By: Jessie Keith
Want butterflies? A kaleidoscope of gossamer-winged beauties all a flutter in a cloud of garden flowers that you planted? The truth is, creating a butterfly garden is pretty effortless, because many truly easy garden flowers are big on the butterfly palate. And butterflies eat with their eyes, so the flowers they love are generally the vibrantly hued flowers that we love, too.
What makes a butterfly flower truly a butterfly flower? There are a suite of garden flower traits that attract butterflies, and it’s not just the flowers that draw them. A female butterfly ready to lay her eggs will choose the best plants for her caterpillars, while adult butterflies choose flowers with nectar essential for their growth and development. True butterfly plants and flowers have several distinguishing cues that fit the ways butterflies see, feed, and feed.
Overall, butterflies all have a weak sense of smell, long curled tongues (probosces), sharp vision, and they must perch to feed. So, most butterfly flowers are brightly colored, often lack a scent, are flattened and shaped for perching, and have long, tubular nectaries (the nectar-holding well at the base of a flower) perfect for a butterfly’s proboscis. (Madagascar periwinkle, Lantana, and phlox blooms are just three examples of the many flowers uniquely designed for butterfly pollination.) It’s a different matter when female butterflies choose plants on which to lay their eggs.
The best butterfly flowers have foliage that are also larval food for the young of specific butterfly species. Favorites include my #1 butterfly flower, orange milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa, perennial). Its sweeping clusters of bright orange flowers appear in summer and attract butterflies of all types, while its leaves are the favorite food of Monarch butterfly young. The leaves impart chemical protection to the Monarchs, which gives them a foul taste, making them undesirable to predators.
Other double whammies are flowering plants in the carrot family, whose flowers are attractive to all butterflies and foliage are the perfect food source to Eastern Tiger and Zebra Swallowtails, among other related butterflies. A wonderful garden-variety carrot is my #2 butterfly plant, the purple- and pink-flowered ‘Dara’ Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota ‘Dara’, annual). The large, lacy blooms are long stemmed and great for cutting. Just be ready to leave the plants to the caterpillars when they first appear munching away at the leaves.
Most butterfly plants tare grown for their flowers alone. Coneflowers (Echinacea spp., perennial) of all flavors are all-round butterfly favorites, coming in many bright shades beloved by all butterfly species, which is why they are my #3 butterfly flowers. These days, there are numerous varieties to choose from. I like the electric tangerine-orange and red ‘Flame Thrower’ for garden appeal and pollinator attraction, though most purists would advocate planting the common native species, eastern coneflower (Echinacea purpurea, perennial).
My #4 butterfly flower, tall zinnias (Zinnia elegans, annual), are some of the easiest to grow and butterflies love them. Their colorful blooms appear through much of the summer, providing needed nectar during the hottest days of the year. Renee’s Garden Seeds has loads of amazing mixes, the Raggedy Anne Mix, with its ragged large flowers in candy colors, is one of my favorites. They pair well with another super easy butterfly magnet, common cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus, annual), my #5 butterfly flower. The reliable Sonata Mix, with its short stature and large flowers in pink, magenta, and white, won’t disappoint. Plant both of these annuals in full sun and fertile, well-drained soil.
A late summer bloomer sure to draw loads of butterflies is the tall phlox (Phlox paniculata, perennial), my #6 plant, and of the many cultivated varieties, ‘Jeana’ is very special. Its large, upright flower clusters consist of many tiny, pink blooms with a sweet scent. Butterflies and bees always cover these showy blossoms.
Finally come the many butterfly flowers for fall. By choosing a perennial sunflower (Helianthus spp.), my #7 butterfly plant, you can’t go wrong. All are essential food for butterflies preparing to migrate or overwinter. One with lots of charm and good looks is the fine-leaved Helianthus angustifolius ‘First Light’, which produces many golden daisies in mid fall above plants with fine, linear leaves of bright green.
All butterfly flowers, whether annuals or perennials, need good care for best flowering. Water them well, amend their soil with fortifying organic matter, and light feeding will ensure crops of flowers to delight your burgeoning butterfly populations all season long.
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