Designing Butterfly and Insect Gardens


Butterfly gardens are easy to establish. After all, in a richly planted garden, there are always some butterflies who can find what they need. Almost all flowers are designed by nature to attract insects, such as butterflies, bees, bumble bees, certain beetles, flies, etc. Some flowers are even pollinated by birds or bats!


The photo on the right is taken by Abbie Gindele in her wildflower garden in South Berwick, ME. The Monarch Butterfly is sipping some nectar from Butterfly-Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). Note the little flying insect next to him. What a great photo!


Aster oblongifolius 'October Skies'

Photo: A. Gindele

Purpose of Flowers:

To attract visitors (not the human ones), the flowers purposely display themselves in beautiful shapes and colors and often release some good perfume as well. And to become truly irresistable - these flowers even give out free rewards to visitors: some fine, sweet nectar, that the bees and butterflies will never forget, and Hummingbirds neither. Nectar is a fine, healthy drink made of water, sugar, and fine flavorings. Bees have the habit of making honey out of it. Butterflies are less ambitious and just suck it up right away.

But why do plants go into all that trouble? Visiting insects insure pollination of the flowers, because the visitors carry pollen from one plant to another. As they enter the next flower, the pollen is brushed off on the stamens, fertilizing the egg-cell. The resulting new combination of genes is the start for a new, individual and unique living being. Nature took millions of years to fine tune this amazing relationship between plants and insects. Without insects, flowers would not be colorful and fragrant. Have you ever looked at the flowers of pines trees or spruce? Their pollen are spread by the wind, and except for some yellowish dust, there is not much to admire. And do we have to adjust how we perceive the beauty of flowers? When we give the gift of flowers to someone, those flowers were really meant to please insects!

A few hints to get the most butterflies in and out of the garden:

- Provide nectar plants for the adult butterflies

- Provide food plants for caterpillars (your garden can help generate fresh, young butterflies for the whole neighborhood)

- Provide wonderful things like wet mud, rotting fruit and decomposing dung right in your back yard! Many butterflies rely on these for food and minerals, and some birds will like it too (perhaps leave the dung away unless you own goats or horses).

- Provide water from a shallow, wide bowl that is cleaned daily, or a pond that is biologically active (for self-cleaning) and that has rocks or logs for easy landing.

- Provide some brush or wood piles, rock piles, fallen leaves, etc. in your garden, since many butterflies need them to hide out in the winter.

- Provide a space on your land that is not kept all organized and clean. Leave some areas wild and let wildflowers and weeds get established, many are food plants for caterpillars. Turn some of your lawn into a meadow by mowing it only once a year in the fall.

I purposely started every sentence with "provide". We are now in a position where we have to provide to nature to sustain her.


Nectar plants throughout the season:

Early spring shrubs Azaleas, Rhododendrons, Japanese Andromeda (Pieris), Bottelbrush Shrub (Fothergilla) Beautiful evergreen and deciduous spring-flowering shrubs
  perennials if found Alpine Rock Cress (Arabis alpina) and  Basket-of-Gold very attractive to insects, including early butterflies. Early bloomers are so important because there isn't much food at that time of the year, and all the overwintering pollinators are hungry. Other choices are Violets, Mertensia, and Uvularia. these have a honey fragrance
  low shrub Winter Heather (Erica carnea) is one of the earliest to bloom and bees love it blooms March to May, protect from wind, use plenty of peat moss and sand
summer shrubs Butterfly Bush, varieties are available in white, pink, light purple, bluish-purple, reddish-purple to dark purple, and yellow; these bloom summer to fall, very beautiful, fragrant and attractive to butterflies
  garden perennials Anise-Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), Gayfeather (Liatris),  Lavender (Lavendula), all Sages (Salvia), Globe thistle (Echinops), all Stonecrops (Sedum), Red Valerian (Centranthus), Oregano (Origanum), Phlox and Bee Balm (Monarda), Cone flowers (Echinacea), Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), Blazing Star (Liatris) and Coreopsis - these are just some of the favorites for insects. with all these choices, it is easy to design a beautiful flowering perennial butterfly garden
  garden-worthy wildflowers Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa, orange flowers, dry soil) and Swamp-Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata, dusty pink, wet soil) are great nectar plants and also the food plants for Monarch caterpillars; other native wildflowers are Wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), White Turtlehead (Chelone glabra), Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), (Cardinal flower) Lobelia cardinalis and Blue Lobelia (L. siphilitica), Perennial Lupine (Lupinus perennis, which is almost extinct in Maine - the roadside Lupines are all L. polyphyllus, an escaped garden plant), Hairy Beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus), Wild Stonecrop (Sedum ternatum), there are many more native wildflowers that are also garden-worthy perennials, many of which are important plants for pollinating insects and also important food plants for caterpillars
  annuals Lantana, Pentas, Verbena, Heliotrope they all are great to enrich any summer garden, or planted in containers
late summer and fall garden-worthy wildflowers Asters, Joe-Pye weed (try Eupatorium maculatum "Gateway", an eight-foot perennial), Boneset (Eupatorium rugosum "Chocolate" is beautiful), the stately, bluish-purple Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis), Goldenrod (Solidago - many species!) not for the timid gardener
Plants that don't seem to do much for butterflies: Peonies, Roses, Iris, Daylilies,  



This wildflower planting in South Berwick has the purpose of providing wildlife habitat and diminishing lawn surface at the same time. The photo has been taken by the owner, Abbie Gindele, in the first season after planting. Aster oblongifolius 'October Skies' has been used as a groundcover since it is known to spread very fast. It also grows in lean, dry soil, which is what this new construction site had to offer. Other plants used on this site are Rudbeckia fulgida 'Goldsturm', Echinacea purpurea, Liatris spicata, Asclepias tuberosa in dry areas, Asclepias incarnata on low, moist places, and a few more. It will be worked on and refined and we will keep reporting about successes and problems as we go.


Below right and left: For a good part of the summer, the same garden is in  bloom with Black-eyed Susan, which stand out against some blue spikes of Anise-Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) - which butterflies and Goldfinches adore, and Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), all planted in bold masses for best visual impact. 

click to enlarge (these three photos by A. Gindele)


Liatris spicata  Photo: A. Gindele

Rudbeckia fulgida 'Goldsturm'  Photo: A. Gindele



Food plants for caterpillars:  

Here is a quick list I compiled that should cover New England species. It certainly needs to be extended. Plants that we usually carry in our nursery are highlighted in bold print.

Red Admiral hops (Humulus), nettles (Urtica), false nettles (Lamium), pellitory (Parietaria) hops is a beautiful climber for large trellices, the flowers smell sweet and can be dried for soothing teas
Buckeye snapdragon (Antirrhinum), stonecrop (Sedum), plantains (Plantago) stonecrops are also excellent nectar plants
Question Mark elm (Ulmus), nettle (Urtica), hackberry (Celtis), hops  
Mourning Cloack willow (Salix), elm (Ulmus), poplar (Populus) willow, poplar and elm often grow on roadsides and in disturbed areas
Red-spotted Purple, White Admiral aspen and poplar (both Populus), willow, hawthorn (Crataegus), birch (Betula), basswood (Tilia), wild cherry (Prunus serotina) hawthorns also attract birds
Viceroy willow, poplar  
Baltimore turtlehead (Chelone), honeysuckle (Lonicera), plantain (Plantago) use native honeysuckle species
Pearl Crescent asters (Aster) we recommend Aster oblongifolius 'October Skies' for massing and naturalizing
American Painted Lady everlastings (Anaphalis and Gnaphalium), pussytoes (Antennaria), forget-me-not, these are common weeds and wildflowers
Painted Lady thistle, burdock, sunflower (Helianthus), hollyhock (Alcea), borage (Borago) perennial sunflower Helianthus "Lemon Queen" is a beautiful, tall garden perennial
Brown Elfin low-bush blueberry, sheep laurel, bearberry (Arctostaphylos) these are common in light woodlands, clearings, and under power lines; bearberry is a beautiful groundcover
Silvery Blue peas, vetch, lupine all of the pea family
Eastern Tailed Blue Clovers, vetches, alfalfa, lupine, peas plant the native Lupine (Lupinus perennis) instead of the typical garden hybrids
Spring Azure dogwood, viburnum, spirea, wild cherry, milkweed common garden shrubs
Spicebush Swallowtail spicebush (Lindera), sassafras, sweet bay (True Laurel, Laurus nobilis) spicebush is a native worthy of planting in large gardens and at woodland edges
Eastern Black Swallowtail parsley, dill, fennel, carrot and wild carrot (Queen Anne's Lace) bronze fennel looks great in ornamental and herb gardens
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail aspen (Populus), black cherry (Prunus serotina), birch, poplar, tulip tree (Liriodendron) aspen or poplar is its favorite food in the north
Green Swallowtail dutchman's pipe (Aristolochia) dutchman's pipe is a climber with big, heart-shaped leaves
 Monarch milkweeds (Asclepias) two milkweed species are beautiful garden perennials
Grapeleaf Skeletonizer grapevine (Vitis)  
Luna Moth hickory, walnut, sweet gum (Liquidambar), persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), birch try Diospyros virginiana "Meader" for our area, bred at UNH. (search edible landscaping nurseries)
Polyphemus Moth alder, bass, birch, elm, maple, poplar  
Clouded Sulphur, Alphalpha Sulphur alfalfa, clovers, vetches  
American Copper sorrels and docks (both Rumex), common weeds
Banded Hairstreak oaks (Quercus), hickories (Carya) , butternut (Juglans)  
Fritillary violets (Viola) some are beautiful groundcovers
Common Wood Nymph,  Ringlet, Little wood Satyr grasses it is helpful not to mow a part of your lawn to leave it for the Satyrs
Northern Eyed Brown Sedges (Carex) common swamp grasses; many species exist, some are garden plants
Fiery Skipper, European Skipper grasses  
Silver-spotted skipper black locust (Robinia), wisteria, other woodies of the pea-family  

Since this is a whole jungle of plant information, here a practical suggestion on how to design your butterfly garden:

Tiger-Swallowtail on Buddleia davidii 'Black Knight',  Photo: A. Gindele


Plant a tree that supports caterpillars, such as oak or birch (native species such as Betula papyrifera are best). The tree will provide height and shade, and will feed the caterpillars of various species of butterflies and moths. to provide nectar for the adult butterflies, plant varieties of Butterflybush (Buddleia)  according to your color choices. Also consider the white varieties, such as "White Bouquet", since butterflies seem to be especially attracted to these.

Large groups or drifts of Lavender, Sage, Sedum, Echinacea and Gayfeather will attract many more butterflies and pollinating insects. Other favorites of butterflies are Globe Thistle, Monarda, Butterfly weed, Swamp Milkweed, Lupine and Aster.

In the foreground, use low mounding perennials such as Cranesbills (for example Geranium macrorrhizum) and also utilize annuals: Lantana, Verbena, Heliotrope and Bronze Fennel. The latter is just for it's textural effect, but also a great food plant for the Black Swallowtail.

To enter this garden, one could install an arbor, and plant Hops or Honeysuckle to climb over it. Prune these hard every winter.

Don't forget the shallow bowl of clean water. It could be in the style of a birdbath, and if you prefer a formal setting, it could be placed in the center of the garden, with walkways crossing there. If possible, keep the walkways simple, using gravel or even soil on the surface. A stone edging will help to define the walkway and to separate it from the beds. A landscape fabric under the narrow path is permissible to control weeds.

If you have plenty of space, definitely use some of these giant perennials that butterflies love so much: Joe-Pye weed (dusty or rosy pink) and Ironweed (bright purplish-blue). And how about the clear yellow perennial sunflower 'Lemon Queen' for contrast?


To attract Hummingbirds, use red-flowered Bee Balm (Monarda didyma 'Jacob Kline'), plant beds of red-flowered annual sages, and also hang up some baskets with fuchsias, red petunias, and lobelia. If space permits, a Trumpetvine (Campsis radicans) would be a beautiful addition. To avoid a tragedy, keep your cat locked up!


Take a look at butterflies photographed in our nursery.



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