Butterfly Gardening

Butterfly Gardening Facts

Butterfly gardening has become very popular in the St. Louis area. Butterfly gardens can range in size from several acres to a small container garden. By choosing the right plants, you can attract many different butterflies, adding a moveable mural of color to your landscape.

The general requirements for butterfly gardening in St. Louis are: full sun, nectar source plants, larval host plants and a pesticide-free environment. Plant selection and placement are the most effective methods to attract butterflies, site selection for a butterfly garden is also important. Butterflies like sunny sites and areas sheltered from high winds. Warm, sheltered sites are most needed in the spring and fall. Provide rocks or bricks for pupation sites and for basking and warming in the sun.

Butterfly gardens are best planted in the spring with established plants or in the fall with mature plants that will become dormant and re-emerge in the spring. It is best not to plant in the heat of summer or the cold of winter. Plant your butterfly garden in full sun. Butterflies also need sun to warm their bodies for flight. Flowering plants need sun to flourish in order to produce nectar for butterflies.

One of the most common mistakes in butterfly gardening is planting only one nectar source. Adult butterflies have a very short lifespan. Planting a variety of nectar sources will encourage more butterflies to visit the garden. Planting an adequate supply of host plants gives butterflies a place to lay their eggs, which will successfully hatch and result in butterflies that will continue to visit the garden. Butterflies are attracted to flowers with strong scents and bright colors, where they drink sweet, energy-rich nectar.

Butterflies typically lay their eggs in late spring and hatch 3-6 days after they are laid. It takes 3-4 weeks for a caterpillar to pupate and 9-14 days to emerge as an adult. Butterflies see more colors than humans do. They seem to prefer red, orange, yellow, purple and dark pink. A large, colorful garden is easy for butterflies to find, and encourages them to stay longer.


List of Plants to Attract Butterflies

{L} = Larval Food Plants {N} = Nectar Plants


Annuals Flowers

Common annual flowers that attract butterflies include:

Ageratum - Ageratum houstonianum {N}

Common Sunflower - Helianthus annuus {L,N}

Cosmos - Cosmos spp. {N}

Globe Candytuft - Iberis umbellata {N}

Gomphrena - Gomphrena globosa {N}

Heliotrope - Heliotropium arborescens {N}

Lamb's Quarters - Chenopodium album {L}

Lantana - Lantana camara {N}

Marigold - Tagetes spp. {N}

Nasturtium - Tropaeolum spp. {N}

Nicotiana - Nicotiana alata {N}

Petunia - Petunia x hybrida {N}

Salvia - Salvia spp. {N}

Scabiosa - Scabiosa atropurpurea {N}

Snapdragon - Antirrhinum majus {L,N}

Statice - Limonium sinuatum {N}

Sunflower - Helianthus spp. {N}

Sweet Alyssum - Lobularia maritima {N}

Verbena - Verbena spp. {N}

Zinnia - Zinnia spp. {N}


Biennials Flowers

Biennials to consider for use in butterfly gardens include:

Dame's Rocket - Hesperis matronalis {N}

Queen Anne's Lace - Daucus carota {L,N}

Thistle - Cirsium spp. {L,N}



Butterflies are also attracted to herbs as a nectar source as well as a larval food source.

Catnip - Nepeta cataria {N}

Chives - Allium schoenoprasum {N}

Dill - Anethum graveolens {L,N}

Lavender - Lavender angustifoliaa {N}

Mint - Mentha spp. {N}

Parsley - Petroselinum crispum {L,N}

Sweet Fennel - Foeniculum vulgare {L,N}



Shrubs provide habitat and good, short term nectar sources.

Butterfly Bush - Buddleia davidii {N}

Cinquefoil - Potentilla spp. {N}

Chokecherry - Prunus virginiana {L,N}

Cotoneaster - Cotoneaster spp. {N}

Lilac - Syringa spp. {N}

Mock Orange - Philadelphus spp. {N} 

Privet - Ligustrum spp. {N}

Spirea - Spiraea spp. {N}

Viburnum - Viburnum spp. {N}



Trees serve a vital function as a larval food host, a nectar source, and protection.

Birch - Betula spp. {L,N}

Cherry - Prunus spp. {L,N}

Linden (Basswood) - Tilia spp. {N}

Oak - Quercus spp. {L}

Plum - Prunus spp. {N}

Red Cedar - Juniperus virginiana {L}

Russian Olive - Elaeagnus angustifolia {N}

Willow - Salix spp. {L,N}



Perennial flowers to consider include:

Aster - Aster spp. {L,N}

BeeBalm - Monarda spp. {N}

Blanketflower - Gaillardia spp. {N}

Butterfly Weed - Asclepias tuberosa {L,N}

Chrysanthemum - Chrysanthemum spp. {N}

Coreopsis - Coreopsis spp. {N}

Daylily - Hemerocallis spp. {N}

Gayfeather - Liatris spp. {N}

Goldenrod - Solidago rigida {N}

Hollyhock - Alcea rosea {L}

Ironweed - Vernonia spp. {N}

Joe-Pye Weed - Eupatorium spp. {N}

Mallow - Malva spp. {L}

Milkweed - Asclepias spp. {L,N}

Ornamental Onion - Allium spp. {N}

Phlox - Phlox spp. {N}

Pinks - Dianthus spp. {N}

Purple Coneflower - Echinacea spp. {N}

Rudbeckia - Rudbeckia spp. {N}

Sedum - Sedum spp. {N}

Shasta Daisy - Chrysanthemum maximum {N}

Yarrow - Achillea spp. {N}


If you just want to attract a few more butterflies than you have seen in past years, simply plant more of the nectar flowers commonly visited by adults. If you want to attract many different species, you will need to add plants that are a good source of food for butterfly larvae (caterpillars) as well. Include an assortment of plants for season-long bloom. The time of flowering, duration of bloom, flower color, and plant size are all important considerations when selecting plants to attract butterflies.

Plants with clusters of flowers are often better than plants with small, single flowers because it is easier for butterflies to land on clustered and/or larger flowers. Mass plantings will usually attract more butterflies, as there is more nectar available to them at a single stop. 

Butterfly Table

In addition to natural nectar feeders, you can also supplement the diet of butterflies through the use of a butterfly table. There are two different types of butterfly tables. One type has a 1' x1' platform with about a dozen equally spaced pegs (nails driven through the "table" and blunted for safety). The table top should be sloped (about 20-30 degrees) and placed so as to face south. A ledge made from 1" x 1" wood will help to capture juices that run down the table after a rain shower. Pieces of fruit (citrus, banana, apple, peach, nectarine, and/or plum) are placed on the pegs. Periodically rotate the fruit to expose the juicy side, and when the fruit is completely dried and/or shriveled, replace it. If ants become troublesome, place a ring of petroleum jelly around the post that holds up the table.

Another type of table can be made from plastic PVC pipe. Use a 5' piece of 2" diameter pipe for a post and at the top glue a 2" to 4" (or larger adapter). Find a shallow container that will set into this holder. Place pieces of fruit, or fruit juices, into the container. If you use fruit juices place a plastic dish scrubby in the container for the butterflies to perch on while feeding. Be sure to periodically clean and sterilize the dish and scrubby!