A swallowtail butterfly on blooming swamp milkweed.Photo Credit : Aimee Tucker
One of summer’s small pleasures is watching butterflies 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 and other native pollinators.
There are two ways to develop a butterfly-friendly garden: the nectar-rich gardener’s plot, designed to lure butterflies, and the larval food garden, designed to satisfy hungry caterpillars.
Most butterflies will travel great distances to lay eggs on their favorite plants, so larval food plants (like milkweed) have the advantage of attracting the species you want to see. For this list of the ten best plants that attract butterflies, we’ve chosen primarily nectar food sources.
The swamp milkweed functions both as a nectar plant and as the monarch butterfly’s larval host. Its purple-white blossoms smell heavenly in early summer, and hungry monarch caterpillars munch the leaves well into early fall.
Looking like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, this eye-catching late-season local attracts swallowtails, fritillaries, dusky wings, and skippers.
Though not native to North America, this perfumed shrub is easy to grow. It produces cascades of colorful blooms from mid- to late-summer.
Colored like the invasive loosestrife blazing star is benign and manageable, a choice midseason libation for many butterfly species. Some varieties do well in dry sites.
All types of goldenrod are an excellent late-season food source patronized by bees as well as butterflies, but old field goldenrod is the most common. Its mustard-gold blossoms add bold color to the summer landscape.
Fritillaries like this one, and it may draw hummingbirds as well. The lavender form (wild bee balm) is more reliable than the red (wild bergamot).
In addition to the popular black-eyed Susan, the nectar-producing orange coneflower is especially appealing to monarchs and fritillaries. Purple coneflower works well, too.
All asters serve well as plants that attract butterflies to the garden, but the showy New England aster is the prettiest.
That delicious fragrance in our wetlands in July and August comes from these drooping white bloom stalks of sweet pepperbush, which draw swallowtails and skippers.
May blossoms attract early-season butterflies, and have the bonus of fruit in July. Just try to get to the sweet berries before the birds do!
Edited excerpt from “Flutter By: Top-Ten List of Plants That Attract Butterflies” by Marty Carlock (first published in 2003, updated by Yankee Editors in 2023)