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Best flowers for butterflies

By: Garden Gate staff
We’ll show you the best flowers for butterflies and let you know exactly which visitors you can expect to bring in with these butterfly magnets. Plus, get our tips for keeping these plants looking their best.

plants-that-are-butterfly-magnets-pv3: Zinnia flowers offer a nice wide landing area for larger butterflies like the Spicebush swallowtail you see here.

Have you ever watched butterflies as they flit from flower to flower? They don’t look like they know where they’re going, do they? Their flight patterns look as if they’ve been designed by a 2-year-old. But they do know what they’re doing — they’re looking for nectar.

Did you realize that butterflies taste with their feet? It’s true: When they land on a leaf or flower, they can actually taste it. That helps them find plants on which to feed and lay eggs. After all, they want to put their eggs on a plant that will provide food for the caterpillars as they hatch.

Fresh nectar for butterflies

Butterflies don’t have mouths that let them chew food. Instead, they have a proboscis, a long strawlike structure that allows them to drink nectar and other liquids they need for energy. Clusters of small flowers are popular feeding sites. A butterfly can draw nectar from many flowers without having to take off again. Large butterflies, such as monarchs and swallowtails, prefer wide landing areas, such as big zinnias (Zinnia elegans). Make sure to plant several bloom shapes so there’ll be something for everyone. And group flowers in one spot so butterflies don’t have to travel far.

Learn How To Design a Garden to Attract More Pollinators

Build a butterfly buffet

Since butterflies can’t get all of their nutrients from nectar, they gather around muddy areas, where they can suck up salts and minerals. Butterflies also like rotting fruit, so before you throw away that overripe banana, peel it and set it out as a dessert for your winged friends.

Many butterflies can’t fly unless their body temperature is around 86 degrees F. That’s why you see them resting on cool mornings and feeding on sunny afternoons. So it makes sense that most of the flowers they like grow best in full sun. It’s also helpful to place a rock in a sunny spot where butterflies can absorb heat as they sit.

Even with these accommodations, flowers are still the best way to draw flocks of these colorful insects. Give your butterflies happy feet with these eight favorites and check out which butterflies love them.

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Stokes’ aster (Stokesia laevis)

This perennial is perfect in a casual cottage garden. Its stems sometimes flop after a heavy rain or wind storm so you may not want to plant it in a formal, regimented garden. Planting it close to a perennial with stiff foliage, such as a bearded iris (Iris hybrids.), keeps Stokes’ aster standing pretty well without staking.

Care tips

A little shade in the afternoon helps the colors stay brighter, but isn’t necessary for the health of the plant. Do make sure to remove spent flowers down to a side branch to keep the plant tidy. And if you live in zones 4 or 5, give your Stokes’ aster a couple inches of winter mulch so it survives the cold.

Butterflies it will attract

  • Spicebush swallowtails (in photo)
  • Skippers
  • Monarchs

Type Perennial Blooms Purple and pink flowers in summer Light Full sun to part shade Soil Well-drained Size 12 to 24 in. tall, 12 to 18 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy USDA zones 4 to 10

New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

There are so many asters to choose from that even a butterfly’s head might spin. And all of them are good nectar sources.

But when it comes to butterflies, New England asters, such as this ‘Purple Dome’, are the easiest to grow and most popular. Why? Perhaps it’s the attractive flowers. Each one has a golden center, where butterflies can feast. Or maybe it’s the late-summer bloom, after the big explosion of summer annuals has begun to wane. Whatever it is, on a warm autumn afternoon, you may have trouble finding the flowers under all the butterflies.

Care tip

Some New England asters may grow lanky. Just plant something around the base to hide the bare lower stems and plan to stake.

Butterflies it will attract

  • Painted ladies (in photo),
  • Pearl crescents
  • Sulphurs
  • Whites

Type Perennial Blooms Pink or purple flowers late summer to fall Size 1 to 6 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Light Full sun Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9

Verbena (Verbena hybrids)

In the garden, this is an edging or ground cover plant. But in a basket, verbena cascades beautifully over the edges of the container, like this Lanai® Candy Cane. What a perfect spot for showcasing colorful butterflies!

Care tips

Snip off spent blooms to keep verbena flowering all summer. If it looks ragged and tired in the heat, trim the stems back by about half. Keep the plant watered and feed it with a balanced, water-soluble fertilizer every other week. As the weather cools down, your verbena will be fresh, tidy and covered with blooms again.

Butterflies it will attract

  • Cloudless sulphurs
  • Dogfaces
  • Spicebush swallowtails

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as an annual) Blooms Red, pink, purple, white and bicolor flowers from spring until frost Size 6 to 12 in. tall, 12 to 36 in. wide Light Full sun Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 7 to 11

Starflower (Pentas lanceolata)

Once starflower starts to bloom, nothing stops it until frost. Like many butterfly plants, this one prefers, in fact needs, heat to bloom its best. Butterflies seem to like to land on the wide clusters of flowers.

If you have limited space for your butterfly garden, maybe only room for a container or two, plant starflower. Prune it back if it starts to get too big for the container — it’ll bloom again in just a few weeks.

Care tips

You won’t need to worry about keeping this plant tidy. The spent flowers turn green rather than brown, so you may not even notice them against the foliage. And later the seedheads drop off all by themselves.

Butterflies it will attract

  • Monarchs
  • Swallowtails
  • Painted ladies

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as an annual) Blooms Pink, red or white flowers summer to frost Size 12 to 24 in. tall, 10 to 18 in. wide Light Full sun Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 10 to 11

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

With a name like “butterfly weed,” you know this perennial will pull winged visitors in for a drink. And since many butterflies are attracted to shades of red and yellow, the vibrant orange is a sure draw, too.

Like many perennials that grow best in hot, dry conditions, butterfly weed has deep roots. These make it hard to move or divide large plants. When you visit your local garden center, the potted plants often look rough. That’s because they’ve been kept too wet in the containers.

Care tip

The easiest way to establish healthy butterfly weed in your garden is to buy small seedlings or sow seeds directly where you want the plants.

Butterflies it will attract

  • Red admirals
  • Swallowtails
  • Monarchs
  • Skippers

Type Perennial Blooms Orange blooms late spring to midsummer Size 1 to 3 ft. tall, 1 to 2 ft. wide Light Full sun Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9

Lantana (Lantana camara)

Don’t be in a hurry to plant lantana outdoors — it’s a heat-loving plant that’ll just sit until cool spring weather is far behind. Lantanas come in solid colors or beautiful bicolors, like Luscious® Citrus Blend™ above.

Care tips

Once new lantana plants are established, they’re quite drought-tolerant. But until then, make sure to keep the young plants moist so their roots can anchor them deep into the soil. And for many, pinching the stems back a few times before the flowers bloom will make the plants denser with more blossoms. Lantanas grow in any soil that drains quickly. If there’s a choice, slightly acid conditions are better than alkaline. This plant is so tough it’ll even tolerate salty sea breezes.

Butterflies it will attract

  • Pearl crescents
  • Alfalfas
  • Buckeyes

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as an annual) Blooms Yellow, orange, red, purple and white blooms as well as bicolors summer through frost Size 1 to 4 ft. tall, 1 to 3 ft. wide Light Full sun Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 9 to 11

Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia)

This tall, fast-growing annual with vivid orange flowers is easy to sow directly in your garden. Plant the seeds about the time daylilies begin to bloom. Thin the seedlings to stand about 2 ft. apart. This may seem like wide spacing, but you’ll know why when they start growing. You can transplant the very young seedlings to other areas.

Care tips

Mexican sunflower doesn’t like to be kept wet as it gets established. Soak seedlings in and then let them dry out. While the plants are young, stick a few stakes in the ground around them to prevent wind and rain breakage later.

Butterflies it will attract

  • Painted ladies
  • Monarchs

Type Annual Blooms Orange to red flowers in summer Size 2 to 6 ft. tall, 2 to 4 ft. wide Light Full sun 

Zinnia (Zinnia elegans)

Zinnias are easy, economical and fast — you can have flowers in 6 to 10 weeks when you direct sow the seeds. This is a cut-and-come-again flower — the more you pick it, the more it blooms. So make sure to keep spent flowers plucked off. And cutting lots of bouquets for your house will make more flowers to feed the clouds of butterflies who come by for a snack.

Care tips

If you live where summers are humid, plant zinnias where they’ll have good air circulation. Otherwise, they may have trouble with powdery mildew. It won’t kill the plant and the butterflies won’t mind, but this gray fungus isn’t pretty. Some cultivars are more resistant to this problem than others.

Butterflies it will attract

  • Spicebush swallowtails (in photo)
  • Skippers
  • Monarchs

Type Annual Blooms Shades of red, orange, yellow, purple, pink and white flowers in summer Size 10 to 36 in. tall, 12 to 24 in. wide Light Full sun

Stokes’ aster (Stokesia laevis)

This perennial is perfect in a casual cottage garden. Its stems sometimes flop after a heavy rain or wind storm so you may not want to plant it in a formal, regimented garden. Planting it close to a perennial with stiff foliage, such as a bearded iris (Iris hybrids.), keeps Stokes’ aster standing pretty well without staking.

Care tips

A little shade in the afternoon helps the colors stay brighter, but isn’t necessary for the health of the plant. Do make sure to remove spent flowers down to a side branch to keep the plant tidy. And if you live in zones 4 or 5, give your Stokes’ aster a couple inches of winter mulch so it survives the cold.

Butterflies it will attract

  • Spicebush swallowtails (in photo)
  • Skippers
  • Monarchs

Type Perennial Blooms Purple and pink flowers in summer Light Full sun to part shade Soil Well-drained Size 12 to 24 in. tall, 12 to 18 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy USDA zones 4 to 10

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

With a name like “butterfly weed,” you know this perennial will pull winged visitors in for a drink. And since many butterflies are attracted to shades of red and yellow, the vibrant orange is a sure draw, too.

Like many perennials that grow best in hot, dry conditions, butterfly weed has deep roots. These make it hard to move or divide large plants. When you visit your local garden center, the potted plants often look rough. That’s because they’ve been kept too wet in the containers.

Care tip

The easiest way to establish healthy butterfly weed in your garden is to buy small seedlings or sow seeds directly where you want the plants.

Butterflies it will attract

  • Red admirals
  • Swallowtails
  • Monarchs
  • Skippers

Type Perennial Blooms Orange blooms late spring to midsummer Size 1 to 3 ft. tall, 1 to 2 ft. wide Light Full sun Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9

New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

There are so many asters to choose from that even a butterfly’s head might spin. And all of them are good nectar sources.

But when it comes to butterflies, New England asters, such as this ‘Purple Dome’, are the easiest to grow and most popular. Why? Perhaps it’s the attractive flowers. Each one has a golden center, where butterflies can feast. Or maybe it’s the late-summer bloom, after the big explosion of summer annuals has begun to wane. Whatever it is, on a warm autumn afternoon, you may have trouble finding the flowers under all the butterflies.

Care tip

Some New England asters may grow lanky. Just plant something around the base to hide the bare lower stems and plan to stake.

Butterflies it will attract

  • Painted ladies (in photo),
  • Pearl crescents
  • Sulphurs
  • Whites

Type Perennial Blooms Pink or purple flowers late summer to fall Size 1 to 6 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Light Full sun Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9

Lantana (Lantana camara)

Don’t be in a hurry to plant lantana outdoors — it’s a heat-loving plant that’ll just sit until cool spring weather is far behind. Lantanas come in solid colors or beautiful bicolors, like Luscious® Citrus Blend™ above.

Care tips

Once new lantana plants are established, they’re quite drought-tolerant. But until then, make sure to keep the young plants moist so their roots can anchor them deep into the soil. And for many, pinching the stems back a few times before the flowers bloom will make the plants denser with more blossoms. Lantanas grow in any soil that drains quickly. If there’s a choice, slightly acid conditions are better than alkaline. This plant is so tough it’ll even tolerate salty sea breezes.

Butterflies it will attract

  • Pearl crescents
  • Alfalfas
  • Buckeyes

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as an annual) Blooms Yellow, orange, red, purple and white blooms as well as bicolors summer through frost Size 1 to 4 ft. tall, 1 to 3 ft. wide Light Full sun Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 9 to 11

Verbena (Verbena hybrids)

In the garden, this is an edging or ground cover plant. But in a basket, verbena cascades beautifully over the edges of the container, like this Lanai® Candy Cane. What a perfect spot for showcasing colorful butterflies!

Care tips

Snip off spent blooms to keep verbena flowering all summer. If it looks ragged and tired in the heat, trim the stems back by about half. Keep the plant watered and feed it with a balanced, water-soluble fertilizer every other week. As the weather cools down, your verbena will be fresh, tidy and covered with blooms again.

Butterflies it will attract

  • Cloudless sulphurs
  • Dogfaces
  • Spicebush swallowtails

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as an annual) Blooms Red, pink, purple, white and bicolor flowers from spring until frost Size 6 to 12 in. tall, 12 to 36 in. wide Light Full sun Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 7 to 11

Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia)

This tall, fast-growing annual with vivid orange flowers is easy to sow directly in your garden. Plant the seeds about the time daylilies begin to bloom. Thin the seedlings to stand about 2 ft. apart. This may seem like wide spacing, but you’ll know why when they start growing. You can transplant the very young seedlings to other areas.

Care tips

Mexican sunflower doesn’t like to be kept wet as it gets established. Soak seedlings in and then let them dry out. While the plants are young, stick a few stakes in the ground around them to prevent wind and rain breakage later.

Butterflies it will attract

  • Painted ladies
  • Monarchs

Type Annual Blooms Orange to red flowers in summer Size 2 to 6 ft. tall, 2 to 4 ft. wide Light Full sun 

Starflower (Pentas lanceolata)

Once starflower starts to bloom, nothing stops it until frost. Like many butterfly plants, this one prefers, in fact needs, heat to bloom its best. Butterflies seem to like to land on the wide clusters of flowers.

If you have limited space for your butterfly garden, maybe only room for a container or two, plant starflower. Prune it back if it starts to get too big for the container — it’ll bloom again in just a few weeks.

Care tips

You won’t need to worry about keeping this plant tidy. The spent flowers turn green rather than brown, so you may not even notice them against the foliage. And later the seedheads drop off all by themselves.

Butterflies it will attract

  • Monarchs
  • Swallowtails
  • Painted ladies

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as an annual) Blooms Pink, red or white flowers summer to frost Size 12 to 24 in. tall, 10 to 18 in. wide Light Full sun Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 10 to 11

Zinnia (Zinnia elegans)

Zinnias are easy, economical and fast — you can have flowers in 6 to 10 weeks when you direct sow the seeds. This is a cut-and-come-again flower — the more you pick it, the more it blooms. So make sure to keep spent flowers plucked off. And cutting lots of bouquets for your house will make more flowers to feed the clouds of butterflies who come by for a snack.

Care tips

If you live where summers are humid, plant zinnias where they’ll have good air circulation. Otherwise, they may have trouble with powdery mildew. It won’t kill the plant and the butterflies won’t mind, but this gray fungus isn’t pretty. Some cultivars are more resistant to this problem than others.

Butterflies it will attract

  • Spicebush swallowtails (in photo)
  • Skippers
  • Monarchs

Type Annual Blooms Shades of red, orange, yellow, purple, pink and white flowers in summer Size 10 to 36 in. tall, 12 to 24 in. wide Light Full sun


Related Tags

annuals tender perennials butterflies perennials pollinator friendly

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