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How to Create the Ultimate Butterfly Garden

Create a habitat garden in your backyard, and butterflies will come to you

Bring Butterflies to Your Backyard

Create a beautiful destination for beautiful butterflies. Here are six common North American butterflies, some of their favorite plants, and how to get them the minerals they need to stick around in your yard.


Shown: Monarchs are notorious fans of toxic milkweed varieties. But, the common butterfly also enjoys yard-friendly lilacs. These perennial shrubs can reach a height of 8-10 feet and require full sun. Showy, fragrant clusters of small blooms start to make an appearance around late spring. USDA Hardiness Zones 3-7

Monarch (Danaus plexippus)

Among America's most recognizable butterflies, these fly throughout the United States. Monarchs can be identified by their bright orange wings with black borders. The males showcase thin black veins, while females have thicker, blurred veins (shown here). Look for white spots on wing borders. Migrating adults head to the California Coast and Central Mexico between August and October, with females laying eggs along the way.

Common Cosmo (Cosmos bipinnatus)

Painted Lady butterflies are known for their preference for thistles, which are classified as invasive in many states. Their sharp edges also make thistles hard to handle. Cosmos are a yard-friendly alternative. This colorful annual is available in a variety of bright colors. The wildflower is easy to grow and considered drought-tolerant. Like many butterfly favorites, some milkweeds for example, parts of this flower may be poisonous. Supervise pets and children if you choose to feature this flower in your garden. Zones 3-10.

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)

Taking flight from May through October in the East and October through April in the south, these butterflies are world travelers. Often migrating to the States from northern Mexico, they can also be found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. They can be identified by orange, brown, and black uppersides. Undersides feature traces of orange with a brown and gray pattern. You'll see two "eyespots" on the underside of hindwings.

Common Deerweed (Lotus scoparius)

Acmon blue butterfly larvae prefer legumes, including buckwheat, alfalfa, and deerweed. Deerweed is a native perennial shrub that requires full sun. The plant can grow to 48 inches and is considered drought-tolerant. Cabbage White and Painted Lady butterflies will visit for nectar. Zone 9

Acmon Blue (Plebejus acmon)

These fly from March to October in Western Oregon, Nevada, and southern California. Males can be identified by blue uppersides and females can be identified by brown uppersides. Both have a red-orange band on hindwings and white undersides with black spots. Due to the volcanic eruption of 1980, a thriving Acmon Blue community was displaced from Mount Saint Helens. In addition, ongoing land development has driven colonies to western fields, prairie hills, and weedy road edges.

Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium)

A must in any butterfly garden, asters come in a variety of colors and are drought-tolerant. Pictured here is a blue-violet variety of the perennial. they bloom in the late summer to early fall and require full sun. Height ranges from 18 to 24 inches. Zones 4-9

Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice)

These make flights from spring to fall, appearing throughout the United States, except California, southern Texas, and Florida. The first spring arrivals bear less of the characteristic marks than fall forms. Look for semi-transparent, yellow-orange wings with dark spots near the top of each one. Clouded Sulphurs will also feature a lighter-colored, slightly larger spot on hindwings. Some females feature white wings and similar markings.

Cranberry Bush (Viburnum opulus)

Adult White Admirals typically feed on sap flows and fruit, but when they go looking for blossoms they seek small white flowers. This fruiting shrub serves as a food source for adults, and a host plant for caterpillars. The late-spring bloomer will grow 4 to 6 feet and requires partial or full sun. Zones 2-7

White Admiral (Limenitis arthemis)

These fly between June and August throughout Northern New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Minnesota. Look for black uppersides with broad white bands on both wings. You'll see a row of blue dashes and a row of red dots on the upperside tips of hindwings.

Flat-Leaf Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)

This popular aromatic herb is a favorite host plant of Black Swallowtail caterpillars. The plants can reach up to 18 inches and will thrive in partial shade to sunny conditions. Also consider carrot, celery, and dill plants if you want to host caterpillars. Zones 5-9

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)

These make up to three flights between April and November in the eastern United States to south Colorado and southeastern California. You can identify them by the orange spot with a smaller black spot in the center near the tip of each hindwing. The female (shown) features an iridescent blue band on hindwings.

Puddling for Minerals

Photo by Howard B. Eskin

"In the wild, groups of butterflies can be found around a small depression of shallow water engaging in puddling," says Steven Saffier, the coordinator of the Audubon Society's Audubon at Home program. A shallow dish with rocks and a bit of tap water can mimic this activity. Butterflies will extract minerals from the water. Another way to provide minerals is to create a bare spot with moist soil in your butterfly garden.

Putting in a Pond

Photo by PHOTO: AMAZON

Elaborate butterfly gardens may feature a pond surrounded by flat rocks for butterflies to rest and sunbathe on. Consider the Koolscapes 270-gallon Pond Kit, but keep in mind that still water ponds are best for the purposes of welcoming butterflies. For under $100, the kit comes with everything you need to add the water feature to your yard.