Butterfly gardens need more than nectar

monarch on milkweed
If you want to help butterflies, it’s nice to provide flowers with nectar for adults. But to really help butterflies, provide plants that they need as caterpillars, such as these milkweed in the Tonawanda garden of Sandy Baty. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko


monarch chrysalis
This is one of about 50 monarch chrysalises Sandy Baty of Tonawanda nurtured last year. Her garden includes flowers that provide nectar, but it also includes host plants for eggs and caterpillars. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

by Connie Oswald Stofko

If you want to attract adult butterflies to your garden, you can choose plants that provide nectar.

But if you really want to help butterflies, provide plants that they need in other parts of their life cycle, too.

That’s the suggestion of Douglas W. Tallamy, famed author of Bringing Nature Home, who spoke in Western New York in March.

Butterflies don’t lay their eggs on any old plant, Tallamy said in Bringing Nature Home. They lay their eggs only on the plants that their larvae (caterpillars) are adapted to.

One excellent group of plants that no butterfly garden should do without are the milkweeds, Tallamy said. Monarchs will lay their eggs only on milkweed. While the monarch is the best-known milkweed specialist, at least 11 other moths and butterflies reproduce on milkweed, too.

Don’t be put off by the word “weed” in the plants’ name; they look great in a garden. When planted together, they create a continuous display of wonderful pink or orange flowers that are highly attractive to several species of butterflies from June into September. Tallamy mentioned butterfly weed, also called butterfly flower or Asclepias tuberosa, common milkweed or Asclepias syriaca, and swamp milkweed or Asclepias incarnata.

When you bring these native plants into your garden, you not only attract adult butterflies, you help them to make brand new butterflies.

monarch on butterfly weed
Butterfly weed, also called butterfly flower or Asclepias tuberosa, is a host plant for the eggs and caterpillars of monarchs as well as other butterflies and moths. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

I saw this demonstrated in the garden of Sandy Baty of Tonawanda. She and her husband Ron shared their landscape on the daytime and nighttime Ken-Ton Garden Tour last year, and we’ll show you more photos of their stunning yard in a future post. It’s a great example of a landscape that uses native plants and looks attractive, too.

While Baty has many flowers to provide nectar, she also has five varieties of milkweed to support eggs and caterpillars.

In addition, Baty has black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia) and several varieties of coneflower, which Tallamy notes also wear two hats in the butterfly garden. They support the reproduction of dozens of species of butterflies and moths.

While Baty has had other kinds of butterflies in her garden, last year she concentrated on the monarchs. She took eggs and caterpillars off the plants placed them in a zipped box made of netting to protect them from predators. She watched them make their chrysalises. And she watched a total of about 50 adult monarchs emerge and fly off.

eupatorim fistulosum
If you like the look of butterfly bush, try hollowstem Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium fistulosum), seen here. Not only does this native plant provide nectar for adult butterflies, it hosts the caterpillars of more than three dozen kinds of butterflies and moths. The butterfly bush hosts none. Photo courtesy James H. Miller & Ted Bodner, Southern Weed Science Society, Bugwood.org

“I didn’t realize how much fun it would be,” Baty said. “I wish I had done this years ago.”

Not only is it fun to see caterpillars turn into butterflies, it’s helpful to the environment to provide the host plants that butterflies need to lay eggs and support caterpillars.

“Remember, every caterpillar you make in your butterfly garden either becomes a new moth or butterfly, or a source of food for a hungry bird,” Tallamy said.

Tallamy emphasizes the need for gardeners to use native plants, which our local animals, including butterflies, depend on.

A butterfly bush attracts adult butterflies, but it offers nothing for caterpillars. If you want a tall display of billowy flowers, Tallamy suggests instead using common Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium dubium) or hollowstem Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium fistulosum).These are every bit as attractive to butterflies looking for nectar and they host more than three dozen species of butterflies and moths.

See more plant suggestions for butterfly gardens on page 82 of the Western New York Guide to Native Plants for your Garden produced by Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper.

12 Comments on “Butterfly gardens need more than nectar

  1. Meri, love to watch all butterflies and moths. They are truly beautiful to watch. Good luck with milkweed, let me know if you can’t find it.

  2. Thanks – I will check my stash for some milkweed seeds to plant. It was so beautiful though between the parsley and butterfly bush it was breathtaking again this year!!!!!

  3. Meri Gates Swallowtails and some other caterpillars lay eggs and eat parsley but Monarchs will only lay eggs and feed off milkweed.

  4. If you plant Parsley in your garden they will lay eggs. Planted numerous plants around the vegetable gardens and they were laying eggs every where on the parsley I had so many butterflies in my yard last year, I planted more this year. I wish I had a way to upload the pictures I took of the caterpillar’s, please be aware they will eat the parsley, but I was ok with that.

  5. This was a great story. I always wondered how we could bring butterflies back. Def going to find some plants. Love your newsletter!

  6. H. A. Treichler & Sons on Rte 31 in Sanborn, often sells both Butterfly weed; Incarnata and Tuberosa. They also sell Joe Pye Weed. They alter the varieties of perennials each year so call and check before driving there. They have a huge assortment of perrennials, annuals and vegetables.

  7. I was at Lockwood’s recently and they had some. Eastern Monarch Butterfly Farm sells seeds online and you can buy plants from them at various local events–check out their Facebook page. Both of these sellers are in our Gardening Directory. Other sellers might have the plants you want, too. Stock at local garden centers changes from year to year, and from day to day as they sell out of items. Anytime you’re looking for a particular plant, it’s best to contact the garden center directly.

  8. Where can you buy different types of milkweed and joe-pye weed locally? I’ve never seen them in any local nurseries.

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