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Gardening: Resources for enriching the plants and animals in your backyard.

Attracting Butterflies

If you plant the right plants in your backyard, butterflies will come. Which of the following species would be the best choice for a native-plant butterfly garden?

Queen Anne's Lace Daucus carota
California Dutchman's Pipe Aristolochia californica
Spider Antelope-horns Asclepias asperula

If you guessed Spider Antelope-horns, you are correct. For a successful butterfly garden you need two types of plants: host plants, on which the butterflies lay their eggs and the caterpillars feed; and nectar plants, for feeding adult butterflies. Some butterflies choose one specific host plant for their caterpillars, while others use many. The caterpillars of the Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor) feed almost exclusively on California Dutchman's Pipe and other pipevine (Aristolochia) species. This makes these excellent plants for a native butterfly garden. However, pipevines are basically one-butterfly plants.

Spider Antelope-horns is a milkweed. The leaves of these plants, of the genus Asclepias, are the chief food for the caterpillars of the milkweed butterfly family (Danaidae), including the Monarch and the Queen. But that's not all: milkweeds are also excellent nectar plants, attracting a myriad of colorful fluttering butterflies to their large flower clusters. One milkweed, in fact, a beautiful bright orange species, is called Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa).

Queen Anne's Lace, a member of the carrot family, is such a common plant in fields and roadsides of the United States that many people think of it as native, but it is actually a European import that is considered a noxious weed in many areas. Some plants of the carrot family host the caterpillars of a number of swallowtails (Papilio species), and fortunately there are some native alternatives to Queen Anne's Lace, such as the very similar Cow Parsnip (Heracleum maximum, also called Heracleum lanatum).

Adult butterflies are less choosy about nectar plants than caterpillars are about the plants they eat. There are many wonderful choices among our natives for attracting nectar-feeding butterflies, in addition to the aforementioned milkweeds. A few good ones are: members of the composite family (Asteraceae), including asters (Symphyotrichum), Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), blanketflowers (Gaillardia), and goldenrods (Solidago and others); bonesets and Joe-Pye-weeds (Eupatorium species); blazingstars (Liatris); jewelweeds (Impatiens); and buckwheats (Eriogonum species), which are also eaten by the caterpillars of many blues and other butterflies.

This article is excerpted from "How Wild Is Your Garden?", a native plant and wildlife gardening quiz. Take the quiz and learn more.

Visit our Native Gardening and Invasive Plants Guide to learn more about gardening with wildlife and the environment in mind.