Attracting butterflies to your backyard begins with knowing a little bit about pollination. If you think about it, one could say that the goal of most living things is to reproduce. Plants reproduce by transferring pollen from one plant to another. Because plants can’t move themselves, they need a pollinator to help with the pollination process.
Pollinators include wind, water, and animals. Most grasses are wind-pollinated. Many water plants are water pollinated. (Some plants are self pollinated, such as Sweet Peas and Tulips.) And the other plants are pollinated by animals. In Pollination and Plant Families, Stein Carter writes that, “certain types of animals such as birds, butterflies, moths, bees, beetles, wasps, bats, and flies, typically pollinate certain types of plants.” He further writes that, “some plants are very specific with respect to what animal is able to serve as a pollinator, and have special modifications (special shape, etc.) to attract that pollinator or exclude other would-be pollinators.” This concept is what you need to know in order to attract butterflies, but maybe not so many of the other pollinators (maybe you’d like a butterfly garden, but not a bee garden, for your children).
What flowers attract butterflies? According to Carter, because butterflies don’t have a good sense of smell, but do have a good sense of vision, they mostly seek flowers by sight. Butterflies like brightly-colored flowers. (Note that they can see red while bees cannot—something to keep in mind if you’d like to exclude bees from a particular area.) Butterflies also like flowers that have a landing platform for them to stand on while they’re gathering nectar. Flowers that are clustered together are really helpful for butterflies, too, since they can land on one flower and then easily walk around to visit more flowers. Carter writes that great flowers for butterflies are “many members of the plant family Compositae, where many small flowers are arranged into a flat-topped head, and other plants, such as the milkweeds, where the flowers occur in large clusters.” In summary, butterflies like plants that are brightly-colored, provide a landing pad, and have many flowers arranged together.
Favorite nectar plants of butterflies are:
- Aster (Asteraceae Compositae, not Callistephus chinensis “Chinese Aster”)
- Zinnia (Asteraceae Compositae)
- Goldenrod (Asteraceae Compositae)
- Perennial Sunflower (Asteraceae Compositae)
- Gazania (Asteraceae Compositae)
- Milkweed (Asclepias Asclepiadaceae)
Note that butterflies may just be visiting your backyard for some much-needed energy as they are migrating to a different climate for the next season. Would you like to encourage butterflies to stay and make a home in your backyard? You’ll need some plants that provide food and homes for butterfly caterpillars.
Favorite plants for butterfly caterpillars are:
- Veronica (Speedwell)
- Betula (Birch)
- Salix (Willow)
Note that some plants can provide both nectar for butterflies and food for butterfly caterpillars, such as Aster and Milkweed.
According to the National Wildlife Federation, you can add some additional garden elements to make a haven for butterflies. Because butterflies like to bask in the sun to warm their wings and to gain a sense of orientation, you can provide flat rocks for them among the flowers. You can also provide drinking water by placing a shallow container of water and course sand in the butterfly garden.
Attracting butterflies to your backyard will add something special to your outdoor space.
By Shannon Mendez