Backyard Habitat Restoration: Bringing Butterflies Back to the Garden

By Heifer International

June 9, 2014

Backyard Habitat Restoration: Bringing Butterflies Back to the Garden

Editor's note: P. Allen Smith is an award-winning food, lifestyle and garden expert and host of two public television programs, P. Allen Smith 's Garden Home and P. Allen Smith’s Garden to Table, and the syndicated 30-minute show P. Allen Smith Gardens. You can read more about our guest author and his gardening and design work on his website.

The Monarch butterfly’s migration stands as one of nature’s most dazzling phenomenon. Because eastern North American Monarchs are unable to survive cold winters, as many as 300 million migrate southwest each autumn, flying thousands of miles to overwinter in the Oyamel fir trees of Mexico. No individual makes the entire round trip, but they lay eggs along the way and the next generations continue the journey, to the same region prior generations migrated. The second, third and fourth generations migrate north again back to the United States and Canada in the spring.

Butterfly weed is a low maintenance perennial that has a sweet fragrance and beautiful blooms.

Unfortunately during the past 20 years, Monarch butterfly populations have precipitously declined.  Reported data showed this past winter’s numbers at a record low. Scientists believe extensive habitat loss due to development and farming, compounded by heavy pesticide use that further depletes their food and lodging sources and severe weather are all causes of the decline.

A small way to help stem this worrisome population decline begins in the backyard. Luring butterflies to a garden is really quite simple and the plants that attract them also add a lot of beauty. Here are a few tips to get you started.

If you want to increase the population of these showy little guys around your place, you need to provide food for two different parts of their life cycle, as larva (caterpillars) and as adult butterflies. Plants suited for the larva stage are commonly referred to as host plants and adult butterflies feed on nectar plants.

When it comes to host plants different varieties of butterfly larva have specific requirements. For instance the Painted Lady butterfly larva likes hollyhocks and sunflowers, but the Monarch prefers milkweed. Trying to appeal to every butterfly would require a large group of plants and to be honest, some of them are weedy. So narrow your selections to the ones that benefit the greatest number of larva. Host plants that feed several kinds of butterfly larva are parsley, milkweed and fennel. Others that are a little showier include false indigo, passionflower, asters and various kinds of sedum.

A Monarch Caterpillar on a "host plant" - swamp milkweed.

Now once the adult butterfly emerges from the chrysalis it needs nectar-producing plants to dine on. There is an extensive list of plants to choose from, but they seem to be especially attracted to purple, pink, yellow and white flowers. To make it easy for the butterfly to spot your offerings, plant in drifts of a single type of flower rather than a mix of different colors.

Be sure to stager your plants so that something is in bloom throughout the growing season and especially in late summer when butterflies are most active. Including some of their favorite annuals will ensure a steady supply of nectar. To provide shelter from winds consider planting your butterfly garden in front of a hedge.

One of the most important things you can do to make your garden butterfly friendly is limit your use of pesticides. Choose earth friendly options such as an insecticidal soap and spot treat problems rather than spraying the entire garden.

Butterfly Nectar Plants


  • Cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus)
  • Globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa)
  • Marigold, French (Tagetes patula)
  • Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia species)
  • Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
  • Sunflower (Helianthus species)
  • Verbena (Verbena species)
  • Zinnia (Zinnia elegans)


  • Ageratum (Ageratum)
  • Aster (Aster species)
  • Bee-balm (Monarda didyma)
  • Black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia species)
  • Boltonia (Boltonia asteroides)
  • Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii)
  • Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
  • Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
  • Daylily (Hemerocallis species)
  • False Indigo (Baptisia australis)
  • Gayfeather (Liatris species)
  • Goldenrod (Solidago species)
  • Hibiscus (Hibiscus species)
  • Hollyhock (Althaea rosea)
  • Joe-pye Weed (Eupatorium fistulosum)
  • Lantana (Lantana camara, L. species)
  • Lobelia (Lobelia cardinalis)
  • Mexican Sage (Salvia leucantha)
  • Milkweed (Asclepias species)
  • Passion Flower (Passiflora species)
  • Phlox (Phlox paniculata)
  • Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
  • Sedum (Sedum species)
  • Shasta Daisy (Leucanthemum superbum)
  • Yarrow (Achillea species)

More garden tips and articles from garden basics to organic weed prevention can be found in the Garden section of the website. Read our other articles on the impact climate change is having all over the world.