Attracting Butterflies With Fuzzy Flowers

Fuzzy flower heads contain hundreds of tiny nectar-filled florets, attracting butterflies from near and far.

Every time I steam an artichoke for supper, I think about butterflies. Our fluttery friends can’t resist thistle flowers. And an artichoke is nothing but a giant thistle. I guess I must be a slow learner, because I never even realized I was eating a flower bud until I saw an artichoke in full bloom. It looked like a thistle on steroids. But it was right in the middle of a neighbor’s carefully planned garden, where I knew she’d never allow a thistle to grow. The bold, spiny-leafed plant, as tall as me, was a real standout among the softer, mounded perennials. But what really made me drool were all of the butterflies dancing all around the fuzzy flowers.

Attracting ButterfliesPatty Ireland
Plants in the thistle family attract many butterflies, including these Tiger Swallowtails.Patty Ireland

Until I saw that plant, I’d been patting myself on the back for attracting butterflies, but suddenly the dozen or so butterflies on my new patch of purple coneflowers and colorful zinnias didn’t seem as impressive My neighbor’s single artichoke plant was surrounded by more butterflies than I’d seen all summer. Monarchs, hairstreaks, painted ladies and other delicate beauties behaved more like pit bulls as they battled for perching rights on the fat, fuzzy blossoms.

Although you’d never guess at first glance, those artichoke blossoms, and nearly all other fuzzy flowers that are great for attracting butterflies, are actually daisies—members of the same composite family, Asteraceae, as my coneflowers and zinnias. Butterflies love daisies and related flowers, because the center “eye” is an all-you-can-eat meal of tiny florets. Instead of flying from flower to flower, a nectar seeker can just dip its proboscis into one floret after another. But fuzzy flowers are daisies with a difference. Instead of the traditional “She loves me, she loves me not” arrangement, these flowers are packed from edge to edge with thin, soft, tubular florets. Down in those tubes is sweet nectar, and a butterfly’s long proboscis is tailor-made for extracting it. It all adds up to easy eating, and butterflies respond like magic.

If you, too, want to revel in butterflies—and who doesn’t?—all you have to do is think fuzzy to tickle their fancy. If given the chance, the butterflies in your backyard often prefer fuzzy-centered because there are ample blooms in each fuzzy head for them to feed at. Most fuzzy flowers bloom from summer into fall, when butterfly numbers are at their peak. That’s nature’s design—the flowers tempt butterflies in order to get pollinated.

Here are fuzzy flowers that attract butterflies to try in your own garden:

attracting butterfliesChandra Bowley
Silver-bordered Fritillary on goldenrodChandra Bowley

AGERATUM: Light blue to periwinkle; annual.

ANISE HYSSOP (Agastache foeniculum): Light blue to deep blue; tall, upright-branching perennial.

BONESET (Eupatorium perfoliatum): White; perennial.

CARYOPTERIS: Light blue to powder blue; shrub.

DANDELION (Taraxacum officinale): Yellow; perennial.

GAYFEATHER (Liatris): Pink-purple; perennial.

GOLDENROD (Solidago): Yellow; fast-spreading perennial.

HAWKWEED (Hieracium): Yellow or red-orange; often grows as a weed but lovely in a casual garden.

JOE PYE WEED (Eupatorium purpureum): Mauve or pinkish-purple; bold, large perennial with upright stems of whorled leaves.

MISTFLOWER (Hardy ageratum or Conoclinium coelestinum): Light blue; fast-spreading perennial.

RABBITBRUSH (Chrysothamnus): Yellow; drought-tolerant, Western native shrub.

SEDUM: Pink to rose, white, yellow; -succulent-leaved -plants ranging from ground covers to clumping perennials.

SWEET SULTAN (Centaurea moschata): Yellow, pink, purple, white; annual.

TASSEL FLOWER (Emilia coccinea): Vivid red-orange; annual.

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Sally Roth
Sally Roth is an award-winning author of more than 20 popular books about gardening, nature, and birds, including the best-selling Backyard Bird Feeder's Bible. Roth is also a contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine. She and her husband share their home in the high Rockies with a variety of animals.