Attracting Butterflies: 11 Must-Have Host Plants

Need help attracting butterflies to your yard? National Wildlife Federation expert David Mizejewski unveils butterfly host plants you want in your garden.

Everyone loves butterflies. Just seeing these colorful winged insects flitting about the garden is enough to brighten anyone’s day. You can definitely attract these beauties by filling your garden with nectar-rich blooms, but that’s just the beginning!

Butterflies do most of their eating during their larval phase as caterpillars, feeding exclusively on the leaves of host plants specific to their species. As adults, female butterflies spend as much time eating as searching for those host plants where they can lay their eggs.

If you put these two things together, it means you’ll have the most success attracting butterflies by planting both flowers that provide nectar for adults and host plants for their caterpillars.

Focus on Natives

The relationship between butterflies and host plants is one reason having native plants in your garden is so important. How does it work? It’s a process that has happened over tens of thousands of years. As a defense against hungry wildlife, including caterpillars, plants have evolved to harbor a host of chemical toxins in their leaves. In response, each butterfly species has evolved to be resistant to the toxins of just a small number of plants so their caterpillars have something to feed on.

So how does that relate to native plants? Few native butterfly species use exotic plants as their hosts. They haven’t evolved together, so the caterpillars have no resistance to the toxins in the exotics’ leaves. As we continue to replace native vegetation with lawns and exotic ornamental plants, we often remove the only food source for butterfly caterpillars and dramatically decrease their populations—and, of course, our chances of attracting butterflies to our gardens.

Plant Milkweed

The good news is that including host plants in your garden is easy. Take a look at our list (right) of the best native wildflowers, trees and shrubs to beautify your garden and support the largest number of butterfly species by serving as caterpillar host plants.

The last one on the list is important. Milkweed (Asclepias) is the only host plant of the monarch butterfly. Populations of these winged jewels and their striped caterpillars are plummeting, largely because of the eradication of milkweed. So planting milkweed in your garden can make a big difference for monarchs.

Attracting Butterflies: 11 Must-Have Host Plants

picsbyst/Shutterstock.com Sunflowers attract several species, including checkerspots and painted ladies.

11 BACKYARD HOST PLANTS FOR ATTRACTING BUTTERFLIES

Aster (Aster)
Birch (Betula)
Sunflower (Helianthus)
Lupine (Lupinus)
Crabapple (Malus)
Poplar (Ponulus)
Cherry (Prunus)
Oak (Quercus)
Willow (Salix)
Goldenrod (Solidago)
Milkweed (Asclepias)

  1. audrey says

    I have just found a wonderful nursery that deals in Native Plants here in Silver City ,New Mexico. I have an Appt. on Friday. I am SO excited. I will be getting my Milkweed from them for our little friends, the Monarchs. And other Native plants to save on water and hosts other bugs and beauties.

    • Cathy says

      Fennel is a host plant for most types of Swallowtail caterpillars. Watch out for Common Milkweed…it not only reseeds but sends out underground shoots and is very hard to get rid of. My favorite is Swamp Milkweed…tall with beautiful blooms. It does reseed but is controllable. If you are in Southeast Michigan, check out Brenda’s Butterfly Garden in Westland. For a donation you can have native caterpillars if you have enough of the host plant.

  2. says

    I really liked your article on butterflies. Can you tell me where I can get seeds to plant milkweed? I would love to grow it in my garden for the butterflies.
    Thanks for any help.

  3. P.K. says

    The milkweed I know has pods that are filled with seeds. To keep it from spreading make sure the pods are harvested before they burst open and get spread by the wind… or put tape around pods to keep them together.. good luck keeping it in check.

  4. Barb says

    I live in Manitoba Canada and the Common Milkweed is considered a ‘noxious’ weed and there are eradication programs to control (get rid of) it.
    My sister-in-law had some growing in her garden in Winnipeg, Manitoba and a by-law officer came and told her she had to dig it all up and destroy them.
    So much for protecting the Monarchs in my province.

  5. Stan Johnston says

    Just received some milkweed pods and I will be planting them this year in our garden. We will plant them in a pot in the ground so it does not become invasive and harvesting the pods before they spread, to give to others like us.

    • Cathy says

      Great idea but make sure you line the bottom of your pot with grass cloth or some type of porous barrier to prevent roots sneaking through the drainage holes. Mint is famous for that sneaky move!

  6. Jean C. says

    I must say I’m a bird lover at heart, but I educated myself on butterflies with the help of Birds and Blooms magazine. When I moved to the wide open countryside, I decided to put up birdhouses and bird feeders and plant some flowers to establish gardens in my big new yard. Searching through my nursery/flower catalogs I selected a bright orange flowering plant called Orange Glory. It bloomed the first year on only one small branch. In late summer, I noticed most of the leaves were eaten and large pieces were missing. I looked and looked for the bad bug that was attacking my new plant, but I couldn’t find it. Then one day I found an oddly colored caterpillar on the ground near the flowerbed; believing it was the culprit of my demise, I stepped on it. That was about 15 yrs. ago. Since then, I’ve learned Orange Glory or “butterfly plant” is also a host plant for monarch butterflies, and the caterpillar was that of a monarch. I relocated my Orange Glory plant to include it in my butterfly garden and it produces “milkweed” pods and the monarchs love it. My family enjoys seeing the butterflies and caterpillars on it each year, too. My husband and I were also fortunate to witness a large migration of monarchs clinging to the pine needles on one of our tall pine trees.

  7. barb says

    Milkweed won’t become invasive because people will pull it or mow it down. ( But not butterfly lovers!) But it’s a native plant in MI

  8. Ron Mason says

    I don’t understand about sunflowers being a good host plant. We have a few in the Varmint Garden and I’ve never seen a butterfly or caterpiller on them. Does anyone else here have the same result with sunflowers?

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