How can anyone not love those lighter than air, colorful, fluttery little creatures? Butterflies are the passion of many gardeners and nature lovers alike. So, how do you attract them to your yard and keep them coming back? It’s all about the plants. Butterflies are very specific about the plants they are looking for when they are flitting through your garden. They like trumpet and tubular shaped, nectar-filled flowers which they drink from with their straw-like proboscis (mouthpart). The nectar plants are the pretty flowering side of butterfly gardens, but they aren’t all you need to attract butterflies.
Host plants are the other group of plants butterflies are searching for when they flit through your yard. Host plants are the “baby nursery” of the butterfly garden because they’re the plants on which butterflies lay their eggs. Many times, host plants are mistaken for nectar plants, because many host plants are also wonderful nectar sources. But the important thing about host plants is that the hungry little caterpillars will eat all the foliage, grow large, and then crawl off to change into the next stage of their lives: the chrysalis or pupae.
Butterflies are host plant specific, which means each variety of butterfly has a specific plant it lays its eggs on. This makes it easier for gardeners to know what to plant, and how to identify the caterpillars. For example, Monarch butterflies will only lay their eggs on milkweed, which is the only plant their babies will eat. If you ever see a monarch caterpillar on a different plant, it’s probably looking for a safe place to morph into its chrysalis.
Other butterfly/host plant combinations are: Giant Swallowtails/citrus family; Black Swallowtails/fennel, dill, parsley; Yellow Sulphurs/cassia (Senna sp.); Gold Rim and Pipevine Swallowtails/dutchman’s pipevine; and Gulf Frittilaries and Zebra Longwings/passionflower vine. For more information on butterflies and their host plants check out the book, Florida Butterfly Gardening by Marc & Maria Minno.
Remember to tuck your host plants in amongst your nectar plants and other plants in the garden because the caterpillars will munch the host plants down to the stem making them look ugly. Don’t fret—it doesn’t kill the plants and they will re-grow in time for the next generation of butterflies to lay their eggs.
The most important part of butterfly gardening is patience. Butterflies don’t come on demand, but if you give it a little time and have the plants they are looking for, they will appear.