Top 10 Plants for Swallowtail Butterflies
Transform your backyard garden into a swallowtail butterfly paradise with these flower favorites.
Every butterfly gardener delights when showy swallowtails make an appearance. These butterflies are some of the largest in the garden, and their colorful wings and soaring flight patterns make them a treat to watch. After working for several years in a butterfly garden in Florida, I’ve learned which flowers swallowtails seem to gravitate toward the most and now I’m bringing those insider tips to you. (Psst! They work for other butterflies, too.)
Monarda didyma, zones 4 to 9
Often grown for the minty citrus scent of the leaves, bee balm has striking tubular flowers that swallowtails can’t resist. Native to the eastern U.S. and Canada, it doesn’t often tolerate the extreme humidity of southern summers, but it thrives everywhere else.
Why we love it: Swallowtails love it, but deer typically stay away, which is always a bonus!
Vernonia sp., zones 5 to 9
Many native wildflowers are attractive to butterflies, and ironweed is no exception. A late summer bloomer, ironweed sends flower stalks up to 7 feet with fuzzy purple flower clusters at the branched ends. For best flowering, be sure to provide moist soil.
Why we love it: Ironweed is a long bloomer. It lasts well into fall, providing
nectar for the last butterflies of the season.
Parsley isn’t just to garnish your dinner plate! This annual is a favorite host plant for black swallowtail caterpillars. They’ll also eat fennel, dill, Queen Anne’s lace and other members of the carrot family, but parsley is easy to grow in just about every garden. In the Deep South, provide some shade in the hot summer months.
Why we love it: All parsley, especially the curly varieties, look beautiful as a border in your flower bed or spilling out of a hanging planter.
Echinacea purpurea, zones 3 to 9
This native wildflower finds its way into every butterfly garden sooner or later. Coneflower is easy to grow and provides masses of tall purple blooms. For best growth, you should divide the clumps every few years. After coneflowers finish blooming, leave seed heads in place for songbirds to enjoy.
Why we love it: The central cone that gives the flower its name makes it easy to see swallowtails (and photograph them) when they land for a meal.
Asclepias tuberosa, zones 3 to 9
Butterfly weed is part of the milkweed family, known host plants for monarchs. But the flowers it produces are also attractive to many other kinds of butterflies, including the black swallowtail. This resilient plant is a must-have addition to any garden. It tolerates dry soil and prefers plenty of sunshine.
Why we love it: Butterfly weed doesn’t produce as much milk sap as other milkweeds, making it easier to tend for gardeners with sensitive skin.
Asimina triloba, zones 5 to 9
While this shrub can be tricky to grow, it’s the host plant for the zebra swallowtail and the best way to draw this exceptionally beautiful butterfly to your yard. The deep root systems make transplanting a bit difficult, so consider starting from seed instead.
Why we love it: In addition to providing food for zebra swallowtail caterpillars, pawpaw produces edible fruit for humans as well.
Joe Pye Weed
Eupatorium purpureum, zones 4 to 9
This tall, native perennial prefers moist soil where it can stretch up to 9 feet high. The clusters of pink-purple blooms smell faintly of vanilla. Joe Pye weed blooms well into fall, bringing the season’s last butterflies to your yard.
Why we love it: Tall blooms give you a chance to observe and photograph visiting butterflies from a different perspective.
Rutaceae, zones 4 to 11
Giant swallowtail butterflies lay their eggs on trees in the citrus family, including lemon, lime and orange. This family also includes prickly ash (Aralia spinosa) and hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata), along with common rue (Ruta graevolens). Be careful, though. Almost all of these trees have spiny branches!
Why we love it: Sweetly scented spring blooms and delicious fruit—need we say more?
The trumpet-shaped blooms that give pentas its common name, starflower, are a draw for many butterflies. Keep this annual well watered, but allow soil to dry slightly between waterings, and deadhead as needed for blooms all summer long.
Why we love it: Tiger swallowtails seem especially drawn to the tall red varieties like Butterfly Red. They might even visit the same plants at the same time every day.
Mystic Spires Salvia
Salvia longispicata x farinacea, zones 7 to 10
Most salvia species are excellent for butterflies, but the tall blue flower spikes of the cultivar, Mystic Spires, are especially suited to large butterflies like swallowtails. Plant in well-drained soil and cut back spent flowers to encourage new growth. If you don’t live in a warm region, grow this salvia as an annual instead.
Why we love it: This compact salvia hybrid stands up to heat and humidity all summer long.
More backyard tips for swallowtail butterflies
Provide a Puddle
Butterflies often drink from mud puddles for water and minerals. Tiger swallowtails will especially appreciate a tiny area in your yard composed of damp soil with small rocks for landing.
A few large flat rocks in a sunny area will invite butterflies to rest and give you great photo opportunities.
Butterflies need a safe place to rest at night, like a brush pile or tall grasses.