Plants and tips to attract butterflies to your garden

According to the Smithsonian Institution, there are about 750 species of butterflies in the United States, with perhaps the most common being the cabbage white. However, butterfly sightings in gardens are becoming increasingly rare as scientists report that climate change is having a catastrophic impact on their numbers.

According to a report published in the journal, about 450 species of butterflies have been declining at an estimated rate of 1.6 percent per year in the western United States over the past 40 years Science in March 2021. Some cultivars are threatened with extinction, such as the Western Monarch, whose population has declined by 99.9 percent since the 1980s. The researchers said “climate change — particularly warmer months in the fall — explains a large part” of that decline. Habitat loss also plays a role.

You can do your part to protect these vital and beautiful pollinators by turning your green space into a haven for butterflies. Below gardeners explain how to get started.

blue butterfly
A common blue butterfly. Scientists report that warmer falls and habitat loss are having a major impact on butterfly numbers.
Getty Images

Which plants are most likely to attract butterflies?

First, research what types of butterflies are common in your area so you can fill your garden with the flowers that are most likely to attract nectar-seeking adults and the “host plants” for laying eggs and feeding caterpillars.

Native plants are best, said Amber Scott Freda, a garden designer in Manhattan news week.

Most butterflies prefer bright, open blooms that grow in full sun, she said. “They also tend to prefer red, orange, yellow, and pink to other flower colors. Like hummingbirds, they prefer more trumpet-shaped flowers, which are easier to collect nectar from.”

Donald Loggins — the last original gardener at New York City’s first community garden, Liz Christy Community Garden — said different plants would attract different species, and offered a list of 29 options for your garden.

Plants that attract butterflies

  • Alyssum
  • aster
  • bee balm
  • butterfly bush
  • marigold
  • cosmos
  • daylily
  • delphinium
  • dianthus
  • fennel
  • globe thistle
  • goldenrod
  • mallow
  • lavender
  • Liatris
  • marigold
  • Musk Mallow
  • Nasturtium
  • oregano
  • phlox
  • coneflower
  • Queen Anne lace
  • sage
  • scabiosa
  • Shasta Daisies
  • sedum
  • Verbena
  • yarrow
  • zinnia

How to attract caterpillars

To make your garden a true paradise, you can “also use plants that caterpillars like to nibble on, like parsley and milkweed,” says Freda. Parsley and spurge are easy to care for, she added, and only need plenty of sun and moderate water to grow properly.

Gardeners shouldn’t be disappointed if the caterpillars make short work of these plants, because that’s the whole point of growing. “Today’s happy caterpillars are tomorrow’s beautiful butterflies.”

Loggins also offered a list of the best plants to feed the caterpillars of 10 common US species.

  • Acmon Blue: Buckwheat, Lupine, Milk Clover
  • American Painted Lady: Feltweed
  • Black swallowtail: parsley, dill, fennel, rue
  • Gray comma: gooseberry, azalea, elm
  • Monarch: Spurge
  • Painted Lady (Cosmopolitan): Thistles, Mallows, Nievitas, Yellow Gooseneck
  • Sulphur: clover, peas, vetch, alfalfa, asters
  • Western tailed blue: vetch, milk vetch
  • Western Tiger Swallowtail: willow, plum, alder, sycamore, hop tree, ash
  • Zebra Swallowtail: Papaya

More tips for attracting butterflies

If butterflies are difficult to attract, keeping them around can be even more difficult. You might want to get a closer look at one that’s in the garden – and snap it for Instagram, of course – but don’t make any sudden movements. “It’s best to sit and watch her and stay still if you really want to keep her around,” Freda said.


Many chemical pesticides kill both beneficial insects and invasive species, so avoid them if you want pollinators in the garden. California-based SummerWinds Nursery states that malathion, carbaryl, and diazinon can be fatal to butterflies.

The old peasant almanac also points out that widespread use of pesticides is bad for spurge, the main food of monarch caterpillars.

You can control pests without chemicals: one possibility is the humble ladybug. Another is a bag of oranges.

water and sunshine

To create the perfect environment for butterflies, Loggins suggested installing a water garden, bird bath, or rain tank. “Butterflies are attracted to muddy puddles into which they flock to fetch salt and nutrients as well as water.”

You should also provide them with a place to sunbathe. “Butterflies need sun for orientation and to warm their wings for flight. Place flat rocks in your yard to give butterflies a place to rest and bask.” Plants and tips to attract butterflies to your garden

Rick Schindler

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