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Sustaining a Fall and Winter Butterfly Garden

Optimize your garden as a fall migrating butterfly refueling station for monarchs.

Your summer garden has been a haven for butterflies. Painted ladies and orange sulphurs have flocked to your purple coneflowers and white cosmos, and monarch and swallowtail caterpillars have munched on the showy milkweeds, Dutchman’s pipevine, and bronze fennel. Then there were the giant swallowtails, which discovered the golden hop tree (Ptelea trifoliata ‘Aurea’, USDA Hardiness Zones 5-9) in the backyard.

Now – with the approach of fall – your garden takes on a new role: as a sheltering, nurturing habitat for overwintering butterfly species.

How to Help Migrating Butterflies

Goldenrod is a fall favorite for monarchs making their great flight southward.

Some butterfly species – most famously monarchs – flit away to warmer climes as winter approaches. They don’t require winter shelter, but they DO need ample fuel for their migration flight. To optimize your garden as a butterfly refueling station, stock it with late-blooming, nectar-rich perennials such as goldenrods (Solidago spp.), whose sunny late-summer flowers are monarch magnets.

Among the many Solidago that make excellent, well-behaved subjects for perennial plantings are stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida, Zones 3-9), which sports dense domed flowerheads on 4-to 5-foot stems clad with large, handsome, gray-green leaves. The flowers of the equally garden-worthy showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa, Zones 3-8) are held in generous conical spires atop 3-foot, maroon-marked stems. For shade, there are the likes of zigzag goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis, Zones 3-8), a spreader that forms leafy 2-foot-tall hummocks decked with conical flower clusters.

Asters are also favored by migrating monarchs.

Additional late-season butterfly favorites include asters, Joe-Pye weed (along with other perennials in the genus formerly known as Eupatorium), and showy and cutleaf coneflowers (Rudbeckia fulgida and R. laciniata, Zones 3-9).

How to Help Winter Pupating Butterflies

Many sturdy perennials support swallowtail chrysalises through winter. These include Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii), in its yellow fall color, false indigo (Baptisia), and asters.
A swallowtail chrysalis.

Rather than flitting south, most butterflies stay put for the winter, riding it out in a state of suspended animation known as diapause. For many species, diapause occurs in the form of a chrysalis, a hardened structure which encases the pupating butterfly while it morphs from crawling caterpillar to flitting adult. You’ll greatly increase the butterfly-friendliness of your garden if you leave some perennials standing in fall, thus providing structures to which swallowtails and other winter-pupaters can attach their chrysalises. Stems of goldenrods and asters make perfect chrysalis hosts, as do those of other sturdy perennials such as false indigo (Baptisia), bluestar (Amsonia), and wild senna (Senna).

How to Help Butterflies in Larval or Egg Diapause

Rake your lawns but refrain from cleaning garden beds. This helps overwintering pollinators.
Leaves protect many pollinators in winter.

Numerous butterfly species, such as skippers and fritillaries, spend the winter as caterpillars, typically sheltering under a blanketing layer of fallen leaves and other plant debris. This is yet another argument for letting nature take its course in autumn. Instead of cutting back and raking outspent perennials and their debris in fall, consider designating some or all of your butterfly garden as a disturbance-free zone. You can tidy things up in spring after the weather warms. After spring cleanup, apply a layer of Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost to give your butterfly plants a boost.

Eggs are the means of overwintering for hairstreaks and a handful of other butterfly species. Again, perennial stems and detritus are crucial for providing adequate winter protection – so save the garden clean-up until spring!

How to Help Overwintering Adult Butterflies

Mourning cloaks overwinter as winged adults. They take refuge in hollow trees, unheated outbuildings, and other cozy niches. (Image by Pavel Kirillov)

Mourning cloaks, question marks, and a few other butterflies tough it out as winged adults, seeking refuge in hollow trees, unheated outbuildings, and other cozy niches. If you have such features on your property, consider conserving them as winter butterfly habitat. Boxes sold as putative butterfly shelters “can be attractive, and do little harm, [but] studies have shown that butterflies do not use them in any way,” according to the North American Butterfly Association.

In whatever form, winter diapause is a crucial stage of a butterflies’ life cycle. If you want a host of flitting butterflies next summer, be sure to provide the resources they need to make it through this winter.

The metamorphosis of a Painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui). It is also a migrant species, like the Monarch, though their migratory patterns are not synchronized, as with monarchs.

About Russell Stafford


Hortiholic and plant evangelist, Russell Stafford, transplanted his first perennial at age 7 and thereby began a lifelong plant addiction. He is the founder and custodian of Odyssey Bulbs (and Odyssey Perennials), an online nursery specializing in cool and uncommon plants. Russell also works as a horticultural consultant, freelance writer (Horticulture and The American Gardener magazines), and garden editor. He formerly served as Curator and Head of Horticulture at Fernwood Botanic Garden in Niles, Michigan and as the Horticultural Program Coordinator at the Center for Plant Conservation, then located at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. His academic degrees include a masters in forest science from Harvard University.

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