attracting butterflies to your yard

Butterfly gardening

Gardening is a wonderful way to get heart-healthy exercise while relieving stress -- and butterflies are a welcome addition to any garden. It is estimated that there are more than 700 species of butterflies in North America, and probably more than 170 in the Carolinas. These "flying flowers" add color, activity and joy to even the smallest garden area. The following tips should help you attract them into you own landscape.

How attract butterflies to your yard and garden

A butterfly's habitat needs will change with each of its life stages: 1) host plants for laying their eggs and chrysalises, 2) food sources for caterpillars, and 3) nectaring flowers for adults. In general, however, the following considerations are important for providing a complete butterfly habitat:

1. Sunlight
Butterflies are cold-blooded and need heat from sunlight to warm them, especially in the morning. Select a site with at least a half day of sun. Basking stones, boards or flat rocks for sunning are also appreciated. Most of the flowers that butterflies visit bloom best in full sun.

2. Nectar plants
Butterflies feed on the nectar of certain types of flowers. Plants with large clusters of small flowers are preferred because the butterfly can easily walk from flower to flower, sipping nectar. Fragrant and brightly colored flowers are also favored.

3. Large groupings
A large group of one type of flower will be more easily spotted by butterflies and will hold their attention rather than scattered plants.

4. Continuous bloom
Select enough different species or varieties of flowers to ensure something will be in bloom from spring through fall. The variety attracts more species of butterflies and keeps them around the reliable food supply.

5. Larval food
The larvae, or caterpillars, of butterflies feed on specific plants (many of which are listed below under Larva Host Plants). The caterpillars of Eastern Black Swallowtail feed on plants in the carrot family parsley, dill, carrot. Monarch larvae feed on members of the milkweed family.

6. Water
Just like other animals, butterflies need water too. But a birdbath is too deep for butterflies since they cannot drink from open water. Butterflies prefer to drink from damp areas such as shallow pools, mud puddles or wet sand.

7. Avoid pesticides
Do not use insecticides in or near your butterfly garden. Soaps and oils may be used to control small insects such as aphids and spider mites as long as there are no butterfly eggs or small caterpillars on the plants.

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Flowers that attract butterflies

Allium (Allium spp.)
Bee Balm (Monarda spp.)
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.)
Blazing Star (Uatris spp.)
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberose)
Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
Coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.)
Daisies (Chrysanthemum spp.)
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)
Ironweed (Vernonia spp.)
Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum)
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Milkweed (Asclepias spp.)
New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae)
Phlox (Phlox spp.)
Queen Anne's Lace (Oaucus carota)
Salvia (Salvia spp.)
Sedum (Sedum spp.)
Sweet William (Dianthus spp.)
Yarrow (Achillea spp.)
Annual Butterfly Weed
Marigold, French
Mexican Sunflower
Scarlet Sage
Vinca (Madagascar periwinkle)
Blue Mist Shrub
Butterfly Bush
Button Bush
Mock Orange
Larva Host Plants
Queen Anne's Lace
how to attract butterflies to your yard

Additional Information is available from:

Carolina Butterfly Society, 4209 Bramlet Place, Greensboro, NC 27407
North American Butterfly Association
Monarch Watch

North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Tips for Attracting Butterflies

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Join in our discussions:
Showing comment(s)
Tina in Chapel Hill
December 14, 2016
I'm completely into organic gardening so I try to pick off off bugs, slugs and caterpillars rather than using sprays. But my predicament is that I never know whether I am smooshing benefitial butterfly caterpillars or the many pesky moths like cabbage worms. I wonder if there is an easy rule of thumb for telling the difference between the two.
Jake at Raleigh Health
December 16, 2016
Hi Tina, That is a great question. Just like you, I want to avoid killing something that ends up being beneficial so I will do some research on it. (As an example, I'd always been pretty aggressive at destroying paper wasp nests anywhere near our house. I know now that they are actually beneficial -- as long as they aren't stinging family members and pets -- since they feed on caterpillars.)

I guess you can just try to make yourself familiar with the specific, problematic caterpillars from the photos at sites like

Otherwise, there are safe caterpillar control options like cloth covers, hoop houses and organic caterpillar-control products, but i assume these methods probably impact beneficial caterpillars just as much as the "pesky" ones you referred to.

It is interesting that you mentioned "beneficial butterflies" and "pesky moths." I don't know if one is necessarily "good" and the other is usually "bad" but do you know the best way to tell the difference? Moths normally have fuzzy or feathery antennae while butterflies have long, club-shaped antennae. Read more interesting facts about moths and butterflies.

Jake at Raleigh Health
December 16, 2016
Hi again Tina, As it turns out, I found a site that addresses your specific question: Identifying good vs. bad caterpillars:
August 26, 2013
Thanks for the great information on how to support butterfly populations. The decline of Monarchs, in particular, is just heartbreaking!
Jess at Raleigh Health
August 30, 2013
Thanks for your message, photomom. I agree that the trends are alarming. The monarch population in the Mexico's overwintering sites this spring were the smallest since 1975, which was when researchers began their tracking efforts down there. According to, the #1 thing any of us can do right now is to plant milkweed. And I was surprised to learn from their site that there are so many types of milkweed that are beneficial to monarchs. And it's not just the monarchs that are in decline. Nearly every chart I can find shows that most species of butterflies around the world are struggling.
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