Transform Your Garden Into Something to Flutter About

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Q: How can I attract butterflies to my garden?

 A:        When most people select plants for their garden, they choose plants that have beautiful flowers and colors. For some plants, those beautiful flowers attract butterflies that are often a pleasant added bonus for most gardeners. Some gardeners enjoy the butterflies enough to where they form butterfly gardens that consist plants that are known for attracting butterflies.

To attract butterflies into a garden you want to consider what the butterflies are looking for when they enter a garden. Butterflies enter a garden to look for food. For butterflies their food is nectar. So, in a butterfly garden you would want to have plants that provide nectar to the butterflies. There are certain plants with flowers that produce sweet nectar that butterflies would use as food. There are some general factors to keep in mind when selecting flowers for a butterfly garden. Many butterflies prefer plants that have pink, red, purple, yellow, or orange flowers. Butterflies tend to be more attracted to large flower masses of a single color or closely related colors, instead of many colors mixed together. In order to get to the nectar butterflies must have somewhere to land. Butterflies prefer plants with clusters of short tubular flowers or flowers with large, flat petals. Having a mix of plants that will allow for flowering over for a long time will attract more butterflies since they are active from early spring through frost.

When considering a location for a butterfly garden, remember that butterflies love the sun. A bright sunny area with at least six hours of sun and protected from high winds is an ideal location for attracting butterflies. One area does not have to be designates for a butterfly garden, you can choose to mix plants that would attract butterflies within the rest of the landscape and still attract butterflies.

Butterflies have to warm their bodies in the mornings before becoming active. They use their wings to absorb the sun’s warmth that is then transferred to their body. To do this they need a place to sit and catch some rays in the mornings. Having a few flat stones or other objects with a reflective surface will provide a place for butterflies to sit and absorb the morning sun warmth.

Often times we see groups of butterflies gather on wet sand or mud. This is an activity called “puddling” and the butterflies are going to the wet sand or mud to obtain minerals from the soil. Adding some small “puddling” areas in a butterfly garden will also help attract butterflies. A shallow pan can be placed in the soil and filled with sand. The sand needs to be kept moist, which can be easily done by placing the pan under a soaker hose or near a water source. You can mix in salt (table salt or rock salt) to the sand at a rate of ½ to ¾ cup salt to 1 gallon of sand to provide some minerals for the butterflies.

So, what are some plants that you could put in a butterfly garden? Annual plants known for attracting butterflies include:  cosmos, impatiens, marigolds, sunflower, verbena, and zinnia. Perennial plants that attract butterflies can include black-eyed Susan, aster, coneflower, coreopsis, lantana, and phlox just to name a few. There are trees and shrubs that can attract butterflies, like abelia, buddleia, rose of Sharon, and viburnum.

Butterfly Garden Workday

Wayne County Extension Master Gardener Volunteers spring planting in Butterfly Teaching Garden at Stoney Creek Park. Photo by Kenneth Dunn

If you would like to see examples and get ideas for a butterfly garden, be sure to visit the Butterfly Teaching Garden that is maintained by Wayne County Extension Master Gardener Volunteers in Stoney Creek Park on Ash Street in Goldsboro. The garden provides great examples of plants that can help attract butterflies.

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Jessica Strickland is an Agriculture Extension Agent, specializing in horticulture for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Wayne County. Forward any questions you would like answered from this week’s column to