Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







Butterfly Garden: Build It And They Will Come

Adult butterflies are insects that most people appreciate. So much so in fact that some people plant gardens, known as butterfly gardens, designed to attract these beautiful insects.

A successful butterfly garden is one that contains all the things that butterflies need to be successful. Like most animals, an important aspect of life for butterflies is food.  Nectar is a primary food for most butterflies. Many kinds of plants have flowers that provide nectar for butterflies. These are the plants we like to have in our gardens because they have brightly colored blossoms. Flowers really don't exist to please humans however, they are there to attract insects.

Nectar flowers exist in many shapes. Flowers known as composites, such as daisies and marigolds, have a shape such that butterflies can actually perch on the blossom as they sip of the nectar. Other good nectar flowers have closely packed clusters of flowers. One such flower is buddleia, also known appropriately as the butterfly bush. Honeysuckle is a vine, and it's name suggests it might be attractive to butterflies. It is. Such things as daylilies, with large single flowers, are also good nectar sources.

Every beautiful butterfly is preceded by a caterpillar stage. Butterfly caterpillars are plant foliage eaters and, because of this habit, sometimes cause damage to plants. However, successful butterfly gardeners have some plants for butterfly caterpillar food. For instance, milkweeds are the food for the Monarch butterfly caterpillar.

Some butterfly names suggest the kind of food their caterpillars eat. The Pipe Vine Swallowtail feeds on pipe vine and the Spicebush Swallowtail on, you guessed it, spicebush. Queen-Anne's Lace and parsley will attract the Black Swallowtail. Those white cabbage butterflies begin their lives as caterpillars feeding on cabbage or a related plant.

While some of these caterpillars can interfere with the success of plants we were planning to eat, the successful butterfly gardener finds some way to allow the caterpillars to have their share. One thing to remember is to eliminate insecticide use from the butterfly garden, otherwise you are likely to end up killing the caterpillar that will become the beautiful butterfly.

Other considerations for a successful butterfly garden other than food include water and abundant sunlight. Insects are cold blooded and need sunlight to provide the warmth they need to function. Butterflies also require places to rest and spend the night. Shrub foliage is useful for this, purpose as are overgrown areas and patches of tall grass. Some people actually build a butterfly log pile to provide a shelter.

A line from the movie “Field of Dreams” is appropriate to butterfly gardens. Build it and they will come! You'll be glad you did.


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann