Five Great Plants For Butterflies

June 22, 2014 | By | Comments (10)
Butterfly plants

A tiger swallowtail butterfly sips nectar from butterfly bush. Photo: Steve Bender

Let me tell you how nice butterflies are. They’re bugs and Grumpy likes them. I bet you like them too. To see more of them in your garden, you need to plant flowers that attract them. These five do the job magnificently.

1. Butterfly bush (Buddleia sp.). When a bush is named “butterfly,” that’s a big clue that butterflies adore it. This shrub (above) produces fragrant spikes of blue, pink, white, lavender, purple, or red flowers from spring to fall that drip with nectar. It usually grows 5 to 6 feet high, but new dwarf kinds, like the Lo & Behold series, stay under 3 feet.

Now Grumpy is aware that native plant peeps have mounted a serious campaign against butterfly bush. They say that although it feeds adult butterflies, it offers no food for their larvae. OK — using that logic, we should cut down practically everything in our gardens. They also say it’s non-native and invasive. Maybe it’s a pest somewhere, but not in the South. Compared to kudzu, Chinese privet, wisteria, Japanese honeysuckle, popcorn tree, and water hyacinth, it’s not even a blip on the radar. My butterfly bushes haven’t produced a single seedling. On the other hand, seedlings from my native redbud tree sprout by the thousands. Never seen butterflies on my redbud!

Want to be really safe? Plant the new compact Flutterby and Flutterby Petite series of butterfly bushes that don’t set seed.

2. Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). In an attempt to mollify the Predator drone now hovering over my house, let Grumpy move on to a butterfly magnet native plant peeps love. Butterfly weed. “Weed” in this case doesn’t mean it takes over. It means it grows just fine in good or lousy soil with no assistance from you.


Hey! Shouldn’t you be over Pakistan? Photo:

Reaching about 3 feet tall, this long-lived, native perennial crowns itself with bright orange flowers. Hybrids add pink, yellow, and red colors. Not only is it a food source for adult butterflies, but because it belongs to the milkweed family, its foliage also provides food for monarch butterfly caterpillars. Tap roots make butterfly weed very hard to transplant from the wild, but you can buy it in pots at the garden center. It’s also easy to grow from its fluffy seeds.

Butterfly plants

Monarch butterfly on butterfly weed. Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

3. Common zinnia (Zinnia elegans). This is just about the easiest annual to grow from seed. Just sprinkle the seeds on the ground, barely cover with soil, water, and BOOM! You get flowers in just about every color but blue all summer long that butterflies cannot leave alone. Zinnias come in lots of sizes, so just check the mature height on the seed packet. To avoid foliar diseases, don’t crowd them or wet the foliage when you’re watering. Remove spent flowers to keep lots of new flowers coming.

Butterfly plants

Common zinnias. Photo: Steve Bender

4. Lantana. Like zinnias, lantanas come in a zillion different colors, bloom from spring til frost, and butterflies get seriously sloshed on the nectar. In Zone 8 and below, lantanas are perennials (I’ve had a ‘New Gold’ in my garden for at least 5 years and it dropped to 7 degrees last winter.) Above that, they’re usually annuals. Old-fashioned types, like the very cold-hardy ‘Miss Huff,’ can grow quite large — 4 feet tall and wide. But look for the newer prostrate growers that grow only 1-2 feet tall. Also look for ones that produce little or no seed, like ‘New Gold,’ ‘Pinkie,’ and ‘Lemon Swirl,’ because they bloom nonstop.

Butterfly plants

Lantana. Photo: Steve Bender

5. Firebush (Hamelia patens). Unless you live in USDA Zones 9-10, you’re probably unfamiliar with this shrub from central America. But grow it anyway — it’s great. Planted in the ground in frost-free areas, it can reach 6-8 feet tall and wide. Regular pruning, however, keeps this evergreen a more manageable size. It blooms continuously in warm weather, offering clouds of appreciative butterflies bright orange-red, tubular blossoms. To save it over winter where it freezes, grow it in a container that you can take inside to a well-lit room.

Butterfly plants

Firebush. Photo: Steve Bender


  1. 5 Low Maintenance Trees and Shrubs for your Garden – Fleeting Architecture

    […] Five Great Plants For Butterflies […]

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  2. Steve Bender


    I’m afraid anything you could apply to kill milkweed bugs would be lethal to monarch caterpillars too.

    June 30, 2014 at 3:04 pm
  3. Shannon Zielinski

    I live in Sarasota Florida and have butterfly weed or Milkweed growing in my garden from seeds that have blown there. Since they seem to thrive in this particular location, i added more to fill in some of my blank spots. Now, all of my beautiful butterfly weed plants have been destroyed by the milkweed bug. All that remains are a bunch of sticks. Do you have any suggestions on how to destroy the bug without destroying any plants or possible monarch larve? thanks – i love your humor. Shannon Z.

    June 27, 2014 at 1:59 pm
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  5. Sharon Bartley

    thanks so much!
    I have a vytex and some other plants that the honey bees love and would like to increase my bee and butterfly visits. These sound perfect.

    June 23, 2014 at 4:14 pm
  6. Steve Bender

    These are all good butterfly plants. Sharon, I think you could grow all of the plants I mentioned.

    June 23, 2014 at 3:49 pm
  7. Patricia Merewether

    DILL too.

    June 23, 2014 at 12:49 pm
  8. Sharon Bartley

    Dear Grumpy, I am a Southern girl transplanted into the southern desert of New Mexico. I know that Lantana grows here b/c neighbors have it in their yards. How about the rest of these plants? Thanks, and just so you know, I do NOT have a green thumb…

    June 23, 2014 at 12:02 pm
  9. Mary Slocum

    Don’t forget Abelia chinensis! We’ve got a 30′ hedge that is covered in butterflies when blooming.

    June 23, 2014 at 10:40 am
  10. Cynthia Miller

    You gotta add Gregg’s mist flower. My plants are covered in butterflies.

    June 22, 2014 at 1:46 pm

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