How to Plant a Butterfly Garden

As colorful spring and summer flowers bust into bloom in Central Florida’s gardens, butterflies make their eagerly awaited appearance, bringing delight and a touch of magic! Most yards will be visited by some of these fanciful emissaries of the season, but what if you could encourage even more of them to drop by and stay awhile? Planting a butterfly garden is the way to do it!

By the way, you could attract quite a crowd! According to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), Florida is home to over 200 species of butterflies – some of which can’t be found anywhere else on Earth.

The Many Benefits of a Butterfly Garden

A butterfly garden can lend much more than beauty to your garden. As colorful as butterflies are, the wide range of flowers that support them are equally colorful. Not only do such flowers attract other pollinators such as bees and hummingbirds ­ they also provide year-round color to your yard while promoting a healthy ecosystem.

Creating an ecosystem that allows butterflies and other wildlife to gather, seek shelter, acquire food and water, reproduce and build populations is extremely important. Gardening Solutions a gardening website by UF/IFAS lists the following practical benefits a butterfly-friendly garden provides. 

  • Use of native plants: Hardy and drought-tolerant Florida native plants are also diseases- and pest-resistant, and perform better under local conditions. Use them as the basis of a butterfly-friendly landscape for easier maintenance.
  • Food for natural enemies: Healthy butterfly populations attract and sustain populations of insects and smaller organisms. Butterflies provide food for birds, lizards, mammals, etc. 
  • Plant diversity: A good butterfly-friendly ecosystem is less susceptible to insect pests, with individual plants less apparent in the landscape. This microclimate provides shelter for beneficial insects.
  • Scientific: For those who study nature as part of their job (or even amateur nature enthusiasts), keeping detailed logs on the butterfly species encountered, times, and abundance can provide valuable information on butterfly population numbers.

And don’t discount the therapeutic benefits! Butterfly gardens provide a soothing retreat from everyday life. If you use herbs to attract butterflies, you’ll have the bonus of aromatherapy. Our blog post Landscaping with Florida Native Plants— covers the importance of incorporating native plants, as well as a list of some of the most popular species to help you get started!

Best Plants for Attracting Butterflies

If you want your garden to become a butterfly haven rather than just an occasional rest stop, you need to plant the right flowers and shrubs. As you may know, butterflies drink nectar from flowers. However, caterpillars are limited to which plants they can feed on. It’s a good idea to have an assortment of both wildflowers and host plants to ensure enough food for sustainability.

As Florida Gardening notes, “The state’s subtropical climate makes it possible to grow a wealth of different plants that promise to attract butterflies to your landscape. Whether you are looking for specific flower color, plant size, or ones tolerating specific conditions, butterfly plants are suiting your taste and butterfly garden design.”

We’ve compiled the following list of butterfly-attracting plants from Florida Gardening and the Florida Wildflower Foundation to inform and inspire you.

Bottlebrush — The bottlebrush is a popular choice for those wanting a larger shrub that attracts butterflies and hummingbirds. This evergreen produces fierce red flower spikes, saturating the landscape in red hues almost year-round. Gardeners have choices in an upright and weeping variety. The upright form grows up to 20 feet tall and wide. Bottlebrush grows best in full sun, in a variety of well-drained soils, and is salt- and drought-tolerant.

Firebush — Native firebush offers an almost year-round color with its radiant red tubular flowers blooming from spring until the first frost. It attracts hummingbirds and such butterflies as the gulf fritillary and zebra longwing. The shrub also attracts birds feasting on the berries. Firebush produces the best bundles situated in full sun, although it also grows in partial shade and well-drained soil.

Jatropha — Jatropha plants offer a year-round dazzling display of bright red or pink clusters that will have hummingbirds and butterflies lining up to visit your garden. The two common species of this evergreen shrub in Central Florida are Jatropha integerrima, commonly called peregrine, and Jatropha multifidi, better known as the coral plant. They bloom best in full sun, but they tolerate growing in partial shade with a variety of well-drained soils.

Lantana — This evergreen perennial is drought-, heat- and salt-tolerant, as well as being an easy-to-grow low-maintenance plant. However, regular water applications produce the most abundant blooms. The blooms can range in colors of red, purple, yellow, white, and orange, with some a mix of all the colors. Lantana performs well as a groundcover, small shrub, or potted plant, and is sure to brighten butterfly gardens with its profuse colorful display of blooms. It performs best located in a sunny site in well-drained soil.

Milkweed — Milkweed works as a host plant, and is the only plant monarch butterfly caterpillars eat. There are two varieties of milkweed commonly found in the state — the native butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) — with both performing as perennials statewide. It blooms with clusters of orange or yellow flowers that start putting on their colorful show in summer throughout fall. Tropical milkweed blooms year-round, producing tubular flowers in red, orange, and yellow. These salt- and drought-tolerant perennials prefer full sun to partial shade and well-drained soil.

Dill — Dill offers multiple culinary uses while making a fragrant and useful addition to butterfly gardens. Dill is an important segment of butterfly gardens, as it works as a host plant and is the chosen host for the black swallowtail. Dill performs well in a sunny site with fertile well-drained soil. If you are low on space or want to add color to a patio, dill also performs well in containers.

Fennel — Fennel makes a good addition to butterfly gardens statewide when temperatures cool in fall and winter. Although the licorice-tasting culinary herb is primarily grown for its shoots, foliage, and seeds, caterpillars use it as a host plant. The clusters of small yellow flowers form umbels and attract butterflies. Grow in a sunny location with rich, well-drained soil and water regularly. Fennel also can be grown in a container. 

Parsley — This culinary herb has a multitude of uses for cooking, but it’s also a host plant to butterfly caterpillars like the black swallowtail. Use a fertile, well-drained soil in a location that gets morning sun and some shade during the afternoon. Parsley should be treated as a cool-season annual and can be grown in containers.

Butterfly Garden Design and Care

Before heading off to your nearest nursery or garden center, take some time to consider what other components you might need to ensure a successful butterfly garden that promotes the life cycle of Florida’s butterflies. Gardening Solutions recommends following these following steps to establish a butterfly garden:

  • Adult nectar sources: Attract and nourish adult butterflies.
  • Larval host plants: Attract ovipositing female butterflies; serves as a food source for developing larvae.
  • Shelter: Vegetation that provides protection from temperature extremes, storms/rain, and predators, as well as locations for roosting/sleeping.
  • Water source with fountain: Allows for easy and consistent access to water for drinking and thermoregulation.

In designing a butterfly-friendly garden, Gardening Solutions provides the following advice. “A wide assortment of flowers is better than having just a few kinds. “Butterflies are attracted to brightly colored, simple flowers with good places to perch. To make sure that nectar is always available, choose your flowers so that something is always in bloom.”

  • Provide a combination of adult nectar sources and larval host plants: Attracts maximum variety of butterfly species; encourages butterflies to remain in your yard, reproduce, and build populations instead of just passing through. This allows you the opportunity to appreciate all life stages.
  • Incorporate native plants into the landscape whenever possible: Most larval host plants are natives. They’re adapted to the region, will produce a small but representative extension of the natural ecosystem and can attract other wildlife.
  • Create horizontal and vertical heterogeneity: Choosing plants that have different heights and growth habits creates numerous microclimates which in turn appeal to a greater diversity of butterfly species; provides shelter; creates levels/strata of feeding opportunities.
  • Aim for a consistent host plant and floral venue throughout the growing season: Choose plants that have different blooming times. This ensures that the garden remains attractive and productive as long as possible; provides food for butterflies during periods of low natural availability.
  • Provide a number of different flower colors: Different butterfly species are attracted to different flower colors, so include yellow, orange, white, and blue flowers, as well as reds, pinks, and purples.
  • Provide a mix of flower shapes: The feeding behavior and proboscis length of a butterfly dictate which flowers will be visited. Long-tubed flowers, for example, are typically more accessible to species with a long proboscis, whereas many composites (daisy-like flowers) provide a feeding platform and easy nectar accessibility for smaller species.
  • Plant in shade as well as full sun: Appeals to more butterfly species. Many forest species prefer shadier locations.
  • Plant in groupings: This creates an aesthetically pleasing effect that provides masses of color that are more apparent in the landscape. It also allows larvae to locate additional food resources in the event of a shortage.
  • Choose appropriate plants for each location: Understand each plant’s basic water, light, and soil requirements so it will perform and grow to its maximum potential.

When it comes to maintaining your butterfly garden, select plants that are suitable for your landscape and use pesticides carefully (preferably not at all) to avoid harming your butterfly guests and other beneficial insects.

  • Give new plants a good start: Water and mulch new plantings to insure firm establishment.
  • Fertilize: A regular fertilizing regimen will produce maximum growth and flower production.
  • Avoid pesticide application when possible: All butterfly life stages are very sensitive to pesticides; when a pest problem arises, treat it locally. Use beneficial insects/natural enemies.
  • Learn to identify the butterfly species in your garden: Provides greater enjoyment; allows for the gardener to “plant” for particular local species.

 Other butterfly-friendly options for controlling and eliminating pests include:

  • Spraying the pests off with a blast of water.
  • Hand-picking the pests off the plants.
  • Releasing other beneficial insects into the garden — such as ladybugs and green lacewings that attack and eat pests, like aphids.
  • Keep your garden free of weeds that play host to pests such as aphids.

 The Take-Home Message

A butterfly garden is not only lovely to look at, it provides relaxation and serenity for you — as well as a valuable habitat for other beneficial insect species and small animals. If you have the time to plan, plant, and lovingly tend to this special type of habitat, we hope we’ve helped give you the information to get started!

If you’d love to bring this little slice of Central Florida paradise to your yard, but can’t devote the numerous resources necessary to DIY, call us at Daniel’s Lawn Service & Pressure Washing! Our experienced team can work with you to achieve your goals and bring your vision to life! We also provide landscape design, tree installation, tree trimming, yard maintenance, pressure washing and so much more. Contact us today!