Watching a butterfly float through the air inspires a kind of peaceful calm that just can’t be topped. Just the other day, while sitting in my overgrown and unkempt backyard, I watched a beautiful yellow swallowtail pause to drink from the magenta flowers of a Jupiter’s Beard. An overwhelming sense of tranquility followed—I mean, how could I not relax when something so fragile and beautiful stopped by and graced me with its presence?
It’s no surprise that many of us delight in watching butterflies, whether in a backyard or on a monarch migration in the wild. For some gardeners, attracting butterflies inspires a cultish zeal, resulting in entire gardens arranged in the hopes that the graceful pollinators will call it home. But for those of us who base their chances of seeing a butterfly in the yard on pure luck, how can we attract more of these colorful and peaceful insects?
The Butterfly Basics
If you really want a butterfly garden, you have to take the good with the not-so-good—beautiful adult butterflies, preceded by their not-so-cute larvae. Although the colorful adults will flit around the garden pollinating flowers, the larvae will chomp through your plants resulting in leaves with large holes. (A small price to pay if you ask me.) But to have the most success with the pretty adults, you’ve got to also attract the ugly juveniles. Therefore, it’s best to have a garden that has both a host plant (larvae feeders and places to lay eggs) and well as nectar plants (to feed the adults).
It’s also beneficial to grow flowers that bloom at different times of the year, so butterflies, all from the order Lepidoptera, will have abundant food. Since different flowers attract different species of butterflies, planting a wide range of butterfly attracting plants will ensure a wide variety of butterflies.
In addition to flowers, butterflies like places to rest their wings and warm up, so placing a few rocks near large swaths of friendly flowers will make them happy. It should also come as no surprise that the fragile insects like to lay their eggs and feed in sheltered areas, so it’s good to provide an area that’s sheltered from the wind, perhaps with tall, butterfly-attracting shrubs.
Pesticides, especially insecticides, are best avoided for butterflies (and other helpful insects) since they can kill the larvae.
The Bomb Butterfly Plants
Since you’ll want to attract the butterflies that are native to your neck of the woods, the best things to put in your yard are native plants, which naturally serve as food for butterflies in the wild. Some plants are good regardless of your area, and the following are blooms that’ll ensure a butterfly or two.
Asters (Aster spp.) are hardy, daisy-like flowers that produce large clusters of blooms and come in a variety of colors, including purple, pink, red, and white. Butterflies they attract include the painted lady, checkered skipper, monarch, and red admiral.
Photo courtesy of Markles55 (cc)
The aptly named Butterfly Bush (Buddleia spp.) is a favorite flower of pollinators, including birds, bees, and butterflies. It grows as a large, drought-tolerant shrub that has fragrant flowers in white, purple, or pink. It will attract swallowtails, pieridae, and skippers.
Photo courtesy of The County Clerk  (cc)
A nice green ground cover and nitrogen fixer, flowering clover (trifolium) will not just attract pollinators like bees and adult butterflies, but it also serves as a host plant to various species of butterflies, including clouded sulphur, eastern and western-tailed blue, and sleepy orange.
Photo courtesy of Ctd 2005 (cc)
Marigolds (Tagetes spp.) are a cheery group of flowers that come in orange, gold, and yellow. They’ll attract silvery checkerspot, pearl crescent, sulphur species, and fritillary.
Photo courtesy of The County Clerk  (cc)
Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) is a clustered flowering plant that is drought tolerant and will self-sow where happy. Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is native to eastern U.S. and is purplish, while other species are orange or yellow. Many species are host plants for monarch eggs and larvae. They will also attract adult monarchs, blue swallowtail, checkerspot, and painted ladies.
Photo courtesy of Benimoto  (cc)
Purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) are daisy-like flowers that are native to the eastern U.S. and usually pink or purple with large, impressive heads. It grows two to three feet tall and blooms through summer and fall—a favorite time for butterflies. Good for a drought tolerant garden, it will attract swallowtails, silver-spotted skipper, wood nymphs, fritillary, and the harvester.
Photo courtesy of BarefootGardener  (cc)
In creating a happy habitat for butterflies, you’ll not only increase your enjoyment of the garden, but theirs too. Many species of butterflies are disappearing due to habitat destruction, so with the right plants, rocks, and space, you can create a chill space for a most joyous insect.