Landscape plants and wildflowers attractive to butterflies for nectar feeding

Many of the flowering plants attractive to bees will also be visited by butterflies. However, butterflies are attracted to flowers almost entirely for feeding on nectar.

May 1, 2019 - Author: , MSU Entomology; Diane Brown, and Erwin Elsner, ; , MSU IPM; Paula Shrewsbury, Univ. of MD Entomology; Daniel Herms, The Davey Tree Expert Company, Kent, OH; and Cristi L. Palmer, IR-4 Project-Rutgers

Lilac bush.
Lilac bush. Photo by Margaret Pooler, Bugwood.org.

Editor's note: Minor updates were made to the "Herbaceous plants attractive to butterflies" table in August 2019. 

Many of the flowering plants attractive to bees will also be visited by butterflies. However, butterflies are attracted to flowers almost entirely for feeding on nectar. They do not intentionally seek or collect pollen for food for their young as do bees. Some pollen may become attached to their mouthparts, legs or bodies as they draw nectar from flowers, but not nearly as much as is found on bees. Because of this, as a group butterflies are not as important as bees for pollinating plants, and flowers that are poor pollen sources can still be very attractive to butterflies for food, if they are a good nectar source.

The immature (caterpillar) stages of almost all butterfly species feed on plant leaves. An adult butterfly might readily take nectar from numerous plant species, but their host plant range as a caterpillar is often restricted to one or a few closely related plant species. It is very important to carefully select plant species if supporting butterflies is a goal of your gardening or landscaping. The plant lists below are based on published nectar records for over 80 species of common or widespread butterflies found in the North Central U.S. Plants that are also hosts for butterfly caterpillars are noted. One of the goals of the national plan to protect pollinators is to increase milkweed habitat for monarch butterfly larvae. Planting milkweed will also help monarchs. The best way to do this is to purchase milkweed seed from a commercial supplier. For more information on gardening for monarchs, see Elsner (2015) in this document’s references.

Herbaceous plants attractive to butterflies

Like bees, butterflies seem to find perennial plant flowers more attractive than those of annual plants. It is also important to use mixtures of plants to provide for different flower types, plant height and blooming season. Certain annuals are helpful with this goal in that some bloom season-long.

Herbaceous plants attractive to butterflies

Common name

Genus species (scientific name)

Caterpillar host

Alfalfa

Medicago sativa

Yes

Asters and daisies

Aster spp. and related genera

Yes

Bee balm, bergamot

Monarda spp.

No

Black-eyed Susan

Rudbeckia hirta

Yes

Blazing star

Liatris spp.

No

Butterfly bush

Buddleia davidii

No

Clovers (especially red clover, T. pretense)

Trifolium spp.

Yes

Coreopsis

Coreopsis spp.

No

Dandelion

Taraxacum officinale

No

Dogbanes

Apocynum spp.

No

Goldenrods

Solidago spp.

No

Ironweeds

Vernonia spp.

No

Joe-Pye weed

Eupatorium spp.

No

Lantana

 Lantana spp.

No

Milkweeds

Asclepias spp.

Yes

Mints

Mentha spp.

No

Orange hawkweed

Hieracium aurantiacum

No

Phlox

Phlox spp.

No

Purple coneflower

Echinacea purpurea

No

Speedwell

Veronica x ‘Sunny Border Blue’

 

No

Spotted Joe-Pye weed

Eupatorium maculatum

No

Thistles (but not “star” thistles)

Cirsium spp.

Yes

Vetches (but not crown vetch)

Vicia spp.

Yes

Black-eyed Susan. Photo: Diane Brown, MSU Extension
Black-eyed Susan
Ironweed. Photo: Erwin Elsner, MSU Extension.
Ironweed
Lantana. Photo: Diane Brown, MSU Extension.
Lantana
Prairie phlox. Photo: Ashley Bennett, MSU Entomology.
Prairie phlox

Trees and shrubs attractive to butterflies

In addition to feeding on nectar from tree and shrub flowers, many butterfly species will suck juices from over-ripe fruits once they have fallen to the ground.

Trees and shrubs attractive to butterflies

Common name

Genus species (scientific name)

Caterpillar host

Blackberry

Rubus spp.

No

Blueberries

Vaccinium spp.

Yes

Butterfly bush

Buddleja davidii

No

Buttonbush

Cephalanthus occidentalis

No

Labrador tea

Ledum groenlandicum

Yes

Lilac

Syringa spp.

Yes

New Jersey tea

Ceanothus americanus

Yes

Redbud

Cercis canadensis

Yes

Shrubby cinquefoil

Potentilla fruticosa

Yes

Staghorn sumac

Rhus typhina

Yes

Wild cherries

Prunus spp.

Yes

Lilac bush. Photo: Margaret Pooler, Bugwood.org
Lilac bush

Read the next article in this publication series: Flowers throughout the year

Or return to the beginning of this publication: How to protect and increase pollinators in your landscape

Tags: best plants for butterflies, dave smitley, msu extension, pollinator, protecting pollinators, protecting pollinators from pesticides, protecting pollinators in urban landscapes


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