YEAR ROUND GARDENING: Creating a garden that will attract butterflies

By: FREDRICKA BOGARDUS Colorado Master Gardener
August 20, 2013 Updated: August 20, 2013 at 1:40 pm
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The activity: Gardening to attract butterflies

Why: Butterfly gardening is a great way to enhance your surroundings, delight the youngsters and oldsters in your life and help with the environment. Colorado is home to several butterfly species and it usually only requires small changes to make your yard welcoming to these beautiful creatures.

How: It is helpful to understand a bit of butterfly biology. When a butterfly emerges from the chrysalis, it has a couple of priorities in terms of where it will stay. The first priority is food.

For males, the next priority is finding a mate. For females, the next priority is finding a site to lay her eggs, where her offspring will also have food available.

The interesting thing is that generally the offspring - or caterpillars - do not consume the same plants as the butterfly. Butterflies feed on nectar from flowers. Caterpillars chew foliage. The female butterfly will search for the plant on which to lay eggs while the courting and mating is occurring. The female must find the right plant, in a sunny location, and the plant must be healthy. Therefore, if you want the butterflies to linger in your garden, you must have suitable plants for both phases of a butterfly's life.

Don't be too concerned about caterpillars eating your garden; a caterpillar's existence is fragile and they make yummy snacks for birds and wasps. Even if you are fabulously successful in attracting butterflies, it is unlikely that the caterpillars will do much damage.

Where: Site selection is the first consideration. Butterflies like a sunny location, sheltered from wind. Male butterflies, in particular, are attracted to puddles, especially if they find some manure in the puddle. If you have a damp spot in your yard, you can make it a butterfly magnet by adding some composted manure to this spot. If you have no damp spots, you may be able to simulate these conditions by filling a large plastic plate with composted manure and keeping it wet. This can be nestled in the garden so that it's not an eyesore.

What: Once you have determined where your garden should be, you can start plant selection.

If you have a site that borders a native plant site, you may already have the right plants for the larval stage. Look for things like milkweed, aspen, cottonwood, thistle, willow and sunflowers. These are all plants that can provide sustenance for the caterpillars. If these plants do not exist in proximity to your yard, then consider planting some of the ornamental varieties of these plants.

Nectar plants for the butterflies include some of the most suitable plants for our region. These include catmint (Nepeta sp.), bee balm (Monarda sp.), coneflowers (Echinacea sp.), Jupiter's beard (Centranthus ruber), ornamental sage (Salvia sp.) and yarrow (Achillea sp.). These plants tend to be good plants for our region because they are all relatively drought tolerant and tough enough to survive our winters.

When you plan your butterfly garden, be mindful that you want to vary the bloom time of the plantings. This will give you a garden with interest from spring to fall. It will also provide food for the butterflies all season. Plant your flowers in masses of color: That will both improve the look of your garden and make it more attractive to the butterflies.

When: You can plan your garden at any time. Planting can be done in spring or fall.

What's needed: A plan to either start a new garden or tweak an existing one. Plants, and soil amendments if needed. A good reference for this topic is the Colorado State University Extension Fact Sheet 5.504, "Attracting Butterflies to the Garden"(, and "Butterfly Gardens: Luring Nature's Loveliest Pollinators to Your Yard," by Alicinda Lewis (2007, Brooklyn Botanic Gardens).


Get answers to your horticulture questions by calling a master gardener volunteer at 520-7684 or emailing Volunteers are available to help you Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to noon.

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