Create a Butterfly Garden In Your Backyard

Many years ago, we were given a butterfly kit as a present – we sent away for the caterpillars and watched them grow, form their chrysalises, then hatch into beautiful butterflies to be released into the world!

It was such an awesome experience and we were totally hooked!

So over the past few years, I have been slowly adding more and more host plants (plants that the butterflies lay their eggs on) and nectar plants (to feed the adults) to my garden in hopes of attracting more butterflies.  I don’t have a huge garden, but it is really easy to tuck little plants in here and there among the vegetables, and I am always truly amazed how a little butterfly can find my one teeny plant in a sea of green and lawns!

It has been such a great learning experience for all of us, to be able to see the entire life cycle from egg to butterfly of many different butterfly species right in our own backyard!  They bring us so much joy to watch (and the flowers are gorgeous to look at too!)

So what do you need to do to start your own butterfly garden???

You will need:

  • host plants (for the adult butterflies to lay their eggs on and for the little caterpillars to eat)
  • nectar plants to feed the adult butterflies (and they have an added benefit of attracting other pollinators to the garden as well as hummingbirds!)

We will start off with six of my favorite butterflies in the garden and the host plants that attract them! 

(Note: I am in Southeast Texas, however many of these butterflies have very large ranges so you can find them all over the U.S.  Many of the host and nectar plants can grow in different zones, but check your gardening zone to find out which plants will grow in your area. Check out this website to find out what your gardening zone is.)

1. Monarch

  • Host Plant: milkweed
  • Plant in: full sun

I have to start off with this one, because this is one of our favorites!

The monarch population has declined about 80% just in the last 20 years, and it is even being considered for the endangered species list!  This is greatly due to loss of habitat.  Monarch caterpillars ONLY eat milkweed, so the best thing we can do to help them out it to plant native species of milkweed.

What species of milkweed grow where you live? This website has more information about that, and this one from the National Wildlife Federation is a really good resource as well.

In my area, a lot of places sell something that is called Tropical Milkweed. It looks like this:

It grows really well here, and the monarchs eat it up, but it has one problem – it still hangs on in colder weather which can lead to problems for the monarchs.  Instead of continuing along on their migration south, they hang around and lay eggs on the tropical milkweed, and then as soon as we get a cold snap, the monarchs die.   However, especially in Texas, tropical milkweed can sometimes be a good thing, because it leafs out earlier than the native species, providing food for early migrating butterflies, and it can tolerate the blazing summer heat, providing food for late season butterflies when native species have all but dried up.  So the recommendation is to grow native milkweeds first, but if all you have is the tropical milkweed, make sure to cut it back to the ground in the winter months so that any traveling monarchs will keep moving south.

2.  Pipevine Swallowtail

  • Host plant: Pipevine (aka Aristolochia species) – HOWEVER, do not plant Giant Pipevine (Aristolochia gigantea) because it is toxic to the caterpillars. You can read more about that here.)
  • Plant in: shade to part-shade

This butterfly holds a special place in my family’s heart.  It is our favorite butterfly to see, but it’s not quite as common around here, so we always get excited when we find the first pipevine caterpillars of the season! They are a gorgeous iridescent blue, with blue and orange on the underside of the wings!

The caterpillars are awesome as well, and usually are a dark brown to black color, but one summer they were red!  Scientists are not sure why that sometimes happens, but they believe it might have something to do with higher temperatures.  I put my hand in this picture to show how monstrous this caterpillar was this spring and bonus, you can see some eggs in the picture next to the tip of my finger!)

Their chrysalises are really neat too, and instead of hanging upside down like a monarch, they hang sideways like a little hammock supported by a tiny, yet super strong thread!

This is a picture of the pipevine plant before the caterpillars found it!  🙂

3.  Gulf Fritillary

  • Host Plant: Passionflower vines (Passiflora species, except red passionvine)
  • Plant in: full sun

The butterfly is awesome enough, but the host plant flowers are such an awesome addition to any garden!  The variety I am growing is the Blue Passionvine.  It does not produce any fruit, but it is loaded with gulf fritillary caterpillars! 🙂

The caterpillars are orange and blackish-gray and spiky, and their chrysalises are so cool in that they mimic the dead leaves on the passion vine!

4. Giant Swallowtail

  • Host Plants: Citrus trees
  • Plant in: full sun

I love these butterflies – they are large and just sort of float and glide on the breeze all over the garden!  One of their favorite host plants are citrus trees, and the added benefit is that you can get lots of fruit from the plant and see these butterflies.  If you don’t live in South Texas, you can still keep citrus trees in pots (in fact, I only have my kumquats, which are more cold hardy, in the ground – my lemons, limes, and mandarins are in pots that I can move into a warmer spot when the weather gets chilly.)  Last year, the giant swallowtails loved my Meyer Lemon tree, and one day my daughter noticed it was covered in caterpillars that “look like bird poop”. They really do! What a great defense mechanism!

Now do not make the same mistake I did – my potted lemon tree was so nicely decorative in front of my chicken coop…

…aaand when they were ready, the little caterpillars decided to crawl inside the coop to make their chrysalises.  Then when they hatched out before the chickens were let out, they sadly didn’t stand a chance.  So once we realized what was going on, we relocated the lemon tree!

5.  Black Swallowtail

  • Host Plants:  parsley, fennel, rue, carrot tops, dill, Queen Anne’s Lace
  • Plant in:  full sun

Chances are, if you have a vegetable or herb garden, you might be growing one of these host plants in your garden already!  If not, I have had the best luck with parsley and fernleaf dill.  Last year, my parsley was completely covered in black swallowtail caterpillars!

The caterpillars are very similar in color to monarchs, but the black lines have little yellow dots, whereas the monarchs are just skinny bands of thin lines, if that makes sense!

6.  Painted Lady

  • Host plants: aster, thistle, yarrow, sunflowers, borage, plants in the mallow family (like hollyhock and Sidalceas species)
  • Plant in: full sun

These are the butterflies that started our love of butterflies!!!  Whenever we see one in the garden we like to say that maybe it is the great-great-great-great-great-grandchild of the ones we raised. 🙂  If you are interested in raising some yourself, we really liked the kit from Insect Lore.  When you are ready and the weather is right, you request your caterpillar cup which comes with all the “food” the caterpillars need.  They eat and grow and shed their skin and eat and grow some more until they attach themselves to a paper disk at the top of the cup. You then place this in the butterfly enclosure and wait for them to hatch.

Out of our six caterpillars, all six made it to butterfly stage and it was an exciting day setting them free into the world!  (The one in the picture below is well camouflaged with the mulch – you can spot it right underneath the tallest pink flower!)

And if you plant some of their host plants, you can see the painted ladies come back year after year!

Now that we know a few of the host plants we need to attract butterflies to our garden, here are some popular nectar plants that are big butterfly magnets!  And they will attract other pollinators too! 

My Favorite Nectar Plants

All these plants flower best if they receive full sunlight.

1.  Lantana

This is a super easy to grow plant with lots of blooms that butterflies like this monarch) and hummingbirds love!

2. Bee Balm

This is a must have for the butterfly garden and the herb garden!  The blooms are beautiful and attract lots of bees too, and it makes an amazing herbal tea as well!

3. Salvia (Sage)

This one is absolutely stunning in the garden and comes in all different colors and types!  Pineapple sage is a nice herb to have on hand as well, and has gorgeous red blooms.  The purple one in the picture above is my favorite right now – last spring, I was at the botanical gardens and the gardeners were dividing these plants. My friend and I stopped to chat with the gardener and we scored some free plants!  So I have no idea what variety it is, but it was cut up, dug up, then taken home in a plastic bag and planted, so these things are tough plants too!

4.  Zinnias

If you only choose to get one nectar plant, my top pick would actually be zinnias! It is the plant I most often see butterflies on. They are also a big  favorite of mine because they bloom very profusely even through the brutal heat of summer! They come in so many types and colors, and they are very easy to grow from seed!  Some of them even have a dahlia-like look and can be huge like the above purple ones!

5. Butterfly Bush

I’m so sad I killed mine last year from lack of water during some really hot summer days, but it is a gorgeous, sweet smelling plant and the butterflies flock to it! These also come in lots of colors!

6. Echinacea (coneflower)

These are great medicinal plants and their flowers are just gorgeous as well!

7.  Sunflowers

These are always a fun flower to grow!  My daughters love when they grow taller than them!  You can find shorter ones as well, and different colors too, but the butterflies tend to go for the yellow ones in my garden more!

8. Cosmos

Last but not least, cosmos are such papery, delicate-looking flowers but they are tough and beautiful landscape plants.  And they look great in cut flower arrangements (which you’ll have lots of if you plant a butterfly garden!).  They come in lots of different colors and varieties too!

So in summary, you can decide what butterflies you want to start seeing in your garden and plant their host plants, and add a new one each year (or do them all!), and then plant a few of the nectar plants and you’ll be seeing butterflies all season long!

Are you ready to build your butterfly garden???

Right now, you can be a Wildlife Hero with the National Wildlife Federation by taking the pledge to restore butterfly (like the monarch) populations, by planting the plants they need to survive and thrive!  You will receive a FREE garden starter kit which includes tips for gardening on your windowsill, porch, patio or backyard!  To read more about it and sign the pledge, visit their website here!

Happy gardening!!!


3 thoughts on “Create a Butterfly Garden In Your Backyard”

  • Very detailed article and although I have already three of the mentioned caterpillars in my garden I am so interested in the ones you mentioned. I will certainly add their host plants.

    • That is awesome! I’ve added one or two every year over time and we love the butterflies so much!

  • I’ve always heard of milkweed and monarchs but had no idea about the rest! Beautifully laid out. Thanks for all of the pictures. They really help inspire. I’m going to sign up to get seeds!

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