I’m often asked, “How do I start a butterfly garden?” and, “How can I get butterflies to come to my garden?” or, “I have lots of flowers but how come I never see any butterflies? Plant host plants! It takes more than nectar to entice butterflies to take up residence in your garden. Larval host plants are the secret to successful butterfly gardening; they are plants required by a caterpillar for growth and development. By planting host plants in your garden, you offer a promise of food for the next generation and will attract more butterflies than you thought possible.
If you do not have host plants in your garden, butterflies may come to visit the flowers for nectar, but then they will leave. Butterflies are on a mission. Females are busy looking for places to lay their eggs. Males are also attracted to host plants, where they can find females for mating. So make it easy for them and plant those plants they need for their offspring.
Below are some common North American butterflies and their host plants. I have included some of the most common and easiest butterflies to attract. As you learn more about the different species of butterflies that are native to your area you can expand the different types of host plants to put in your garden.
Monarch (Danaus plexippus)
Queen (Danaus gilippus)
The eastern North American Monarch is known for its annual southward late-summer/autumn migration from the northern and central United States and southern Canada to Florida and Mexico. During the fall migration, monarchs cover thousands of miles, with a corresponding multigenerational return north. The western North American population of monarchs west of the Rocky Mountains often migrates to sites in southern California.
Queen butterflies can be found regularly in peninsular Florida and southern Georgia, as well as in the southern portions of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Occasionally, the subspecies of the queen can be found somewhat north, in Kansas, Colorado, and Utah. Periodically, a stray may be found in the Midwest, such as in Missouri.
American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis)
The American Lady butterfly is found over the southern half as well as the eastern half of the US.
Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)
Black Swallowtails are some of the easiest butterflies to attract to your garden not only because they are found throughout North America but also because they have so many host plants that are very easy to grow from seed.
Painted Lady (Vanessa Cardui)
The Painted Lady butterfly is another common butterfly that can easily be attracted to your garden because it has so many different flowering plants that are host plants for their caterpillars.
Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia)
The Common Buckeye is found in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains and in Mexico. Its habitat is open areas with low vegetation and some bare ground. The species Junonia grisea, the gray buckeye, is found west of the Rocky Mountains.
Cabbage White (PIERIS RAPAE)
Southern White (ASCIA MONUSTE)
Cabbage White butterflies are found throughout North America. It is one of the first butterflies that appear in the spring.
Great Southern White butterflies are found from the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States. It is migratory along the southeastern coast of the United States, with strays to Maryland, Kansas, and Colorado.
Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor)
The Pipevine Swallowtail has a wide distribution across the Northern Americas. In the United States, the butterfly is found in New England down to Florida west to Nebraska, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Oregon. There is also an isolated population in midland California.
Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)
Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charithonia)
Variegated Fritillary (Euptoieta claudia)
Zebra Longwings (Heliconius charithonia) appears all year in Florida and Texas and appears in other northern states during warm months. The Gulf Fritillary appear from January-November in the north and throughout the year in southern Florida and Texas. Variegated Fritillary has four broods from February-December in the souther and three broods from April-October in the north.
Remember, you cannot have a butterfly without the caterpillar and you cannot have the caterpillar without that host plant. So plant lots of host plants. You can never have too many.
For a more comprehensive list of butterflies and their host plants, click here.