Butterflies Gardening

How to Recognize Butterfly Flowers

Swallowtail butterfly visiting phlox flowers.

By Larry Hodgson

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 that 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 favour 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. Photo: Derek Ramsey, Chanticleer Garden, Wikimedia Commons

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 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 awhile, 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. Photo: Christian Fischer, Wikimedia Commons

Obviously, it’s not just plants in the Asteraceae that have grouped flowers and pretty much any plant with that feature will attract butterflies. Flowers with 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.) hardiness zones 3–9
  3. Anise hyssop (Agastache spp.) variable hardiness zones
  4. Arabis (Arabis spp.) hardiness zones 4–7
  5. Aster (Aster spp., Eurybia spp., Symphyotrichum spp., ) hardiness zones 4–8
  6. Astilbe (Astilbe spp.) hardiness zones 4–8
  7. Aubrieta (Aubrieta deltoidea) hardiness zones 4–7
  8. Azalea (Rhododendron spp.) variable hardiness zones
  9. Bachelor’s buttons (Centaurea cyanus) annual
  10. Bee balm (Monarda spp.) hardiness zones 3–9
  11. Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.) annual or hardiness zones 3–7
  12. Blanket flower (Gaillardia spp.) annual or hardiness zones 3–9
  13. Blazing star (Liatris spp.) hardiness zones 3–8
  14. Blueberry (Vaccinium spp.) variable hardiness zones
  15. Blue mist flower (Conoclinium coelestinum) hardiness zones 5–8
  16. Blue porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis) hardiness zones 9–11
  17. Bottlebrush (Callistemon spp.) hardiness zones 9–11
  18. Buddleia (Buddleia davidii) hardiness zones 6b–10
  19. Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) hardiness zones 6b–10
  20. Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) hardiness zones 4–10
  21. Candytuft (Iberis spp.) annual or hardiness zones 3–8
  22. Carnation (Dianthus spp.) annual or hardiness zones 4–9
  23. Catmint (Nepeta spp.) annual or hardiness zones 4–8
  24. Chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum spp.) annual or variable hardiness zones 
  25. Cleome (Cleome hasslerana) annual
  26. Clover (Trifolium spp.) variable hardiness zones
  27. Common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) hardiness zones 2b–7
  28. Coneflower (Rudbeckia spp.) annual or hardiness zones 3–7
  29. Coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.) annual or hardiness zones 3–9
  30. Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) annual
  31. Dahlia (Dahlia spp.) tender bulb
  32. Daisy (Leucanthemum spp.) hardiness zones 3–9
  33. Dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis) hardiness zones 3–9
  34. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) hardiness zones 3–9
  35. Daylily (Hemerocallis spp.) hardiness zones 3–9
  36. Dill (Anethum graveolens) annual
  37. Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) hardiness zones 3–8
  38. Egyptian starcluster (Pentas lanceolata) annual or hardiness zones 9-11
  39. False aster (Boltonia asteroides) hardiness zones 3–10
  40. False indigo (Baptisia spp.) hardiness zones 4–9
  41. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) hardiness zones 5–9
  42. Fleabane (Erigeron spp.) annual and hardiness zones 3–7
  43. Gaillardia (Gaillardia spp.) annual or hardiness zones 3–9
  44. Globe thistle (Echinops ritro) hardiness zones 3–8
  45. Golden alexanders (Zizia aurea) hardiness zones 3–8
  46. Golden dewdrop (Duranta erecta) hardiness zones 9–11
  47. Golden marguerite (Anthemis tinctoria) hardiness zones 3–7
  48. Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) hardiness zones 3–9
  49. Helen’s flower (Helenium spp.) hardiness zones 3–10
  50. Heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens) annual or hardiness zones 10–11
  51. Hollyhock (Alcea spp.) hardiness zones 3–9
  52. Honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) hardiness zones 3–8
  53. Impatiens (Impatiens spp.) annual
  54. Indian hemp (Apocynum spp.) hardiness zones 3–9
  55. Joe Pye-weed (Eupatorium spp.) hardiness zones 3–8
  56. Lantana (Lantana camara) annual or hardiness zones 10–11
  57. Lavender (Lavandula spp.) hardiness zones 5–9
  58. Liatris (Liatris spp.) hardiness zones 3–8
  59. Lily (Lilium spp.) variable hardiness zones
  60. Lupine (Lupinus spp.) annual or zones 2–8
  61. Lychnis (Lychnis spp.) hardiness zones 3–8
  62. Mallow (Malva spp.) hardiness zones 3–9
  63. Marigold (Tagetes spp.) annual
  64. Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) annual
  65. Mignonette (Reseda odorata) annual
  66. Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) variable hardiness zones
  67. Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) annual
  68. Nepeta (Nepeta spp.) hardiness zones 4–8
  69. Pansy (Viola × wittrockiana) annual or hardiness zones 5–9
  70. Passionflower (Passiflora spp.) hardiness zones 9–11
  71. Pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) hardiness zones 3–8
  72. Petunia (Petunia × hybrida) annual
  73. Phlox (Phlox spp.) annual or hardiness zones 3b–8
  74. Pincushion flower (Scabiosa spp.) annual or hardiness zones 3–9
  75. Pink (Dianthus spp.) annual or hardiness zones 4–9
  76. Primula (Primula spp.) variable hardiness zones
  77. Privet (Ligustrum spp.) variable hardiness zones
  78. Pussytoes (Antennaria spp.) hardiness zones 2–9
  79. Rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.) variable hardiness zones
  80. Rudbeckia (Rudbeckia spp.) annual or hardiness zones 3–7
  81. Rue (Ruta graveolens) hardiness zones 4–8
  82. Ruellia (Ruellia spp.) annual or hardiness zones 6–8
  83. Russian sage (Perovskia spp.) hardiness zones 3–9
  84. Sage (Salvia spp.) annual or variable hardiness zones
  85. Scabiosa (Scabiosa spp.) annual or hardiness zones 3–9
  86. Sedum (Sedum spp.) variable hardiness zones
  87. Spider flower (Cleome hasslerana) annual
  88. Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) hardiness zones 3–8
  89. Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) annual
  90. Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) annual
  91. Thistle (Cirsium spp.) hardiness zones 2–8
  92. Verbena (Verbena spp.) annual or hardiness zones 3–8
  93. Viburnum (Viburnum spp.) variable hardiness zones
  94. Violet (Viola spp.) variable hardiness zones
  95. Viper’s bugloss (Echium spp.) annual or hardiness zones 4–9
  96. Yarrow (Achillea spp.) hardiness zones 3–8
  97. Zinnia (Zinnia spp.) annual
Flower garden.
Lots of flowers means lots of butterflies! Photo: Hans, pixabay.com

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!

Article originally published on April 2, 2016.

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

10 comments on “How to Recognize Butterfly Flowers

  1. Measmeandu

    Absolutely love this article and to get a 🦋-list to bring to the nursery is just perfect!😍
    Thank you💐

  2. Thanks for your articles but just so you know … in British Columbia Dubbleia davidii is an invasive species. We are trying to eradicate it.
    https://bcinvasives.ca/invasives/butterfly-bush/
    🙁

    • OOOPs. I meant BUDDLEIA davidii…

    • Yes, I avoir dealing with “invasive plants” in general articles, because, in most cases, invasiveness is so dependant on local conditions. I can’t imagine putting together a plant list where some of the plants wouldn’t be invasive somewhere! Were I to write specifically about buddleia, I’d cover the regions where it is invasive.

  3. I just recently wrote about what flowers do to attract their pollinators of choice, but this time, spoke primarily about fragrance. Flowers are incredibly proficient with appealing to their preferred pollinators. I know that some nocturnal moths (also of the Lepidoptera Family) like sweet fragrance at night, but found little information about what they like to ‘see’ in a nocturnal flower at night. Nocturnal flowers are generally rather blandly colored because colors that people see are not very visible at night anyway. However, some of those flowers are a bit more interesting if the infrared or ultraviolet colors that some insects can see at night (or during the day) are ‘shifted’ to be visible. Flowers put a lot of work into attracting pollinators.

  4. WOW great list, thanks.

  5. My daughter just bought us two Butterfly Bushes. They are small, but they have flowers. Any tips on where to plant and their care will be welcome.

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