Skip to main content

Hosting A Butterfly Gathering

By: Sandra Nelson

girl with butterflyMy youngest granddaughter is an absolute ball of fire. She has boundless energy, endless curiosity and the attention span of a gnat. She seems to be everywhere at once, talking a blue streak, except when we are in the garden and the butterflies flutter in. Then she is mesmerized, standing quiet and still as a statue hoping a butterfly will land on her like it did at the butterfly house ages ago. Watching the expression on her face as she patiently stands, wishing for one to find her, makes me determined to create a butterfly paradise so, just maybe, she might get that wish. 


gardenThe push to add small, residential pollinator gardens has ramped up in the past few years. Pre-designed pollinator mixes, both seeds and plants, are available just about everywhere now. They can be purchased at garden centers, big box stores, grocery stores and even online. Literally every seed catalog I browsed through this past spring offered “specially developed” mixtures, often touted as regionally appropriate. Hundreds of articles are published each month listing dozens of varieties of flowers guaranteed to produce beautiful, active gardens. 

gardenWhile I thoroughly support and encourage homeowners to garden with wildlife in mind, and I know the feeling of satisfaction that having a yard full of busy pollinators can bring, I also know it’s important to plan and plant for the long term. The reality is that there isn’t a one stop shop for all butterflies (or really any pollinator); they all have specific nutritional needs for each stage of their life cycle. To have a truly successful butterfly garden, you first need to know who your visitors are and then what they need for long-term survival of the species. 

butterfly on zinniaAlthough they do have rather specific preferences, many, if not most, butterflies will naturally feed on almost any nectar plant. A variety of species that will bloom continuously throughout the season is definitely a good start to attracting butterflies. Without host plants however, the garden will have limited appeal. As the summer goes on, your hungry visitors will be looking for host plants, or a place of shelter and a food source to sustain their coming caterpillars. Without host plants, butterflies have nowhere to safely lay their eggs. Providing host plants will strengthen the appeal of the garden now and in the future.

swallowtail caterpillarBecause they have the exact chemical make-up that assures the growth and development of the caterpillar, host plants are species specific. While there are many sites online with host plant information, your state’s conservation department is a great place to begin.  State conservation departments know what your region’s butterfly population is and what their needs are. 


Here in the Midwest, we are home to many different butterflies, several of which are also common in other parts of the country.  To help jump-start your host plant search, we’ve put together a list of eight common butterflies and their host plants. We hope it helps in your search for plants to make your garden a butterfly haven!

Click here for power point