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If You Build It, They Will Come: Attracting Butterflies To Your Yard

Butterflies have this unexplainable allure that seems to appeal to people of all ages. The key to enticing these winged beauties to your yard, is utilizing adult nectar sources and larval (caterpillar) host plants in your plant palette.

Nectar Plants

When it comes to flowers, think vibrant colors like pink, purple, red, orange, and yellow. The shape of flowers is also important as butterflies feed by sipping nectar with their straw-like proboscis. Look for plants that produce clusters of tubular flowers or ones with large flat petals. Incorporating plants that bloom at different times will provide a stable nectar source from spring to frost. There are lots of great nectar plants. This is often indicated on a plant tag with a butterfly symbol. A few of my favorites are: Blazing star (Liatris spp), Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Tickseed (Coreopsis spp), and Zinnia (Zinnia elegans).

Plants in the aster family such as this Cheyenne Spirit Coneflower are attractive to many butterflies including the American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis).

Plants in the aster family such as this Cheyenne Spirit Coneflower are attractive to many butterflies including the American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis).
Terasa Lott, ©2019, Clemson Extension

The yellow center, called the disk floret, contains the nectar being consumed by this Sleepy Orange (Abaeis nicippe)

The yellow center, called the disk floret, contains the nectar being consumed by this Sleepy Orange (Abaeis nicippe)
Terasa Lott, ©2019, Clemson Extension

The Easter Tiger Swallotwail (Papilio glaucus) is South Carolina’s state butterfly.

The Easter Tiger Swallotwail (Papilio glaucus) is South Carolina’s state butterfly.
Eddie Lott, ©2017

Host Plants

Nectar plants will attract adult butterflies but you’ll need plants for caterpillars to eat too (host plants). Butterflies such as the Monarch (Danaus plexippus) are very particular, feeding exclusively on milkweed. Others will use plants from several different families. A few of my favorite host plants are: Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), and Passion Vine (Passiflora incarnata). Developing caterpillars have voracious appetites so you’ll need to be tolerant of the damage to your plants. While plants may appear to be decimated, most seem to tolerate the grazing just fine. If you’re trying to grow dill or fennel, consider having plants for “you” and plants for “them”.

If you plant dill, fennel, or other members of the carrot family, you’ll likely share your plants with Black Swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes). Pictured here is an early instar (stage) with the characteristic white stripe across the middle.

If you plant dill, fennel, or other members of the carrot family, you’ll likely share your plants with Black Swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes). Pictured here is an early instar (stage) with the characteristic white stripe across the middle.
Eddie Lott, ©2017

Butterfly Milkweed will serve a dual purpose in the garden acting as a host plant for the Monarch and a nectar source for adults such as the Variegated Fritillary (Euptoieta claudia).
Terasa Lott, ©2019, Clemson Extension

Passion Vine, sometimes known as Maypops, is the host plant for several butterfly species including the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae). **the photo called passion_vine.jpg can be included if you want to show the flower**

Passion Vine, sometimes known as Maypops, is the host plant for several butterfly species including the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae).
Terasa Lott, ©2019, Clemson Extension

Building habitat that includes nectar sources and host plants will almost certainly attract butterflies to your yard but there are other considerations. For more information about butterfly gardening, please see: HGIC 1701 Butterflies in the Garden, HGIC 1734 Urban Wildlife – Butterflies, and HGIC 1735 Butterflies of South Carolina.

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at hgic@clemson.edu or 1-888-656-9988.

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