top ten butterfly magnets

bettyd_z7_va(7)June 18, 2010

Just sitting here dreaming about my fantasy butterfly garden, upset because I can't go outside until I find my net suit to protect me from the swarms of gnats!!!

I've been lurking here a couple of days and decided to come to the experts with my questions.

First a little background...I'm 55 years old, lived in Central Va all of my life, my mother and sister loved gardening but I didn't get interested until my 30s, I found the garden web a few years ago when I googled antique roses, I love birds and butterflies and have tried to lure them to my garden. I feed the birds, have birdhouses and birdbaths, and plants flowers, trees and shrubs that draw them.

Three years ago we bought this house on a hill so that we could be near my grandchildren( Only a grove of trees is between us- I can pull out of my driveway-count to 45 and pull into theirs!)

When we moved here the soil was just about gone from the property. The hillside is so steep that I have worked really hard to just get stuff in the ground with roots to catch and hold the soil as the rainwater washes it down hill.

Now I want to concentrate the rest of this year and the future trying to increase my plantings of plants and flowers that are proven magnets for butterflies.

I have a couple of butterfly bushes, a memosa tree (just planted 4 more seedlings), purple cone flower, verbena bonariensis, a couple of chocolate joe-pye weed plants, lots of small old garden roses I've just planted in the last year or so, irises, glads, lambs ear, Queen Anns Lace that grows wild here, daylilies, baptisia false indigo, a couple of blanket flower plants, hydrangea,(they don't seem to want to live here), hostas, and various other flowers.

My question is- What are your VERY FAVORITE top 10-20 butterfly magnets that you wouldn't live without in your garden. I would love to mostly stay with natives, but will plant non-natives if they aren't invasive.

I've spent way too much money on roses and finally had to buy a new car after mine kept refusing to run, so I need to find what grows well from seed or are inexpensive to buy.

I live in the country and can 'borrow' a plant or 2 from well established groups of wildflowers along my road. I borrowed a couple of common butterfly weed plants from the side of the road day before yesterday. Only took ONE from each of several large groups. I may just go buy a couple because it is so hot and sunny and I am not strong enough to get a really good root ball. They look like they are dying and I want to cry.

How do I go about locating a local Butterfly Society to join? No listings in our local phone book.

I so enjoyed the threads of the butterfly meadow and MissSherry's rustling of the milkweed plant on the side of the road!

I'm itching to get started. Can you help?

Thanks in advance,


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Welcome Betty!

How lucky you are to live so close to your grandchildren. My mom is 12 hours by car and the children and I miss her so much!

You are off to a good start. One thing I will warn you is that gardens and butterflies are highly variable. What works in one yard may not work in another for a variety of reasons. To start, you probably have a local butterfly organization. They often have websites with good information on gardening. I am sure we probably have a person or two from your area on this board as well. This board also has some good FAQ pages.

Are you familliar with the difference between host plants and nectar plants? A good butterfly garden has a variety of each. Decide what butterflies you would like to attract, that are in your area, and plant host plants for them. Although they don't vary too much, butterflies have adapted to use specific host plants to their area. For example, tiger swallowtails will use a variety of trees as a host plant for their caterpillars but prefer tulip trees in the north and sweetbay magnolia in the south. I am working with question marks and although there are a variety of plants listed as a host plant, they seem to prefer elms here.

To stabilize your hill and bring the soils back, consider some native grasses. These will help build up the soil over time (a long time albeit but it does work). There are lots of butterflies that use native grasses as host plants.

Milkweeds are tricky. They have long tap roots and are difficult to transplant. Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) can be finicky in some gardens. It does not like to be too wet. There are lot's of other milkweeds that are great nectar and host plants. You can collect seed in the late summer, chill them over the winter, and start all the plants you want next spring. Milkweeds grow pretty fast. Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is a favorite.

So, all things considered and back to your question, my favorites (which change daily)are;

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
pipevine (Aristolochia macrophylla)
Hops vine (Humulus lupulus)
Paw Paw (Asimina triloba)
Verbena bonariensis
Button bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)

This is just what came to mind right now. It will change tomorrow!

Good luck,

    Bookmark   June 18, 2010 at 12:56PM
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Mine are milkweed (tropical and swamp), zinnias, cassia, passion vine, lantana, butterfly bush, pentas, rudbekia, blue pea vine and dill.

I have tropical and swampt milkweed seeds I could send you in the mail. Just e-mail me at if you want some. I also have candlestick cassia seeds, but I'm sure the Virginia winter would kill it, and we might be better off letting me wait for a new batch of seeds and sending them to you to plant next spring.

    Bookmark   June 18, 2010 at 2:10PM
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Thanks so much Elisabeth and Nancy.

So much great information. And some plants I'm not familiar with to research.

Elisabeth, You brought out so many ideas I hadn't thought of. I will be checking the FAQs page shortly.

I have a friend who may bring me a small Paw Paw tree from down on the river on his property.

Nancy, I've wanted to come to Texas ever since I was young and the show Dallas was on TV!

I will be e-mailing you.

While I was typing I remembered that the Old City Cemetary in a nearby city had given me a sheet with upcoming events last month when I was there for an antique rose seminar. I checked it and they have a butterfly garden event next Wednesday evening. Got it on my calendar so I won't forget! Maybe I can find info on a local butterfly society while I'm there. I'm getting excited!

Again, thank you both for all of your help.


    Bookmark   June 18, 2010 at 5:25PM
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You can grow Mexican sunflowers from seeds. They have multiple orange flowers that bloom all summer. I buy seeds evry summer.

    Bookmark   June 18, 2010 at 6:17PM
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Mexican sunflower or Tithonia is a great nectar plant.

    Bookmark   June 18, 2010 at 6:46PM
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Thanks tdr4 and Elisabeth.

I will look for seeds the next time I'm out.

BTW Elisabeth- thanks for the tip about the FAQs page. I learned so much. I had no idea that milkweed could irritate the skin and the eyes. With all of my allergy problems, that's good to know. I will be sure to teach the grandsons, also. The 6 year old has to be doing whatever I'm doing at all times,(I think he has only spent maybe 3 nights at his house in the past 2 weeks) so I will be sure to teach him the precautions.


    Bookmark   June 18, 2010 at 7:20PM
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jrcagle(z7 MD)

My faves:

Nectaring - zinnias, cosmos, coreopsis, butterfly weed OR swamp milkweed OR common milkweed, coneflower, sedum

All except coreopsis and sedum have been grown from seed in my garden.

Hostplants - dill OR fennel, swamp milkweed, hops, violets, clovers.


    Bookmark   June 18, 2010 at 7:45PM
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misssherry(Z8/9SE MS)

Are you wanting to attract butterflies but not necessarily have any caterpillars on your property, Betty?
My best nectar plants with long bloom periods are lantana, Mexican sunflowers/Tithonia, Mexican flame vine/Senecio confusus, Salvia guaranitica, Turk's cap/Malvaviscus drummondii, Pentas, tropical milkweed/Asclepias curassavica, and red sage/Saliva coccinea.
There are several plants that only bloom once a year that butterflies love, and of those, buttonbush/Cephalanthus occidentalis is the best, and it actually has a smaller second rebloom later in the year. Also good is locust tree/Robinia pseudoacacia and mimosa/Albizia julibrissin - the pipevine swallowtails love the flowers on both these trees.
If I were in Virginia, for host plants, I'd plant lots of common violets for the true fritillaries that occur there, like great spangled frits. I'd also plant some common pawpaws for the zebra swallowtails, sassafras and/or spicebush for spicebush swallowtails, fennel, dill, or parsley for black swallowtails, the local milkweed for monarchs, pipevines/Aristolochia macrophylla for pipevine swallowtails, and either false nettles or stinging nettles for red admirals, pussytoes or cudweed for American ladies, tulip trees for tiger swallowtails, wild black cherry trees for tiger swallowtails and red-spotted purples, and willows for viceroys, red-spotted purples, and mourning cloaks.
It's a lot of work but a labor of love!

    Bookmark   June 18, 2010 at 8:18PM
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Thanks Jeff and Sherry,

Jeff- Are you able to broadcast seed with any success, or do you have to grow in pots first? Being able to grow that much variety from seed will be wonderful. I haven't had much luck growing from seed in the past, so I'm sure I will have lots of questions and will need lots of help!

Sherry- I would like to grow host plants as well as nectar plants. I think it will be a wonderful learning experience for the grandchildren.(For me too!) I have about 3 cleared acres around the house and about 2 wooded, so we have the room to play.

Most of what I add will have to come from seed.

I planted parsley 3 years ago and it reseeds every year. I didn't realize butterflies ate it, too!

As I age, I find watching God's creation so pleasurable. Butterflies are so fragile, elegant and entertaining.

I have an area between my house and driveway that was badly erroded when we moved in. I've spent most of my time and garden budget getting as many flowers and shrubs planted there as possible. I saw my first butterfly in that area this week. I wasn't close enough to ID it, (maybe a black swallowtail) but I'm anxious to see lots more there.

We already have locust, mimosa and sassafras on the property. Our anniversary is Monday. DH had asked what I wanted, and now I know! I will have my list ready first thing in the morning for the trip to the nursery!

Thanks again, Jeff and Sherry. I will buy plants to jumpstart my Babies and seeds to keep them coming.


    Bookmark   June 19, 2010 at 12:21AM
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KC Clark - Zone 2012-6a OH

#1) I've never seen anything that could compete with my fence row of blooming common milkweed. I just loved watching all the insects that would show up to take advantage of all the nectar.

#2) lantana - when in bloom, the little butterflies just cannot stay away

#3) black knight butterfly bush

    Bookmark   June 19, 2010 at 1:45AM
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My faves are like many of the others here! And, know in advance that you will soon be will your grandson. ;)

Milkweed (I grow Asclepias curassavica and Asclepias physocarpa which are Tropical and Family Jewels, respectively), Passiflora of all sorts, Rue, Fennel, Mexican Flamevine, Stinging Nettle, Lavatera maritima, Cheeseweed, Buddleia, Cabbage, three citrus trees, Nasturtium, Willow, and Aristolochia (several species). You'll note that all but two are host plants.

I have info on my plants on my general butterfly site My Butterfly Guide

    Bookmark   June 19, 2010 at 11:20AM
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jrcagle(z7 MD)


It really depends on the plant.

Coreopsis I always buy as a plant. I tried and failed to get Joe-Pye Weed from seed, but the three plants I bought then vigorously seeded, so that I have about 15 the second year out.

By contrast, the milkweeds, dill, fennel, coneflower, black-eyed susans, cosmos -- all have been easy to start with seed, either by broadcast in the fall or else peat-pots in the spring.

Get your wish-list together, post here, and someone in your area ought to be able to say which can be done with seed and which need plants.


    Bookmark   June 20, 2010 at 11:38AM
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Still waiting for my coneflowers to bloom. I planted them last year from seeds and wondered why they weren't growing very well or even blooming. Then I found a woodchuck had been eating them :(
He's since been caught and taken far away to a new woodland area where he can live. I had to blindfold him so he couldn't find his way back to my yard.
Now my coneflowers are recovering and getting ready to bloom soon :)
Then I saw....the bunny...sigh. Here we go again.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2010 at 4:43PM
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docmom_gw Zone 5 MI(5)

If you want to start lots of plants from seed, visit the wintersowing forum and read the FAQs. You can also get donations of lots of seeds that are butterfly friendly.


    Bookmark   June 20, 2010 at 11:05PM
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KC- A whole fence row? How lucky you are! I can't wait to just have a nice little row...forget that...I want a big row if it will really help me to have more butterflies!

I found one swamp milkweed yesterday at a local nursery. Does it spread and how long does it take?

I already have some lantana and just planted a Black Knight butterfly bush last week.

Now I've got to bribe my son to dig me up some more milkweed from the side of the road!

Jeff-I've bought several coreopsis, 4 tickseed and a couple of other varieties.

I only have the 2 chocolate Joe-Pye weed plants. Haven't been able to find any more.

I've only found 2 fennel and 2 4-packs of tired looking dill plants.

I'm still digging up coneflowers that seeded from last years plants and moving them to the hillside garden and the front bank. Also found 2 pots of Kim's Knee High.

I can get all of the black-eyed susans I want from the roadside within 1/4 mile of my house.

I have seeds for cosmos. I guess it is too late for them this year, but I will broadcast them anyway for next year.

tdogmom- You have a lot I'm not familiar with. I will have to research them. Not living close to any big cities, I'm having some trouble finding some of the plants I want.

Thanks for the link to your site. Lots of good information there.

Poor Linda, You sound like me with my roses. Darn deer eat them up before I can enjoy them. Why do you think I'm switching to butterflies? :) lol

I really appreciate all of the suggestions and information from everyone.

Can't wait to get everything planted that I've found. Got a bunch of phlox for $1 each because they were pot bound and had gotten a little mildew. The lady even gave me some begonias. Guess she was happy because I had spent so much money!

Keep those hints coming. I'm loving it.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2010 at 11:16PM
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I must have been typing my usual book when you posted.

Thanks for the tip on winter sowing. I'll head there right now.


    Bookmark   June 21, 2010 at 12:09AM
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KC Clark - Zone 2012-6a OH


It is how lucky I WAS. Had that fence row at my first house. I have an area where I could do the same thing at my current place but my wife has said "no" (too many bees close to a sidewalk). I have thought about trying to recreate it using a long skinny raised bed but thinking about it is as far as I've gotten so far (township requires plans/drawings before you can get a permit for a raised bed). It was a patch of dirt between a driveway and a fence. Varied between 6" and 12" deep. Nothing growing there but common milkweed. I had more milkweed growing 30' away in a small wild area but those plants were ignored. The place to be was the row. Just an amazing variety of insects showed up every year. Many of the insects I've never seen before or after. My wife's favorite visitors were the bumblebee moths.

I believe your local "Butterfly Society" would be the Southern Lepidopterists.


Here is a link that might be useful: The Southern Lepidopterists Society

    Bookmark   June 21, 2010 at 2:37AM
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KC Clark - Zone 2012-6a OH

I think most of my good butterfly pictures from last year were due to purple coneflowers. The butterflies ignore me since they are so engrossed in feeding from the coneflowers.

    Bookmark   April 24, 2012 at 11:36AM
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My favorite butterfly are the Giant swallowtail that frequent my lemon trees.

    Bookmark   April 25, 2012 at 11:18AM
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runmede(7a Virginia)

There's a good list of nectar and host plants on the Washington Area Butterfly Club gardening section. But, there's also a good list on the FAQ section of the Butterfly Gardening Forum. Just look up to the top of the Forum and click on FAQ.

Here is a link that might be useful: Butterfly Gardening Links

    Bookmark   April 28, 2012 at 10:47AM
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