The 7 Best Plants for Butterflies
Butterfly gardens are a great way to create a garden with both beautiful plants and wildlife. While it might be tempting just to plant a few butterfly bushes and call it a day, the plants below can both bring butterflies to your garden, as well as support them throughout the rest of their life cycle.
You’ll see butterfly bush on the list, as its large flowers provide butterflies with food in that stage of their life and you’ll find a variety of other plants that help support caterpillars and other stages of the butterfly life cycle. When you plan your butterfly garden properly, you’ll be rewarded with amazing displays of flowers and butterflies year after year, as well as the knowledge that you’re helping support not only the butterfly but the caterpillar too.
All of the plants below are available right here on GreatGardenPlants.com, and if you’re looking for a plant that we don’t have, feel free to contact us, and we’ll do our best to point you in the right direction.
While there are over 250 species of Aster available across the globe, and we offer one of the best - Aster ‘Wood’s Light Blue’. This compact ground cover is an essential part of a butterfly garden plan, as it blooms very late in the season, providing a food source for your butterflies and other pollinators when everything else is done blooming.
‘Wood’s Light Blue’ is covered in blooms in late summer, adding exceptional cool blue flowers to your garden at the end of the season. Another added benefit of this variety is its small size. Where other Aster cultivars can flop or droop as the season goes on. ‘Wood’s Light Blue’ never gets more than 18’’ tall, which helps prevent these issues.
Botanical name: Aster 'Wood's Light Blue'
Height x Width: 12-18’’ x 12-18’’
Color: Light blue flowers with green foliage
Bloom Season: Late Summer – Fall
As the common name might imply, butterfly bushes do an amazing job of attracting butterflies into the garden. Their gigantic flowers attract butterflies and many other pollinators due to their bright colors and abundance of nectar. There are a wide number of varieties offered in our store, and others on our sister site ButterflyBushes.com.
Butterfly Bush as a species do get some criticism for not being native plants. And it’s true, brought to the western world from Asia by a French missionary, Buddleia is native to Asia, and can, therefore, be aggressive in other areas, with some US states issuing bans on types of Buddleia they believe to be harmful to their native plant species.
Luckily for us gardeners, a number of breeders have been hard at work creating varieties that are non-invasive. By creating sterile plants that don’t reproduce, plant breeders like Dr. Dennis Werner at NCSU have created varieties of Buddleia that only grow where you want them to grow.
One butterfly bush that is a staff favorite for more than its sterility is Lo & Behold ‘Blue Chip Jr’. Developed by Dr. Werner, not only is it a non-invasive cultivar approved for sale in all 50 states. It also boasts a number of improved features over other buddleia on the market. It blooms earlier, has stronger stems, and is more compact than most Buddleia on the market today.
Botanical name: LO & BEHOLD® ‘Blue Chip Jr.’
Height x Width: 18-30’’ x 18-30’’
Color: Blue flowers with green foliage
Bloom Season: Early Summer – First Frost
A member of the sunflower (Asteraceae) family, these delightful flowers are more than just pleasing to the eye, their plentiful blooms also attract pollinators like butterflies and hummingbirds. Native to North America, coneflowers are a wonderful plant for attracting pollinators, even in times of drought.
First identified by German botanist Conrad Moench in the 1800s, coneflowers have been used for a number of different purposes over the years. Native American tribes historically used the plant to help deal with cold symptoms, and it was used for cold prevention in Europe around that same time period. While research on these properties of the coneflower is limited, most scientific research shows it has little to no medicinal value at present.
Nowadays, its uses include beautiful flowers and attracting hummingbirds and butterflies from summer to fall. Here at GreatGardenPlants.com we’re big fans of the Kismet® series of coneflowers and carry four different varieties.
Botanical name: Echinacea 'TNECHKRD'
Height x Width: 16-18" x 24"
Color: Red flowers with green foliage
Bloom Season: Summer – Fall
Another member of the (very large) sunflower family Coreopsis, or tickseed as it is more commonly known, is a wonderful addition to a butterfly garden, for its ability to provide food for butterflies and caterpillars. As we discussed at the start of the article, a successful garden supports butterflies throughout their lifecycle, and tickseed can help you do just that.
There are over 75 species of Tickseed native to the Americas, with different varieties growing across all of North, South, and Central America. The state wildflower of Florida, you can find it along many of their highways, planted in the 90s as part of their highway beautification project.
Alongside building a healthy habitat for butterflies and caterpillars, tickseed also helps support other native bee populations. It supports bees, wasps, and hoverflies, making it a great addition to your local ecosystem, as well as your butterfly or pollinator garden.
Our most popular variety, Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam’ is a fantastic cultivar of the species that functions as a groundcover and can grow nearly anywhere.
Coreopsis 'Moonbeam' Quick Facts:
Botanical name Coreopsis 'Moonbeam'
Height x Width: 20" x 24"
Color: Yellow flowers with green foliage
Bloom Season: Summer – Fall
Another native to the Americas, the Phlox genus features a number of plants that help support butterfly gardens. By providing a food source for many butterflies during their larvae stage, planting Phlox in your butterfly garden will help support the growth of the butterfly species as a whole.
It’s important to remember when planting food sources for larvae that normal gardening rules may not always apply. As gardeners, we are conditioned to keep animals from eating our plants (hence the existence of our deer-proof plants section). When supporting larvae, you can expect signs of these plants being eaten – and that’s good! There’s nothing like a few holes in the leaves to let you know you’re supporting a healthy butterfly habitat.
As with many natives, there are a variety of Phlox available for purchase in the United States. One of our favorites is a Phlox subulata called ‘Emerald Blue’. Its bright blue flowers provide a wonderful accompaniment to coneflowers and its adaptability to tough growing conditions makes it easy to maintain for any level gardener.
Phlox subulata 'Blue Emerald' Quick Facts
Botanical name Phlox subulata 'Blue Emerald'
Height x Width: 4-6" x 24"
Color: Blue flowers with green foliage
Bloom Season: Late Spring – Early Summer
Viburnum is another great food source for larvae in a butterfly garden. There are about 150 species of Viburnum native to the northern hemisphere, many of which have been cultivated into popular landscape plants.
There are large numbers of both butterfly and moth larvae that will eat the leaves of viburnum throughout this stage (you can find a list here). In pre-historical times, viburnum (and Dogwood, another great larval host) were used for making arrow shafts, with viburnum arrows having been dated to before 3000BCE.
Unlike some of the other recommended larval hosts in this list, Viburnum can grow to a tremendous size and features wonderfully as the foundation of butterfly gardens. ‘Summer Snowflake’ is a favorite of ours, and is a wonderful addition to the butterfly garden for any of the reasons listed above.
'Summer Snowflake' Quick Facts
Botanical name Viburnum plicatum tomentosum 'Summer Snowflake'
Height x Width: 6' x 5'
Color: White flowers with green foliage
Bloom Season: Early Summer – Fall
Our final member of this list is a favorite among the warmer climates in the United States. Abelia’s are well liked for both their bright foliage as well as their bell-shaped flowers.
Named for British Surgeon and Naturalist Clarke Abel, he first discovered the plant on a diplomatic journey to China in the early 1800s. While he attempted to bring it back, his seeds were destroyed in a shipwreck and the species was introduced again around the middle of the century. While they were initially discovered by the “western” world in China, they are also found natively in much of eastern Asia, as well as Mexico.
A favorite butterfly food source, there are a number of different Abelia cultivars on the market. A newer introduction we’re particularly fond of is Proven Winners Color Choice’s Abelia Funshine®. This variety features incredible flowers, alongside bright orange/lime green foliage that provide interest even outside of bloom time.
Abelia Funshine Quick Facts:
Botanical name Abelia x grandiflora 'Minacara1'
Height x Width: 2-3' x 2-3'
Color: Purple flowers with orange/lime green foliage
Bloom Season: Summer