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Butterfly Gardens

submitted by Sarah Browning, UNL Extension Educator

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A butterfly garden can quickly become the main attraction of your landscape. These colorful gardens are cherished for the beautiful butterflies they attract. Besides the well-known monarch butterfly, there are over 150 different butterfly species that may be found in the Midwestern United States. An added bonus is that butterfly gardens also attract other nectar-feeding animals, like hummingbirds, honeybees, bumblebees, and moths.

Select A Site

To create a butterfly garden in your landscape, first select a location that will provide good conditions for plant growth and butterfly habitat. Butterflies need sunlight to warm their bodies, and most butterfly plants grow best in full sun, so select a sunny location.

Make sure the garden is sheltered from harsh winds. Warm, sheltered sites are most needed by butterflies in the spring and fall. Provide rocks or bricks as basking sites, for butterflies to warm themselves in the sun.

Be sure to locate the garden in a place where you will be to enjoy the butterflies from a window, deck or patio.

Provide Food for Both Adults and Immature Butterflies

The plants you select for the garden and surrounding home landscape will make a big difference. By choosing the right plants, you can attract many different butterflies, adding a moveable mural of color to your landscape.

You need to provide two types of food for butterflies: plants preferred by the immature caterpillar stage, and nectar sources for their winged adult stage.

Some butterfly caterpillars eat the leaves of common landscape trees and shrubs, such as birch, cherry, Eastern redbud, oak, hackberry, plum, sweet mockorange, viburnum, and willow. These plants will suffer little from the presence of a few caterpillars. Other caterpillars prefer plants such as clover, butterfly milkweed, broccoli, cabbage, dill, parsley, sweet fennel, sunflower, aster, and hollyhock.

For adult butterflies, plant several different flowers to make nectar available throughout spring, summer and fall. Butterflies are generally attracted to purple, orange, yellow or red flowers. Recommended annual flowers include alyssum, cleome, cosmos, dianthus, nasturtium, petunia, verbena, and zinnias. Recommended perennial flowers include blazing star, butterfly bush, candytuft, columbine, gladiolus, peony, phlox, purple coneflower, sedum, stiff goldenrod, violets and yarrow. Wildflower plantings can also be a great way to attract butterflies to your landscape.

Some herbs are attractive to butterflies, as either a caterpillar or adult food source. Dill, lavender, parsley, peppermint, sweet fennel, and thyme are good selections.

Even some weeds, such as dandelions, milkweed and Queen Anne's lace will attract butterflies.

For more information on creating your butterfly garden, refer to:

  • Butterfly Gardening, University of Nebraska, http://go.unl.edu/v9m
  • Butterfly Gardening, University of Minnesota, http://go.unl.edu/bs7

Celebrate Nebraska Wildflower Week

Inspired by a similar national event, Nebraska Wildflower Week is a celebration of wildflowers and native plants in the wild and in the landscape through events and activities across Nebraska. These events are observed when many of Nebraska's prairies and gardens are at their prime. For a listing of Wildflower Week events, visit the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum, http://arboretum.unl.edu/wildflower-week.

This resource was updated June 2013 and appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star Newspaper Sunday edition. For information on reproducing this article or using any photographs or graphics, read the Terms of Use statement


University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Lancaster County is your on-line yard and garden educational resource. The information on this Web site is valid for residents of southeastern Nebraska. It may or may not apply in your area. If you live outside southeastern Nebraska, visit your local Extension office

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