=Midwest region, GL=Great Lakes region, NE=New England region. Common plant names that are in bold type are "must-haves" for beginner gardeners-- they are easy to find and grow and are all-round good pollinator plants.

Please note: The plants that are considered average garden plants, annuals, or non-native species are generally checked in all regions, even though they may not be native to them, since they will typically grow anywhere if planted in a garden situation.


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