Frequently Asked Questions about Butterfly Gardens

Barbara H. Smith,
Horticulture Information Specialist, Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service.

Printer Friendly Version (PDF)

1. Where should I locate the butterfly garden?

Butterflies generally feed only in sunny areas, so establish the butterfly garden in areas that get full sun from midmorning to the middle of the afternoon. A minimum of at least six hours of sun is recommended.

Pinky Winky Hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Pinky Winky’) provides a rich nectar source for Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies (Papilio glaucus).
Pinky Winky Hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Pinky Winky’)
provides a rich nectar source for Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies (Papilio glaucus).
Barbara H. Smith, ©2016 HGIC, Clemson Extension

2. What will I need to add to the landscape to attract butterflies?

In planning a garden to attract butterflies, it’s important to choose plants that will provide food for the larvae and also nectar plants for the adults. There are four stages in a butterfly’s life cycle: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. It is important to provide plants for each stage of the life cycle.

A puddling bowl provides both water and nutrients for butterflies.
A puddling bowl provides both water and nutrients for butterflies.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2015 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Provide a water source in a shallow birdbath with sand at the bottom. Keep the sand damp, but do not overfill as butterflies cannot land in open water. In nature, you will see butterflies gathering around mud puddles which supply not only water, but natural salts and nutrients in the soil that butterflies require to encourage breeding. This is known as “puddling.”

Butterflies land on sunny rocks to regulate their body temperatures.
Butterflies land on sunny rocks to regulate their body temperatures.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2015 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Placing flat rocks in the sun throughout the garden provides a place for the butterflies to land and soak up much needed heat from the warm stone.

Optional: There are butterfly feeders that are commercially available. Choose ones that are red and yellow in color. Homemade nectar can be made by boiling four parts water and dissolving one part sugar and let it completely cool. The nectar may be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week. An easy butterfly feeder can be made from a red, orange or yellow sponge. Cut the rectangular sponge into four pieces, put a hole at the top of each piece and run a piece of twine for hanging through the hole. Soak the sponges in the cooled sugar water. Hang the feeder four to six inches above the tallest nectar flowers. Soak the sponges every few days to keep them from drying out. Butterflies also are attracted by overripe fruit such as strawberries, oranges, peaches, and bananas to name a few. Slice the fruit and place it in a shallow dish. Sprinkle either fruit juice or water on the fruit to keep it moist. Replace the fruit when it becomes moldy or dries out.

3. Is it acceptable to use pesticides in and around the butterfly garden?

Say no to insecticides! Insecticides such as Malathion, Sevin or various synthetic pyrethroids or neocnicotinoids, to name a few, are toxic to butterflies. Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), such as Thuricide or Dipel, is lethal to caterpillars.

4. Can I buy and release butterflies?

Releasing store bought butterflies is a no-no. They can spread diseases to the native butterfly population. They can also interbreed, causing genetic problems or interference with the natural instinct for migration patterns. Usually the exotic butterflies die quickly.

5. What are the 4 stages of a butterfly’s life cycle?

Monarch butterfly egg along with small and large caterpillars are present on the same smooth milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii) leaf.
Monarch butterfly egg along with small and large caterpillars
are present on the same smooth milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii) leaf.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2016 HGIC, Clemson Extension

The chrysalis stage of the Monarch butterfly lasts about ten days.
The chrysalis stage of the Monarch butterfly lasts about ten days.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2016 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) is an important nectar source for migrating Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus).
Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) is an important
nectar source for migrating Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus).
Barbara H. Smith, ©2016 HGIC, Clemson Extension

A butterfly’s life cycle is called complete metamorphosis where it goes through four distinct stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa or chrysalis, and adult. Each stage has a specific job. After the egg hatches, the caterpillar’s job is to eat where it will grow quickly and expand in size. When the caterpillar has reached its full length and weight, it will then form itself into a pupa. Inside of the pupa, the caterpillar is rapidly changing into an adult butterfly. When this process is completed, the adult butterfly will emerge from the chrysalis, and the wings will be soft and folded against its body. It will pump blood into its wings in order to get them to expand for flight. Within several hours, the butterfly will go in search of a mate in order to reproduce. The female will lay her eggs on the preferred host plant, and the cycle will start all over again.

6. What plant species do you recommend for South Carolina gardens?

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum var. neapolitanum) is an excellent host plant for butterfly larvae.
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum var. neapolitanum)
is an excellent host plant for butterfly larvae.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2015 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Dill (Anethum graveolens) is a food source for Tiger Swallowtail butterfly larvae.
Dill (Anethum graveolens) is a food source for Tiger Swallowtail butterfly larvae.
Barbara Smith, ©2015 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Food for larvae: Coriander, Dill, Fennel, Milkweed, Parsley, Oregano, and Sage. Use multiple species of plants for the butterflies to lay eggs on and for use as a food source for the larvae. During the larval or caterpillar stage, the caterpillar will double its weight over two times in a day, so be sure to plant some of the plants your use and some for the butterflies.

Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) is also known as Wild Carrot, and is both a food for butterfly larvae and nectar for adults.
Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) is also known as
Wild Carrot, and is both a food for butterfly larvae and nectar for adults.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2015 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Wildflowers: Aster, Daisy, Goldenrod, Ironweed, Joe Pye Weed, Milkweed -- especially Orange Butterfly Milkweed, Passion Flower, Queen’s Anne Lace, and False Indigo. Milkweed is an especially important food source for Monarch Butterflies to feed on during the fall migration.

Zinnias (Zinnia elegans) are a favorite nectar source for many butterfly species such as the Giant Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio cresphontes).
Zinnias (Zinnia elegans) are a favorite nectar source
for many butterfly species such as the Giant Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio cresphontes).
Barbara H. Smith, ©2016 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Annuals: Ageratum, Cosmos, Crimson Clover, Gomphrena, Marigold, Melampodium, Mexican Petunia (also known as Ruellia, which can be perennial in some areas of the state), Mexican Sunflower, Nasturtium,  Pentas, Salvia, Sunflower, and Zinnia.

Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) are easy care cornerstones for butterfly gardens, and attract many species of butterflies such as the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.
Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) are easy
care cornerstones for butterfly gardens, and attract
many species of butterflies such as the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2015 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Perennials: Bee Balm, Black Eyed Susan, Coreopsis, Daylily, Dianthus, Dutch White Clover, Gaillardia, Goldenrod, Lantana (both annual and perennial), Lobelia, Penstemon, Phlox, Purple Coneflower, Salvia, Scabiosa, Shasta Daisy, Stokesia, Verbena, Veronica, and Yarrow.

Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is one of the earliest blooming nectar sources for butterflies.
Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is one of the earliest blooming nectar sources for butterflies.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2015 HGIC, Clemson Extension

‘Don’s Variegated’ Native Azalea (Rhododendron austrinum ‘Don’s Variegated’) have nectar filled tubular shaped flowers to attract butterflies in the early spring.
‘Don’s Variegated’ Native Azalea (Rhododendron austrinum ‘Don’s Variegated’)
have nectar filled tubular shaped flowers to attract butterflies in the early spring.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2016 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Shrubs: Abelia, Azaleas -- especially native varieties, Buckeye, Butterfly Bush, Buttonbush, Clethra, Fothergilla, Itea, Rose of Sharon, Sassafras, Spiraea, and Viburnum.

Other Interesting Facts about Butterflies

Did you also know that a butterfly’s nose is in its feet? They have receptors in their feet, legs and antennae. Plant flowers that are flat-topped, clustered or have short flower tubes so butterflies can land or perch on in order to feed. Butterflies are attracted to flowers that are red, yellow, orange, pink and purple. Choose nectar and pollen rich wildflowers, annuals, perennials, and shrubs in successional bloom so the nectar will be continuously available. Use native plants whenever possible as they have coevolved with butterflies and are codependent on each other.

A Silver Spotted Skipper butterfly (Epargyreus clarus) feeding on Miss Huff Lantana (Lantana camara ‘Miss Huff’) nectar.
A Silver Spotted Skipper butterfly (Epargyreus clarus)
feeding on Miss Huff Lantana (Lantana camara ‘Miss Huff’) nectar.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2016 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Did you know butterflies see in bright, ultraviolet colors such as red, yellow, and purple? These bright colors signal that the flowers have sugary water and nectar for the butterflies to feed on. They also use the UV light when finding a mate. Not only do butterflies provide everyone with beauty in the garden, they are also important pollinators.

For more information on butterfly gardening, see EIIS/BB-2, Butterfly Gardening.

Page maintained by: Home & Garden Information Center

This information is supplied with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement of brand names or registered trademarks by the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service is implied, nor is any discrimination intended by the exclusion of products or manufacturers not named. All recommendations are for South Carolina conditions and may not apply to other areas. Use pesticides only according to the directions on the label. All recommendations for pesticide use are for South Carolina only and were legal at the time of publication, but the status of registration and use patterns are subject to change by action of state and federal regulatory agencies. Follow all directions, precautions and restrictions that are listed.