Butterfly Migration Info: What To Plant For Migrating Butterflies

By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist

For many gardeners, weeds are the devil’s bane and must be kept out of the landscape. But did you know that many common weeds bloom into an attractive lure for beautiful butterflies and moths? If you love watching the flirting dance of the butterflies, it is important to know what to plant for migrating butterflies. Having plants for migrating butterflies attracts them, fueling the insects for their journey, and gives you a hand in their important and fascinating life cycle.

Butterfly Migration Info For Gardeners

It may seem like a crazy idea, but keeping weeds in gardens for butterflies is a helpful practice. Humans have destroyed so much native habitat that migratory butterflies can starve as they move to their destination. Cultivating plants for butterfly migration entices these pollinators and gives them strength for their long migration. Without fuel for their migration, butterfly populations will decline and along with them a part of our earthly diversity and health.

Not all butterflies migrate, but many, like the Monarch, undergo arduous travels to reach warmer climates for winter. They must travel to either Mexico or California where they stay during the cold season. Butterflies only live 4 to 6 weeks. Which means the returning generation may be 3 or 4 removed from the original butterfly that started the migration.

It can take months for the butterflies to reach their destination, which is why a path of readily available food is necessary. Plants for migrating butterflies can be more than the milkweed preferred by Monarchs. There are many types of flowering plants that butterflies will use as they are on their journey.

What to Plant for Migrating Butterflies

Keeping weeds in gardens for butterflies may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there are several lovely varieties of Asclepias, or milkweed, that attract these insects.

The butterfly weed has flame-colored flowers and green milkweed has ivory green florets tinged with purple. There are more than 30 native milkweed species to plant for butterflies, which are not only a source of nectar but larval hosts. Other sources of milkweed might be:

  • Swamp milkweed
  • Oval-leaf milkweed
  • Showy milkweed
  • Common milkweed
  • Butterfly milkweed
  • Green comet milkweed

If you prefer a more cultivated display than a field of milkweed and its attendant fluffy seed heads that get everywhere, some other plants for butterfly migration might be:

  • Golden alexander
  • Rattlesnake master
  • Stiff coreopsis
  • Purple prairie clover
  • Culver’s root
  • Purple coneflower
  • Meadow blazingstar
  • Prairie blazingstar
  • Little bluestem
  • Prairie dropseed

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Read more about Beneficial Garden Friends

Home gardens welcome “Flutter-fly-bys”

Spring arrived March 20 in the northern hemisphere, and for a fleeting moment, I saw the season’s first western swallowtail butterfly flutter through my garden, and it was lovely.

Much can be added to our landscape to encourage these occasional visitors, but we must remember, as distinguished UC Davis professor Dr. Arthur Shapiro, who has been monitoring butterflies in Northern California for the past 47 years, says, “The principal function of a butterfly garden is to intercept randomly moving 'excess' butterflies and detain them where they can be observed and enjoyed.”

Plain and simple – we can’t contain butterflies forever in our gardens, but we can plant to attract them as they pass by, and hopefully, maximize our visitors.

Shapiro’s website offers many resources for helping you decide on what to plant, including what NOT to remove completely from your landscape, like mistletoe, which the Great Purple Hairstreak butterfly depends on as its only host. https://butterfly.ucdavis.edu/butterfly-gardening-sacramento-valley

For the sake of brevity, we will consider the top flowering favorites for butterflies, highlighted from Shapiro’s website:

  • Butterfly-Bush (Buddleia, especially B. davidii): Only the purple and pink varieties are good for attracting Monarchs, Swallowtails, Admirals and nearly everything else in summer.
  • Lilac (Syringa vulgaris): The purple and pink varieties bloom in April and attract Swallowtails, Western Tiger and Pipevine.
  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): Blooms all year and attracts everything, but most useful in winter when little else is blooming.
  • Lantana : Blooms more or less all year with many colors (yellow least attractive, orange and purple-pink best) Attracts great numbers of late-summer butterflies, including Monarchs, Ladies, Buckeyes and especially “lawn” skippers like the Fiery Skipper and Field Skipper.
  • Pride-of-Madeira (Echium): Blooms in April and May with huge spikes of cyanic- to violet-blue flowers attracts Ladies and Monarchs. Frost-sensitive.
  • Salpichroa is seen around old houses. It is a small-leaved climber with unshowy flowers dearly beloved of the West Coast Lady in the dead of winter.
  • Asters, Michaelmas Daisies (Aster species and cultivars): All colors do well and many bloom from July through November, or even longer.
  • Perennial Sunflowers (Helianthus species): Bloom from July through October and are generally good at attracting Monarchs in migration.
  • Wild Buckwheats (Eriogonum sp.): Many species blooming at various times of the year do well here and attract many small butterflies.
  • Milkweed (Asclepias species): Purple Milkweed, A. cordifolius, blooms in late spring Narrow-leaf Milkweed, A. fascicularis, and Broad-leaf Milkweed, A. speciosa, bloom in summer. Excellent for butterflies in general, especially Monarchs. May be invasive subject to Oleander Aphid and several other specialist insects.
  • Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum): Blooms from April through July excellent for Hairstreaks, Coppers and Ladies and a favorite of the Great Purple Hairstreak. Invasive.
  • Coyote mint or Western Pennyroyal (Monardella species): Blooms from May through October excellent at attracting everything short-lived on heavier soils.
  • Verbena: Most species, especially blue and purple ones, excellent for small butterflies and Buckeye. The Mournful Duskywing especially appreciates tall Verbenas.
  • Marigolds (Tagetes, Bidens, etc.): Bloom May-December. The smaller varieties are outstanding for small butterflies and skippers the larger ones attract Monarchs etc. Note that the common Pot-Marigold, Calendula, is NOT attractive to butterflies in general.
  • Zinnia: June-October good at attracting everything.
  • Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale): October to June, very useful nectar source in winter.
  • Thistles (all): Excellent nectar sources especially for Monarchs, Swallowtails, Ladies, etc. Yellow Star Thistle (Centaurea solstitialis): Also an excellent nectar source, but no one in his/her right mind would deliberately grow it.
  • Vetch: Introduced annual species bloom late winter-early July and are attractive to most butterflies flying then, including Swallowtails.
  • Pincushion Flower (Scabiosa): Excellent for late summer-autumn skippers.

And a good reminder from good Doc Shapiro, “If you want butterflies, don’t use insecticides in the garden. This includes BT (Bacillus thuringiensis, Dipel), the bacterial insecticide, and don’t provide breeding habitat for disease-carrying mosquitoes.”

A Garden Fly-By- If you are inspired to see a beautiful garden, visit the SJ Master Gardener’s Demo Garden, Robert J. Cabral Ag Center-2101 E. Earhart Ave., in Stockton. The Master Gardeners have worked hard to showcase many collections of plants, including a Pollinator’s Garden.

Finally, an Irish spring blessing for you all:

“May you always find three welcomes in life

In a garden during summer,

At a hearth during winter,

And in the hearts of friends throughout all your years.”

Add Plants for Butterfly Caterpillars

Many butterflies are very specific about which host plant they will lay their eggs on. Sometimes they seek out plants in a particular family, and sometimes their caterpillars will dine on one plant and one plant only. If you intermingle attractive host plants with nectar rich plants in your flower garden, you may find yourself fostering one butterfly generation after the next. Don’t worry about extensive caterpillar damage on your host plants unlike some caterpillars that are voracious garden pests, butterfly caterpillar feeding rarely causes death or stunted growth on healthy host plants.

Aster flowers are an important source of nectar for migrating butterflies in the fall, but before that, the larvae of the pearl crescent butterfly feed on its foliage. Monarchs depend on butterfly weed and other plants in the milkweed family to provide them with the toxins that make them unpalatable to birds and other predators. The showy zebra butterfly, a Florida and Texas resident, feeds its babies exclusively on the foliage of the passionflower. If you reside in the Eastern half of the United States, you may attract the iridescent Eastern tailed-blue to your garden with a host planting of sweet peas.

Plants For Butterfly Migration - Favorite Plants For Migrating Butterflies - garden

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      Most adult butterflies feed on nectar. They are generally attracted to brightly colored flowers that are shallow and wide enough to provide a perching platform. Deep flowers like petunias may be avoided. Also, not all flowers are good sources of nectar for butterflies. Many commonly planted flowers were developed for their appearance rather than their ability to produce nectar. For example, geraniums do not produce much nectar. Butterflies may also feed on plant sap, rotting fruit and even animal dung. Butterfly & Moth Information

Common Nectar Plants for Butterflies

Annuals Perennials
Ageratum (Ageratum houstonianum)Aster (Aster spp.)
Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)Astilbe (Astilbe x arendsii)
Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus)Bee Balm (Monarda spp.)
Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus)Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.)
Heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens)Blanket flower (Gaillardia x grandiflora)
Lantana (Lantana spp.)Bush Cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa)
Lobelia (Lobelia spp.)Butterfly Bush (Buddleia spp.)
Marigold (Tagetes spp.)Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Mignonette (Reseda odorata)Catmint (Nepeta mussini)
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum)Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
Pincushion flower (Scabiosa atropurpurea)Coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.)
Sunflower (Helianthus spp.)Daisy (Chrysanthemum maximum)
Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritima)Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)
"Torch" Tithonia (Tithonia rotundifolia)Ornamental onion (Allium spp.)
Verbena (Verbena spp.)Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
Zinnia (Zinnia elegans)Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Salvias (Salvia spp.)
Yarrow (Achillea spp.)

Butterfly Note: Butterflies are attracted to mass plantings of their favorite flowers rather than single plants.

To have a truly successful butterfly garden, larval food plants should be supplied as well.

Larval Plants for Butterflies (will vary with region):

Plant: Butterflies that feed on:
Aster (Aster spp.)Pearl crescent (Phycioides tharos)
CitrusGiant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes)
Clover, AlfalfaClouded sulphur, alfalfa or orange sulphur
Grasses, SedgesSkippers, nymphs and satyrs
Lupine (Lupinus spp.)West coast lady (Vanessa annabella)
Marigold (Tagetes spp.)Dainty sulphur (Nathalis iole)
Mallow (Malvaceae)Dotted hairstreak, West coast lady
Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.)Monarch, queen
Passion flower (Passiflora spp.)Gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae), zebra
Pipevine (Aristolochia spp.)Pipevine swallowtail (Papilio philenor)
Snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus)Buckeye (Junonia coenia)
Parsley, Dill, FennelBlack swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)
Thistle (Cirsium spp.)Painted lady (Vanessa cardui)
Violets (Viola spp.)Fritillaries

Resources for Butterfly Gardens

Butterfly Societies and Newsletters

    Butterfly Gardener's Quarterly, P.O. Box 30931, Seattle, Washington, 98103 USA.

Butterfly Gardeners Association, 1201 North Main Street, Allentown, PA 18104.

Connecticut Butterfly Association, Inc., P.O. Box 9004, New Haven, CT 06532-0004, USA. A new group for butterfly enthusiasts, plans field trips, butterfly garden tours, and a public butterfly garden project.

The Lepidopterists' Society, Ron Leuschner, Publications Manager, 1900 John Street, Manhattan Beach, CA 90266-2608. USA

North American Butterfly Association, 909 Birch Street, Baraboo, Wisconsin 53913 USA

Sonoran Arthropod Studies Institute, P.O. Box 5624, Tucson, AZ 85703. USA. Phone: (520) 883-3945.

The Xerces Society, 10 SW Ash Street, Portland, Oregon 97204. USA

Young Entomologists' Society, 1915 Peggy Place, Lansing Michigan 48910. USA

Butterfly Gardening and Identification References

    Arduser, M. 1993. Insect Gardening. In: Missouri Conservationist , Vol. 54 (1): 21-25.

Brewer, Jo, and Dave Winter. 1986. Butterflies and Moths . Prentice-Hall Press, New York.

Damrosch, B. 1982. Theme Gardens . Workman Publishing Company, New York.

Feltwell, John. 1986. T he Natural History of Butterflies . Facts on File, New York.

Gerberg, E.J., and R.H.Arnett, Jr. 1989. Florida Butterflies . Natural Science Publications, Inc., Baltimore.

Glassberg, J. 1993. Butterflies Through Binoculars . Oxford University Press.

Howe, W.H. 1975. The Butterflies of North America . Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City.

The Lepidopterists' Society. "Where are the Butterfly Gardens" , a booklet listing 135 public and private gardens in the U.S. and Canada with butterfly-attracting plants. Cost is $5.75 from Ron Leuschner, Publications Manager, The Lepidopterists' Society, 1900 John Street, Manhattan Beach, CA 90266.

Lewis, Alcinda. 1995. Butterfly Gardens Luring Nature's Loveliest Pollinators to Your Yard. Brooklyn: Brooklyn Botanic Garden. ISBN 0-945352-88-3

Mitchell, R.T., and H.S. Zim. 1964. Butterflies and Moths . Golden Press, New York.

Milord, S. 1989. The Kid's Nature Book . Williamson Publishing, Charlotte, Vermont. Has butterfly gardening activity.

Ordish, G. 1975. The Year of the Butterfly . Charles Scribner's sons, New York.

Opler, Paul A., and George O. Krizek. 1984. Butterflies East of the Great Plains . John Hopkins Press, Baltimore.

Potter-Springer, Wendy. 1990. Grow a Butterfly Garden . Storey/Garden Way Publishing, Pownal, Vermont.

Pyle, Robert Michael. 1981. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies . Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Schneck, Marcus. 1993. Creating a Butterfly Garden A Guide to Attracting and Identifying Butterfly Visitors . New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc. ISBN 0-671-89246-O

Scott, James A. 1986. The Butterflies of North America . Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.

Sedenko, Jerry. 1991. The Butterfly Garden Creating Beautiful Gardens to Attract Butterflies . New York: Villard Books, a division of Random House, Inc. ISBN 0-394-58982-3

Stokes, Donald, Lillian Stokes, and Ernest Williams. 1991. The Butterfly Book . Little, Brown and Company, Boston.

Tekulsky, Mathew. 1985. The Butterfly Garden . The Harvard Common Press, Boston.

Tilden, J.W., and Arthur C. Smith. 1986. A Field Guide to Western Butterflies . Houghton-Mifflin Company, Boston.

Walton, Richard. 1990. Familiar Butterflies . Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Wright, Amy Bartlett. 1993. Peterson First Guide to Caterpillars of North America . New Your: Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN 0-395-56499-9

The Xerces Society in association with The Smithsonian Institution. 1990. Butterfly Gardening Creating Summer Magic in Your Garden . San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books. ISBN 0-87156-615-X

    For live insects, books, other equipment try:

The Brown Company
140 Dean Knauss Drive
Narragansett, RI 02882 USA
Makes butterfly feeders and butterfly hibernation houses.

Brudy's Exotics P.O. Box 820874 Houston, TX 77282-0874 USA 1-800-926-7333 1995 Catalog $2.00

Bio Quip 17803 La Salle Avenue Gardena, CA 90248-3602 USA (310) 324-0620 books, insect supplies

Carolina Biological Supply Powell Laboratories Division 19355 McLoughlin Boulevard Gladstone, Oregon 97027 USA (503) 656-1641 1-800-547-1733 live and preserved insect specimens, books, craft kits, models, slides

Insect Lore Catalog P.O. Box 1535 Shafter, CA 93263 USA 1-800-LIVE BUG butterfly cultures, The Butterfly Curriculum, insect supplies and books

Judith Levicoff "Magical Migrating Monarchs" P.O. Box 212 Jenkintown, PA 19046 USA 1-800-385-9595 (215)576-1404 fax Learn to create butterfly gardens and raise Monarchs using educational materials, activities guide, garden growing kit, book.

Young Entomologists' Society, Inc. 1915 Peggy Place Lansing, MI 48910-2553 USA (517) 887-0499

Butterflies Need Nectar Plants: Rainbow Gardens’ Faves

Nectar plants for butterflies are a hot topic this month. With the Monarch migration peaking in our city around October 20th, we are trying to do our part in spreading the word about how important it is for all of our city to do our part in supplying butterflies their much needed fuel sources. Today’s blog offers you a glimpse of a few of Rainbow Gardens’ favorite nectar plants for butterflies here in San Antonio.

5 Nectar Plants For Butterflies In San Antonio

1. Milkweed: No surprise that milkweed tops the nectar plant list for butterflies just as it tops the host plants. It’s always great when a plant can pull double-duty and provide nutrients for a butterfly’s complete lifecycle. Look for multiple types of milkweed in the nurseries we’ll bring them in whenever we can find them. Milkweed is on the SAWS WaterSaver Landscape Coupon approved plant list.

2. Asters: Little butterflies like skippers, hairstreaks, and blues plus common buckeyes love sipping nectar from asters and other flowers in the Asteraceae family. Flat-topped, daisy-like flowers offer an attractive place for butterflies to easily land, rest, and slurp. Asters are a great fall blooming nectar plant for hungry Monarchs that are migrating through San Antonio in October. Many flowers in the Asteraceae family are also host plants for butterflies. And since asters attract more pollinators than just butterflies, these are great plants to include in pollinator gardens.

3. Gregg’s Blue Mistflower: This is an outstanding nectar plant for butterflies and if you haven’t tried it in your garden yet, you have been missing out on swarms of Queen butterflies, Monarchs, and others. The pompom-like, perwinkle-blue flowers are huge butterfly attractors! Blue Mistflower spreads freely in the garden like a groundcover. Gregg’s Blue Mistflower is also a SAWS WaterSaver Landscape Coupon plant. (Photo courtesy SAWS.ORG)

4. Duranta: This nectar plant get overlooked and left off of many butterfly nectar plant lists, but we have no idea why, because we can personally attest to the huge draw it has to butterflies. It has that “IT’ factor that butterflies search out, and they just can’t get enough! The arching limbs dripping with clusters of wisteria-like blooms are visited over and over. Duranta makes a great stand-alone specimen in the sunny garden, or a perfect container plant.

5. Zinnia: These colorful little daisy-like flowers line annual beds and are basically a welcome mat for butterflies. They are easy to grow whether by transplants or directly seeded (we like a combo) and offer long-lasting blooms that butterflies swoon over. Deadheading, and watering under the foliage is the key to keep these nectar-filled annual flowers looking and performing their best.

We hope the pictures and information in this blog will get you excited about incorporating some butterfly nectar plants into your gardens this fall. For our favorite native nectar sources, click the link. Fall is the best time for planting and the butterfly migration that takes place through the city of San Antonio this month makes fall an extra special season in San Antonio.


Butterfly appeal: Also called gayfeather, this sturdy North American prairie native produces spiky flowers throughout summer which attract buckeyes, monarchs, swallowtails, and many other butterflies.

Plant type: Perennial
Zones: 3-9
Bloom time: Summer
Flower colors: Lavender, pink, purple, white
Height: 1 to 5 feet tall

'Miss Molly' butterfly bush. Photo by: Proven Winners.

Blueprint for a Butterfly Garden

When considering the physical space and layout of a butterfly garden, there are some essential ideas and necessary steps one need to take to help the butterflies thrive successfully:

  • Consider the physical space that you have at your disposal, and plan a design that works for your garden.
  • Designate space for wild disarray. Dead foliage on the ground and tall, wild grasses are a favorite hibernating spot for some caterpillars and pupae.
  • Plan for sunny areas and partially shaded areas so that the butterflies can be warm enough to fly without overheating and becoming dehydrated.
  • Research what kind of conditions and planting practices will promote optimal growth for nectar/pollinator plants in your region.
  • Create spaces for every phase of butterfly life: trees to roost in, plants to feed on, water to drink, and densely planted areas where a caterpillar could hang a chrysalis largely undetected by predators.

Native Plants Nectar

Best Native Butterfly Nectar Plants

Native nectar plants are excellent choices for the butterfly garden. Butterflies and other pollinators need nectar which they drink from plants. Butterfly gardens should provide nectar plants that bloom continuously or sequentially throughout the season. Late autumn is particularly important for Monarchs as they are storing up energy for the long migration to their over-wintering sites in Mexico. Many favorite native plants provide the nectar needed by migrating Monarchs.

Butterflies prefer a warm, sunny location and eat nectar from a variety of flowers. They enjoy brightly hued and fragrant flowers that are best planted in groups of color and variety in a sunny location. It is wise to include both annual and perennial nectar plants to ensure continuous blooming and nectar for your winged friends.

The Butterfly Gardens to Go collection was developed by Michigan Native Butterfly Farm. We have a diverse product line designed to help create habitat which promotes the life cycle of butterflies ensuring that future generations will prosper. Each plant has been carefully chosen to support the most common North American butterflies through each stage of development.

The nectar sources we have selected are proven butterfly favorites in our own gardens and the flight houses where we rear our butterflies.

We are pleased to offer a collection of ‘Petite Perennials’ that are perfect for small garden spaces or gardens that are already established and just need a touch of color or a fun new plant!

Did you know that butterflies are important pollinators? With diminishing butterfly populations you can make a difference by planting butterfly and pollinator friendly gardens.

Watch the video: 14 Facts About Monarch Butterflies

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