Transform Your Garden into a Butterfly Sanctuary

To turn your garden into a butterfly sanctuary you'll want to provide the necessary resources for each life stage.

Flying Flowers

Relax your neat and tidy standards. A garden that looks and acts more like nature is not only easier on the person maintaining it, but also allows habitat to develop for all four butterfly life stages.

Photo courtesy Fotolia/Nada's Images

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Follow these simple steps to attract more "flying flowers" into your yard.

Butterflies are one of Mother Nature's best head-turners — as they flutter by, their colorful and delicate beauty seldom fails to stop us in our tracks. But despite our attraction to them, our activities frequently damage their habitat. Some insects have large ranges and travel long distances, but many butterflies spend their entire short lives in areas not much larger than most back yards. So whether we're manicuring our lawns with chemicals or turning a wild meadow into a new strip mall, butterflies are particularly sensitive to our actions.

Conversely, though, butterfly conservation can be quite simple: If you create a butterfly garden, you can provide an oasis of habitat that can sustain the entire life history of some butterflies — even simple changes to your backyard can yield large benefits. You'll have the satisfaction of making an appreciable difference for these beautiful creatures, which your family will be able to enjoy up close and personal. And if you garden, you already have a head start.

Follow the steps outlined below and think of your butterfly garden as a miniature wildlife preserve — and a part of a local network of similar backyard sanctuaries — and you'll be well on your way to helping butterfly and other insect populations persist and thrive, even in urban environments.

Fulfilling Butterflies' Needs

The shorter a butterfly's flight, the more likely it will get what it needs without falling prey to predators. Look at your neighborhood from a butterfly's perspective: Consider how far butterflies fly to find all the resources they need to live. How far will they have to travel if they can't find what they need in your backyard garden? If your neighbors also garden for wildlife, then your community can create a network of habitat corridors along which butterflies can move.

To turn your garden into a butterfly sanctuary you'll want to provide the necessary resources for each life stage: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and adult. Here are 10 steps you can take to help you create a butterfly-friendly environment:

1. Choose caterpillar food plants and nectar plants. In addition to nectar-rich flowers, be sure to include caterpillar host plants, such as dill (Anethum graveolens), milkweeds (Asclepias), pussy willow (Salix discolor) and sulfur buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum). These will give female butterflies places to lay their eggs and provide food for their caterpillars. Host plants also help attract males looking for females. For a list of the best butterfly garden plants for your area, consult The Butterfly Gardener's Guide, published by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

It is unfortunate that many gardeners consider caterpillars pests when they may be the most interesting stage of the butterfly's life cycle. Many gardeners fail to realize that where there are host plants and caterpillars, there eventually will be butterflies.

2. Give preference to native plants and wildflowers. The local butterflies that you are trying to attract have a history with the local plants. Given a choice between unknown, foreign plant species and native species, the butterflies will most likely prefer natives. Also, native plants give a sense of place to your yard and to the community, making Tucson, Ariz., reflect the nearby desert while draping Tampa, Fla., in tropical foliage.

3. Arrange plants thoughtfully. Most butterfly habitats include several layers, with a variety of plants at differing heights. To emulate nature's multilayered approach, you should include plants that bloom at different heights, as well as small flowering shrubs that offer twigs for perching. Consider adding a few vines to your plant choices since these often bloom at various heights. Masses of blooms, or the close proximity of caterpillar host plants, are more attractive to butterflies than widely spaced plants, so consider extensive plantings of particularly luring species like Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia) or asters.

4. Pick plants for every season. Attract adult butterflies with colorful flowers that offer nectar from spring through fall, or choose a variety of plants that bloom at different times of the season to achieve the same effect. It also is good to provide a range of suitable host plants for multi-brooded species. For example, provide monarchs with early-blooming milkweeds that may die back halfway through summer, as well as late-blooming species that provide suitable egg-laying sites later in the season.

5. Create a sunny corner. Butterflies need some open, sunny spaces out of the wind where they can bask. Their bodies depend on the temperature of the air around them, and they need sunshine to warm up to flight temperature. Do not cover every square inch of your garden with plants — instead leave a low, protected corner, or even a centrally located spot, as a butterfly sunning area.

6. Provide shelter and perches. Butterflies also need sheltered areas to escape strong winds and rain. Unfortunately, so-called "butterfly houses" rarely achieve their goal (although they do make good refuges for spiders and wasps, predators that help control garden pests). Instead, a border of shrubs and trees can provide host plants for larvae as well as dry places where butterflies can hide from their own predators or bad weather.

Unmowed edges of grasses, clovers and dandelions also provide shelter and early nectar for certain species. Some butterflies also require perches where they can watch for mates, so tall herbs or small flowering shrubs can serve a dual purpose.

7. Set up a puddling spot. In addition to the nectar they sip from plants, most species need to acquire compounds they cannot get from plants. Many of these are mineral salts that are naturally available in garden soil. An empty sandy space under a birdbath where the soil often is wet is the perfect spot for butterflies to gather on the ground and "puddle" to get these additional nutrients.

8. Relax your neat and tidy standards. A garden that looks and acts more like nature is not only easier on the person maintaining it, but also allows habitat to develop for all four butterfly life stages. Leave a corner of your yard untended, allowing native grasses to grow and feed larvae of skippers and satyrs. Don't remove clovers; they provide early nectar to a variety of insects and are larval host plants for sulphurs, blues and skippers. In autumn, let fallen leaves create a natural mulch — where moths and skippers pupate — before the leaf litter decomposes into nutrients for your garden.

9. Lose the lawn. Plan to reduce or eliminate your lawn, which offers nothing to wildlife and uses precious water.

10. Hold the poisons. One caveat that should be readily appreciated by anyone with a butterfly garden is that the use of pesticides — even natural control agents such as Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), which kills all caterpillars — should be strictly controlled or, even better, avoided altogether. Stick with natural products such as insecticidal soaps or plant-derived oils for those rare occasions when pest control is needed. I rarely use even natural pesticides in my garden, preferring to let nature take its own course — which includes letting lizards, spiders, wasps, ants and other insect predators do the dirty work for me.

Look Beyond Your Butterfly Sanctuary

If butterflies are worth attracting to your garden, aren't they also worth having in local parks, public gardens and natural areas? And to ensure that there are butterflies available to come to your garden, don't you also need to help protect them everywhere? My best advice is to be proactive rather than reactive. Don't wait for butterflies to become endangered, but work now to help keep them safe. For example, ask local or state agencies to cease, or at least limit, roadside pesticide spraying. Ask them to ensure that roadside mowing is rotated through the seasons instead of always being done at the same time in the same place each year, and to use native plants wherever possible. Any of these initiatives will help ensure the survival of these marvelous creatures.

Adapted from The Butterfly Gardener's Guide, edited by Claire Hagen Dole and one of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's All-Region Guides. To order this and other titles published by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, shop online at .

More Butterfly Information

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Butterflies and Larval Food Plants

Butterfly Families


Butterfly Gardening By the Xerces Society
Butterfly Gardens By Alcinda Lewis (editor)
How to Spot Butterflies By Patricia Taylor Sutton and Clay Sutton
Stokes Beginner's Guide to Butterflies By Donald and Lillian Stokes

Books for Children

Becoming Butterflies By Anne Rockwell and Megan Halsey
Butterflies in the Garden By Carol Lerner

Field Guides

Butterflies through Binoculars (Regional guides) By Jeffrey Glassberg
National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies
Peterson First Guide to Caterpillars of North America By Amy Bartlett Wright


Monarch Watch
North American Butterfly Association 
Xerces Society