This past weekend I had the privilege of being asked to teach a workshop on butterfly habitat gardening at the Albany 2013 Capital District Garden and Flower Show. I’ve since heard from several people who wanted to attend and couldn’t; this post will summarize the butterfly habitat gardening presentation.

Carole Sevilla Brown recently composed an informative article on butterfly gardening. A lot of my research was done reading this wildlife biologist’s thoughts on the lifecycles of butterflies. The Xerces Society’s book Attracting Native Pollinators has lots of valuable insight, and so does the naturalist Judy Burris’ book Lifecycles of Butterflies

In the 9 years I’ve obsessively focused on building gardens that attract butterflies, filled with an ever refined pallet of butterfly attracting plants, I have learned through trial and error, through continuing my education and through communicating with other experts that building butterfly habitat and providing for the butterflies’ entire lifecycle is unmistakeably simple. There exists a natural organization with natural principles. When we become aware of this natural organization and adhere to these basic principles, we tap into a perfect system and butterflies appear automatically. Delineating this system is the trick; with the input of ecological information, we can seamlessly create butterfly habitat gardens in our residences.

The first rule of butterfly gardening, the key backbone principle of creating a safe, welcoming space is “Do no harm.” No pesticides or herbicides can be used anywhere on the property, none at all. Even Bt, which is “organic” is not okay to use in butterfly gardens- Bt kills caterpillars on contact. Creating a garden that attracts butterflies with plants that draw them in and simultaneously treating the garden with pesticides and herbicides is exactly like throwing a cocktail party and pouring poison into the punch bowl.

Only native plants can be used. The US Department of Agriculture defines a native plant as “One that occurs naturally in a particular region, ecosystem or habitat without direct or indirect human intervention. We consider the flora present at the time Europeans arrived in North America as the species native to the eastern US. Native plants include all kinds of plants, from mosses and ferns to wildflowers, shrubs and trees.” Luckily for all of us, when we use native plants exclusively, we preclude the need for artificial fertilization or poisonous pest controls. The native plants are extraordinarily low maintenance, fertilizing them is counter-productive as it actually gives strength to the weeds that might out-compete them. Our native wildlife co-evolved with the native plant life, they have sophisticated communications established hammered out over perhaps thousands of years of cohabitation. Some of the nectar bearing flowers vibrate with electromagnetic frequencies only visible in ultraviolet light- visible to the adult butterflies but not to our human eyes.

We traditionally think of the butterfly garden in terms of nectar plants for adult butterflies. This is the most visible part of butterfly gardening. If we want to have a true butterfly sanctuary, where butterflies live out their entire life sequence in our gardens, (rather than visiting our flowers and then leaving our property) we need to remember the four stages of a butterfly’s lifecycle, and provide for every stage.

This photo was taken at the elementary school in Saratoga Springs, NY, and illustrates a butterfly’s lifecycle as an egg, larvae (caterpillar), pupae (cocoon or chrysallis) and adult butterfly. The caterpillars are specific feeders, not nectar generalists like the adult butterflies. Caterpillars eat leaves, or foliage of a very limited variety, called “host plants.” Adult female butterflies are intelligent, sharp and observant- they will only lay their eggs on or nearby their species host plants, giving their offspring a chance to feed after hatching. It is good for us to avoid the “butterfly porn” mentality of strictly nectar bearing plants like Buddleia “Butterfly Bush”- besides being recently determined as an invasive species, Buddleia is a non-native and has no habitat value in the garden other than spewing nectar (many other flowering plants and shrubs do this too). No native caterpillars use Buddleia as a host plant, birds see it as a wasted space in the garden. By planting butterfly host plants we can foster a meaningful and longterm relationship with our butterflies in the gaden, and thus avoid the Buddleia “butterfly porn” mentality.

It is a good idea to become familiar with the butterflies that live in your locality. I was astonished by the long list of butterflies I can attract to butterfly gardens in Saratoga, NY. We get more ecological bang for our buck when we focus on only one or two species of butterflies and try to give them everything they need- host plants, flowering native herbacious plants, trees and shrubs. This narrow focus on one or two butterfly species in our garden can actually have a cumulative effect of seeing more species of butterflies as many adults will visit the nectar plants. Dallasbutterflies.com has an exhaustive list of host plants that makes a great reference once a butterfly species is chosen.


Though often overlooked, trees and shrubs are an important part of the butterfly garden: pound for pound woody plant’s foliage weigh more as caterpillar host plants than herbacious plants do. Oak trees support 543 different species of butterflies and moths in the US! Trees and shrubs provide shelter for adult butterflies from predators like birds, protection from rain and windstorms and a place to sleep. I always wondered where butterflies sleep: they fold up their wings and hide under tree leaves. Trees can be strategically placed to avoid shading out the sun-loving garden: outskirts of the property or the north side of the house are two good placements.

Martha Stewart was right about exactly two concepts in gardening: we want to plan for 3 seasons of bloom (using a minimum of 3 native flower species per bloom cycle: and more than 3 species is better,) and 5-7 individual habitat plant species should be clumped together in one space. This makes it easier for the adult butterflies (who have a different kind of eyesight than we do) to see the host plants and nectar plants when they’re flying over the butterfly garden.

Be patient. It can take 2-3 years before official butterfly sanctuary is established in your garden. Adult butterflies might need time to find your garden and lay their eggs, the native habitat plant species you’re planting may need some time to get established as well. In the meantime, lots of annuals can be host plants for different butterfly species, including Parsley, Cilantro, Fennel, Dill and Chervil.

Cleanliness does not equal godliness in the butterfly (or bird, or pollinator) garden. Many “weeds,” like Stinging Nettles, Plantain (pictured above) and Violets are important habitat plants; they are host plants for many species of butterflies. It is good to leave these host plants at woodland edges and other spaces on your property for exponential habitat return. You can easily visualize the difference between a treated lawn and an untreated one: the untreated lawn will have the above pictured Plantain growing in it. Skipper butterflies, who need Plantain for their host plant are present on the untreated lawn, flitting around. A treated lawn is devoid of such beauty and life motion.

Dead trees and fallen leaves are necessary for our native wildlife’s habitat. Our culture’s obsession with bagging up leaves in the fall is incredibly counter-productive. Besides that 25% of landfill material is leaf waste- it’s just not garbage. Leaf waste is immeasurably valuable. As leaves decompose where they fall, they create a perfect fertilizer- free and nutrient complete for the tree they are from, which eliminates our need for fertilizers. Additionally, the habitat value of ground level leaf debris is limitless. Butterflies use fallen leaves for their cocoons; ground nesting birds, salamanders, toads, predator insects and many more precious native wildlife species find solace and breeding ground in fallen leaf material.
So autumn in the butterfly garden can be nicely experienced with Carole Sevilla Brown’s suggestion to, “Put down the rake and pick up the binoculars!”