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10 Best Plants to Attract Butterflies

10 Best Plants to Attract Butterflies
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A swallowtail buttefly on purple bee balm.

A swallowtail butterfly perched on purple bee balm.

One of summer’s small pleasures is watching butterflies float by on the currents of the freshening breeze. They hover like tiny helicopters as they bounce from flower to flower in the garden – especially if the garden has been designed just for them and packed with plants that attract butterflies.

There are two ways to develop a butterfly-friendly garden: the nectar-rich, handsome gardener’s plot, designed to lure the winged creatures, and the larval food garden, designed for the convenience of munching caterpillars.

Most butterflies will travel great distances to lay eggs on their favorite plants, so larval food plants have the advantage of attracting the species you want to see – but there are two disadvantages: First, many larvae hosts will attract only a single species. Also, you have to expect holes in your plants’ foliage. For this list of the ten best plants that attract butterflies, we’ve chosen primarily nectar food sources.

Milkweed (Asclepias)
The orange butterfly weed (A. tuberosa) is easier to grow than the equally effective rosy-white swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) and functions both as a nectar plant and as the monarch butterfly’s larval host.

Buddleia or Butterfly Bush (B. davidii)
Though not native to North America, this perfumed shrub is easy to grow. It produces cascades of colorful blooms from mid- to late summer.

Blazing Star (Liatris)
Colored like the invasive loosestrife, Liatris is benign and manageable, a choice midseason libation for many butterfly species. Some varieties of Liatris do well in dry sites.

Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)
All types of goldenrod are an excellent late-season food source patronized by bees as well as butterflies. One of the handsomest is the showy goldenrod, which flourishes in a variety of habitats.

Bee Balm (Monarda)
Fritillaries like this one, and it may draw hummingbirds as well. The lavender form (M. fistulosa or wild bee balm) is more reliable than the red (M. didyma or wild bergamot).

Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum)
This eye-catching late-season local attracts swallowtails, fritillaries, dusky wings, and skippers.

Orange Coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii)
Tidy, easy to grow, and more enduring than its relative the black-eyed Susan, this nectar producer is especially appealing to pearl crescents, monarchs, and fritillaries. Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) works well, too.

Aster (Aster novae-angliae)
All asters serve well as plants that attract butterflies to the garden, but the showy New England aster is the prettiest.

Sweet Pepperbush or Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)
That delicious fragrance in our wetlands in July and August comes from these drooping white bloom stalks, which draw swallowtails and skippers.

Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)
May blossoms attract early-season butterflies, and have the bonus of fruit in July. This one likes moist soil.

Excerpt from “Flutter By: Top-Ten List of Plants That Attract Butteflies,” Yankee Magazine, July/August 2003

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