Butterflies are some of the most beautiful and graceful creatures to visit Texas gardens. You can easily create a garden that will entice these winged jewels by providing a favorable site and the right kinds of plants.
Locate your butterfly garden in a sunny area. Because butterflies are cold-blooded, their wings act as heat collectors to warm their bodies. A sunny site will provide plenty of warmth to keep the butterflies active. Furthermore, a sun-filled area favors the kinds of blooming plants that butterflies like to visit. Place some light-colored, smooth, flat rocks in your butterfly garden; the rocks absorb heat and offer the butterflies a place to bask in the sun, much like sunbathers on a beach.
If you do not want visiting butterflies to be gone with the wind, offer protection from prevailing gusts; locate your butterfly garden next to a building or in an area fenced in by a solid fence where winds are calmer and the butterflies can more easily linger for a longer period of time. If you have a fence with gaps and spaces, cover it with vines or plant shrubs to block the wind.
Finally, include a source of water in your butterfly garden. A spot with moist sand offers the butterflies a place to lap up water and to absorb nutrients from the earth. You could also fill a shallow dish or saucer with water and put a few rocks in the center where the butterflies can perch above the water line. Avoid bird baths as a source of water, though, as they invite birds to dine on the butterflies!
If you are going to attract butterflies, you have to have caterpillars first! Caterpillars are the larval form of butterflies, and they are hungry little critters. The plants they feed on are called “host plants” because these plants host the caterpillars during their feeding frenzy. Plant enough host plants to support the caterpillar population without sacrificing other plants in your garden. Since many host plants are not necessarily attractive garden plants, plant them toward the back of the flower bed or on the edge of your yard. The best host plants include Mexican milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), fennel, parsley, passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), pipe vine (Aristolochia tomentosa), dill, and rue.
Mexican milkweed is a favorite plant of monarchs for egg laying, and the resulting larvae use the plant leaves as a food source. It is also used as a nectar source. Native to South America, Mexican milkweed is a perennial in USDA hardiness zones 9 through 11, which means it is treated as an annual in parts of Texas. Mexican milkweed grows 2- to 3-feet-tall in full sun and sports showy clusters of little orange and yellow flowers all summer long until early autumn. Butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees are attracted to the flowers. Stems and leaves exude a milky sap when cut or bruised. Consider wearing gloves when working with this plant because the sap is poisonous if ingested and can be toxic to human skin.
Passionflower is a native, herbaceous, climbing vine that grows up to 25 feet long with axillary tendrils or sprawls along the ground. It produces showy, 3-inch-wide purple flowers. Grow this vine on a trellis in full sun in just about any kind of soil. It serves as a host plant for gulf fritillary, zebra longwing, crimson-patch longwing, red-banded hairstreak butterflies, as well as the Julia and Mexican butterfly.
Since fennel, parsley, dill, and rue are herbs, look for these plants in the herb section of a nursery or garden center. Now that edible landscapes are becoming vogue, include these herbs in your garden not only for your own culinary purposes but also as host plants for butterflies. These plants attract such butterflies as the black swallowtail, the gulf fritillary, the pipevine swallowtail, monarchs, and queens.
Nectar plants are those flowering plants that supply nectar to the adult butterflies. Nectar plants sustain butterflies all summer long and some, such as the Mexican milkweed and fall aster, provide nectar fuel for monarchs during their fall migration. The best flowers for butterflies provide landing pads in the form of large, flat petals or flat clusters of flowers. Butterflies are most attracted to purple, lavender, and pink flowers. Plant these flowers in drifts or masses to create visual impact and plenty of feeding opportunities for butterflies. The best nectar plants include cosmos, lantana, verbena, zinnia, penta, pincushion flower, Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), fall aster, butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), hollyhock, purple coneflower, any species of Saliva, summer phlox (Phlox paniculata), and Gregg’s mist flower (Eupatorium greggii). All these plants can be found at nurseries, garden centers, and local plant sales.
In addition to supplying flowers as a nectar source, put out dishes of juicy, overripe bananas, melons, or peaches. Many butterflies will enjoy these sugary foods as a supplement to natural nectar.
Providing the right habitat and plant materials to attract butterflies will ensure that your landscape is filled with the fanciful flight of butterflies from spring to fall. These gorgeous insects add the dimension of movement and color to the garden and will make your time in the garden that much more enjoyable!
Steve Huddleston is the senior horticulturist at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, president of his own landscape company, and co-author of Easy Gardens for North Central Texas.