Gardening for Butterflies

Top Butterfly attracting plants

One of the most rewarding facets of gardening is providing plants which attract wildlife. It is amazing how soon after installing these plants, that butterflies begin visiting. Butterflies require two types of plants: ones with flowers which provide nectar for adult butterflies (nectar plants) and plants which provide food for the larval or caterpillar stage in their life cycle (larval food plants).

Hamelia patens, firebush, is one of the absolutely best plants for attracting wildlife to your garden. Ours is the native species which is loved by nectaring butterflies, thirsty hummingbirds, and other songbirds which eat the fruits. It is a nectar plant for Black Swallowtail, Zebra Longwing and other butterflies.

Lantana involucrata, butterfly sage, is native to South Florida, the Florida Keys, the West Indies, and Tropical America. This five-foot tall shrub has soft, light green, oval leaves which give off a spicy aroma when crushed. Lightly fragrant clusters of white to pink flowers followed by pink to lavender fruit are produced year round. Wild lantana may be grown in full sun to light shade. It attracts many kinds of butterflies, including skippers, gulf fritillary and hairstreaks, which feed on the nectar. Many birds eat the fruit. Wild lantana is easy to grow and very drought tolerant.

Passiflora suberosa, corky-stemmed passion flower, is one of our best native plants for attracting butterflies to your garden. This vine may be grown as a ground cover or allowed to climb upon a low structure or shrubs. It is the larval host plant for Gulf Fritillary, Julia and Zebra Longwing butterflies who linger around this vine, searching for new growth to lay their eggs.

Senna mexicana var. chapmanii, known as Bahama senna, is native to South Florida, the Bahamas and Cuba. It is a small shrub to 6 feet tall with yellow flowers nearly all year. Bahama senna is a larval host plant for several butterflies, including the Orange-barred Sulphur, Sleepy Orange Sulphur and Cloudless Sulphur. It grows best in full sun to light shade. Bahama senna is a wonderful choice for all butterfly gardens.

Stachytarpheta jamaicensis, blue porterweed, is a wonderful flowering ground cover. Native to South Florida, this porterweed stays low, usually under 1 foot tall. It grows best in a sunny to lightly shaded location. An added bonus to this plant is that it is a butterfly magnet!  It is a larval host for tropical Buckeyes and a source of nectar for many kinds of butterflies, including Great Southern White, Gulf Fritillary, Julia, large Orange Sulphur, Long-tailed Skipper, Schaus’ Swallowtail, Variegated Fritillary, Lyside Skipper. Once established, no irrigation is required.

Zamia integrifolia, coontie, is our only native cycad. Once locally abundant in Florida, it is now uncommon and threatened by urban development. The stems, after suitable treatment, were used as a source of starch by the Seminole Indians; a small starch extraction industry was established in South Florida in the 1850s. Coontie is a small cycad, with much-branched, underground stems. The leaves are a favorite larval food for the rare Atala butterfly. It grows in full sun to light shade. New growth appears each spring, although if cut back, new leaves may be generated at any time.

Pithecellobium keyense, known as blackbead, is native to coastal hammocks and pine rockland habitats of south Florida and tropical America. It is a much-branched shrub with fragrant white to pale pink flowers. The interesting coiled pods split open to reveal black seeds with a red aril. Blackbead is a larval host plant for the large Orange Sulphur and also for the Cassius Blue butterflies. According to the Institute for Regional Conservation nectar visitors include Cassius Blue, Florida Dusky Wing, Florida White, Giant Swallowtail, Great Southern White, Hammock Skipper, Large Orange Sulphur, Mangrove Skipper, Miami Blue, Three-spotted Skipper, Twin-spot Skipper and other butterflies. This is a wonderful addition to the landscape to attract butterflies and birds.

Asclepias perennis, swamp milkweed is native to the Midwest and southeastern portion of the U.S., including Florida. As its common name implies, swamp milkweed occurs in a variety of wetland habitats, including semi-shaded forests. It can survive lower amounts of direct sunlight than our other native species, but it will become lankier and flower less abundantly. Swamp milkweed requires good soil moisture for best growth. This is a small plant; at mature height in the late spring, its many stems rarely stand taller than 2 feet. Each stem is densely covered by lance-shaped bright green leaves. Swamp milkweed blooms in the summer with bright, white clusters of flowers. This wildflower is quite happy if planted in locations that stay moist to wet or planted in a container without drainage holes. This milkweed is a larval host to the Monarch butterfly, Queen butterfly and Soldier butterfly. It also attracts various pollinators including butterflies and bees.

Phyla nodiflora is a tiny plant which most people have growing in their lawn. Phyla nodiflora, frogfruit, is a larval host plant for the Phaon Crescent and White Peacock butterflies. It also provides nectar for Barred Yellow, Ceraunus Blue, Gray Hairstreak, Little Metalmark, Miami Blue, Palatka Skipper, Queen and many more.