Attract and Nurture Butterflies in a Sunny Garden

Ilona Erwin

A circle of sunshine and flowers to attract a mob of butterflies is dream for many of us. We can imagine ourselves stretched out comfortably in a lawn chair, drink in hand, while entertained by graceful fluttering wings in jeweled colors visit the bright flower beds.

If that sounds like paradise to you, be ready to plant the flowers loved by butterflies, while making a nurturing habitat in your yard.

Plant Lists and Plans

Plants for a butterfly haven consist of two main categories, those for nectar and those for feeding caterpillars. The plants might be prize garden flowers, but they could as easily be considered weeds, and the difference between the two may dictate how you plan to design the garden.

Most of this post is dedicated to the blend of planting for the pleasure of people who visit and view the garden with the regard for nurturing butterflies. But the two can’t really be divided, so a compromise in allowing some ragged edges to foliage and petals along with some of the less presentable plants into a flower garden is compensated with the incredible blessing of healthy butterflies bringing their beauty and grace.

You may even wish to give an out of the way corner or two to the less desirable (to humans!) plants. Most of the plants here are garden worthy and they all love full sun. The choices of which ones to combine for your particular butterfly garden plan is up to you, though I offer a couple sketched-out ideas to begin your plans.

General Purpose Butterfly Plants for a Sunny Border

Pincushion flower with Apollo

Apollo on Scabiosa caucasica

Soft Romantic Plan

Example of a garden scheme could include a front row of dianthus choices: Dianthus plumarius ‘Itsaul White’, Dianthus ‘Bath’s Pink’, Dianthus ‘Coconut Surprise’

Follow with drift of medium-low Scabiosa caucasica interspersed with Gaura lindheimeri for airy interest. Additionally, clumps of Chrysanthemum maximum (Shasta daisies) beside and close behind.

Next the pink daisy forms of Echinacea purpurea.

Behind these place garden Phlox in graded heights: Phlox paniculata ‘David’, Phlox x arendsii’Babyface’, along with tall Lupines in rose, pink, white. Tuck in some Verbena bonariensis from mid to back heights.

This will give a pink, blue, and white color scheme with flowering beginning early summer in the front and ranging to late summer in the rear.

aster flowers attract butterflies

New England Aster with Butterfly

Bring On the Color Plan

Coreopsis lanceolata at the front. Monardas, Asclepsia tuberosa, and Rudbeckia hirta create the center of color, Add tall grasses and a selection of  lilies for height and interest.

If the main interest is to center around native plants, replace lilies with Joe Pye, Eupatorium purpureum. It won’t be as colorful, but will draw butterflies and grows between 3 ft. – 7 ft . (It’s extremely hardy).

For long blooming and bright color, add annuals. The perennials for this garden will bloom mainly in mid-summer with seedhead interest later. Annuals give all summer color amongst the longer lived plantings.

Plants Which Feed Caterpillars

Provide host plants which are meant to be eaten by butterfly larvae (caterpillars). This encourages the visits and nurtures reproduction of the Lepidoptera population.

The weedy:

  • plantains
  • sorrel
  • thistles
  • milkweeds

The ornamental:

  • asters
  • hollyhocks
  • mallows
  • snapdragons
  • violets

Plants to Provide Nectar

They like flat faced flowers (like a tabletop) with landing space. A mix of flowers is best, with many annuals like these:


  • Single Marigolds
  • Tithonia rotundifolia
  • Cosmos
  • Lantana
  • Heliotrope
  • Ageratum houstonianum
  • Nicotiana alata
  • Daisies
  • Petunia
  • Pentas lanceolata
  • Verbena
  • Zinnias

Plan a Meadow Haven

A grand mix of blooms in a flowery meadow brings many Lepidoptera species and sets a smorgasbord of their favorite plants. A loose casual planting of semi-circle beds centered with a shallow birdbath or stone fountain is ideal. make sure to place a seat for the gardener, as well.

24 Perennials That Butterflies Like

Plant NameHeightButterfliesTo GrowZones
Aster novae-angliae1-2 ft.Checkered White, Orange Sulphur, Question Mark, Painted Ladies, Red Admiral, BuckeyeRegular moisture, Average soil4 – 9
Geum chiloense16-18″Astarte fritillaryShort lived. Tolerates drought5 – 9
Rudbeckia hirta2-3 ft.Great Spangled Fritillary, Pearly CrescentspotAverage water, drought tolerant3 – 8
Caryopteris clandonensis2-3 ft.Subshrub, will reseed. Average moisture and soil.5 – 9
Gaillardia grandiflora1-3 ft.Edwards fritillaryDrought tolerant; good soil4-10
Malva alcea, Althaea rosea2-4 ft. ,
3-7 ft.
Checkered skipperAverage moisture and soil4 – 8
Monarda didyma2-4 ft.Checkered white, Edwards fritillary, Melissa blue, MonarchGood soil, likes moisture4-8
Gaura lindheimeri2-4 ft.Many speciesGood drainage, average soil5 – 10
Asclepias tuberosa2 ft.Monarch,Average conditions4 – 10
Chrysanthemum maximum18-36″Pearly Crescentspot, Red Admiral, QueenShort lived, average conditions, somewhat drought tolerant5-10
Dianthus10 – 15″Giant Swallowtail, Eastern Tiger SwallowtailGood soil. regular moisture5 – 9
Hylotelephium spectabile2 ft.Variegated Fritillary, Fiery SkipperAverage soil, drought tolerant3 – 9
Hyssopus officinalis2 ft.Subshrub, Average soil4 – 9
Echinacea purpurea2-4 ft.American Lady, Giant Swallowtail, Great Spangled Fritillary, Painted Lady, Pearl Crescent, Red Admiral, Silvery Checkerspot, Spicebush Swallowtail, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Variegated Fritillary, Viceroy, Fiery Skipper, Gulf Fritillary, Sachem, Tawny-edge SkipperDrought tolerant.3 – 9
Lupinus1-3 ft.Common BlueRegular moisture. Average soil.3 – 8
Scabiosa caucasica2 ft.Good, well drained soil. Needs regular moisture3 – 7
Apocynum cannabinum3 ft.Spicebush Swallowtail, checkered White, Common Orange Sulphur, Gray Hairstreak, Spring Azure, Pearly Crescentspot, Mourning Cloak, American Painted Lady, BuckeyeCan be invasive. Drought tolerant.3 -9
Kniphofia uvaria2 -5 ftMonarchFertile, well drained soil.5 – 9
Verbena bonariensis3 – 6 ft.American Lady, Cabbage White, Common Buckeye, Great Spangled Fritillary, Painted Lady, Pearl Crescent, Pipevine Swallowtail, Zebra Longwing, Zebra Swallowtail, Silvery Checkerspot, Fiery Skipper, Great Southern WhiteTolerates drought, well-drained7 – 11
Ruta graveolens2 -3 ft.Black Swallowtail, Giant SwallowtailSub shrub, Well-drained soil, moderate moisture 6 – 9
Phlox paniculata2 -3 ft.Swallowtail, Spicebush Swallowtail, Silver-Spotted Skipper, Sachem, ZabulonGood soil, moderate moisture
Conoclinium coelestinum1 -3 ft.Monarch, Southern Broken-Dash, Ocola Skipper, Zabulon, SachemNeeds moisture, loamy soil5 – 10
Coreopsis lanceolata1 -2 ft.Gray Hairstreak, Pearl Crescent, SwallowtailLoam soil. moderate moisture3 – 9
Lilium Orientalis4 -6 ft.Monarch, Spicebush Swallowtail, Silver-Spotted Skipper, ZabulonRich well drained soil. Regular moisture5 – 9

→ on the Butterfly Gardening Page
OSU Butterfly Landscape Factsheet

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Remember to create an entire habitat with shallow water source, maybe even a butterfly house, or some offered fruit. To know exactly how to do that visit my page on “How to make your garden a butterfly destination“.

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Ilona Erwin, author

Meet the Author

Ilona Erwin

I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of Ilona's Reflecting Pool. Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.