Butterflies Gardening Laidback Gardener Tip of the Day

Recognizing Butterfly Flowers at a Glance

Like most butterflies, the black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) prefers clustered flowers.

Like all good pollinators, butterflies have preferences about the flowers they visit. In particular, most are less adept than bees and hummingbirds at flitting from flower to flower, a movement which requires quite a bit of energy. They therefore prefer flowers where they can perch for a while, flowers that contain nectar that they can slurp up slowly rather than in a mad rush. That’s why they prefer clustered flowers.

The daisy is a composite flower: hundreds of fertile, nectar-rich florets in the center with a halo of sterile flowers act as a landing platform all around.

Asteraceae flowers (daisies, coneflowers, zinnias, etc.) are the perfect example of what a “butterfly flower” looks like. Each “bloom” may look like a single flower, but is are in fact a composite flower, that is an inflorescence composed of a dense disc of fertile florets in the center (disc flowers) and surrounded by sterile flowers called ray flowers. Ray flowers evolved specifically to attract the attention of insects like butterflies: first their color draws butterflies from afar, then they are placed in a ring all around the fertile florets, allowing them to act as a landing platform. When a butterfly alights on the platform, it’s offered a large number of fertile florets filled with nectar. So it stays there a while, dipping its proboscis into floret after floret. And as it drinks, the butterfly is covered with pollen that will fertilize the next inflorescence it lands on.

The wild carrot forms an umbel of fertile florets that attract butterflies.

Obviously, it’s not just Asteraceae flowers that have grouped flowers and pretty much any plant with that feature will a attract butterflies. Flowers in umbels (dome-shaped clusters), notably, like those of wild carrots, milkweeds, and clovers, will also attract butterflies.

Finally, butterflies are also attracted to large flowers that are filled with nectar, like daylilies and lilies. Their enormous petals also make great landing platforms.

Perfume Helps Too

Most butterflies are also attracted to fragrant flowers. In general, butterflies prefer flowers with an intense, sweet fragrance over ones with a musky scent.

A List of “Butterfly Flowers”

There are literally thousands of flowers that you can plant to attract butterflies: here is a very partial list.

  1. Ageratum (Ageratum houstonianum) annual
  2. Allium (Allium spp.) zone 3
  3. Arabis (Arabis spp.) zone 4
  4. Aster (Aster spp.) zone 4
  5. Astilbe (Astilbe spp.) zone 4
  6. Aubrieta (Aubrieta deltoidea) zone 4
  7. Azalea (Rhododendron spp.) zones 2 à 10
  8. Batchelor’s buttons (Centaurea cyanus) annual
  9. Beebalm (Monarda spp.) zone 3
  10. Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.) annual or zone 3
  11. Blanket flower (Gaillardia spp.) annual or zone 3
  12. Blazing star (Liatris spp.) zone 3
  13. Blueberry (Vaccinium spp.) zones 3 à 5
  14. Buddleia (Buddleia davidii) zone 6b
  15. Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) zone 6b
  16. Candytuft (Iberis spp.) annual or zone 3
  17. Carnation (Dianthus spp.) annual or zone 4
  18. Catmint (Nepeta spp.) annual or zone 4
  19. Chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum spp.) annual or zones 4 à 7
  20. Cleome (Cleome hasslerana) annual
  21. Clover (Trifolium spp.) zones 2 à 9
  22. Common lilace (Syringa vulgaris) zone 2b
  23. Coneflower (Rudbeckia spp.) annual or zone 3
  24. Coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.) annual or zone 3
  25. Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) annual
  26. Dahlia (Dahlia spp.), bulbe tendre
  27. Daisy (Leucanthemum spp.) zone 3
  28. Dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis) zone 3
  29. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) zone 3
  30. Daylily (Hemerocallis spp.) zone 3
  31. Dill (Anethum gravolens) annual
  32. Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) zone 3
  33. False indigo (Baptisia spp.) zone 4
  34. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) fine herbe annual
  35. Fleabane (Erigeron spp.) annual and zone 3
  36. Gaillardia (Gaillardia spp.) annual or zone 3
  37. Globe thistle (Echinops ritro) zone 3
  38. Golden marguerite (Anthemis tinctoria) zone 3
  39. Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) zone 3
  40. Helen’s flower (Helenium spp.) zone 3
  41. Heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens) annual
  42. Hollyhock (Alcea spp.) zone 3
  43. Honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) zone 3
  44. Impatiens (Impatiens spp.) annual
  45. Indian hemp (Apocynum spp.) zone 3
  46. Joe Pye-weed (Eupatorium spp.) zone 3
  47. Lantana (Lanata camara) annual
  48. Lavender (Lavandula spp.) zones 5 to 9
  49. Liatris (Liatris spp.) zone 3
  50. Lily (Lilium spp.) zones 3 to 10
  51. Lupine (Lupinus spp.) annual or zones 2 to 8
  52. Lychnis (Lychnis spp.) zone 3
  53. Mallow (Malva spp.) zone 3
  54. Marigold (Tagetes spp.) annual
  55. Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) annual
  56. Mignonette (Reseda odorata) annual
  57. Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) zones 3 à 10
  58. Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) annual
  59. Nepeta (Nepeta spp.) annual or zone 4
  60. Pansy (Viola x wittrockiana) annual
  61. Pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) zone 3
  62. Petunia (Petunia x hybrida) annual
  63. Phlox (Phlox spp.) annual or zone 3b
  64. Pincushion flower (Scabiosa spp.) annual or zone 3
  65. Pink (Dianthus spp.) annual or zone 4
  66. Primula (Primula spp.) zones 2 à 9
  67. Privet (Ligustrum spp.) zones 4b à 9
  68. Pussytoes (Antennaria spp.) zone 2
  69. Rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.) zones 2 à 10
  70. Rudbeckia (Rudbeckia spp.) annual or zone 3
  71. Rue (Ruta graveolens) zone 4
  72. Ruellia (Ruellia spp.) annual or zone 6
  73. Russian sage (Perovskia spp.) zone 3
  74. Sage (Salvia spp.) annual or zones 3 to 11
  75. Scabiosa (Scabiosa spp.) annual or zone 3
  76. Sedum (Sedum spp.) zones 2 à 10
  77. Spider flower (Cleome hasslerana) annual
  78. Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) zone 3
  79. Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) annual
  80. Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) annual
  81. Thistle (Cirsium spp.) zone 2
  82. Verbena (Verbena spp.) annual
  83. Viburnum (Viburnum spp.) zones 2 à 8
  84. Violet (Viola spp.) zones 1 to 8
  85. Viper’s bugloss (Echium spp.) annual or biennial, zone 4
  86. Yarrow (Achillea spp.) zone 3
  87. Zinnia (Zinnia spp.) annual

In closing, attracting butterflies can be even simpler than following a list of flowers. Simply plant more blooms, of any kind, and less lawn, and you’ll soon find yourself with a butterfly haven!

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, laidbackgardener.blog will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

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