For a truly enchanting butterfly garden, plant flowering perennials that bloom at different times throughout the growing season. Choose varieties that attract different species of butterfly. Add rocks to the garden for the butterflies to rest upon, and establish large drifts of the same species of flowers to make it easier for the winged beauties to find their preferred brand of nectar in one place. As a group, the best butterfly plants have in common climate hardiness and a tolerance for poor soil conditions.
A species of milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa bursts into orange bloom for a few weeks every summer. It grows between 1 ½ to 3 feet tall and wide. Provide the plant with full sun and sandy soil, if possible. Butterfly weed tolerates drought well. Among the butterflies it attracts are silver-spotted skipper, monarch, great spangled fritallary, gray hairstreak, sleepy orange, orange sulphur, cabbage white and eastern tiger.
The Buddleia species of bushes attract nectar-seeking butterflies. The two main types of Buddleia are fountain butterfly bush and orange-eye butterfly bush. Grow both in full sun. Garden writer Barbara Damrosch recommends adding peat moss to the soil. Prune just the tips of fountain butterfly bush to encourage maximum flowers; orange-eye flowers more heavily if pruned almost to the ground just before spring growth. Butterflies attracted to Buddleia nectar include eastern tiger, spicebush, pipevine, cabbage white, orange sulphur, red-banded hairstreak, monarch, painted lady, American lady and crossline skipper.
A spreading, cheerful plant that grows either in full sun or partial shade, purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) boasts long-blooming purple flowers with raised, brown centers. They grow between 3 to 4 feet tall and don’t have special soil requirements. They attract the swallowtail, black, clouded sulphur, orange sulphur, banded hairstreak, red-spotted admiral, wild indigo duskywing, sachem and little glassywing butterflies.
New England Aster
Also known as purple asters, farewell-summers and michaelmas daisies, New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) come into their own in late summer and early fall. The clumping perennials prefer full sun, moist soil and plenty of room to grow. They grow 2 to 3 feet tall, but can sometimes be found in dwarf form in specialty nurseries. New England aster's butterfly fans include the clouded skipper, peck’s skipper, common checkered skipper, sachem, Horace's duskywing, painted lady, pearl crescent, orange sulphur, clouded sulphur and the swallowtail.
Additional Butterfly Plants
Common milkweed, oregano and marigold also top many lists for attracting butterflies to the garden. Most of the plants listed here act as nectar plants, but for a more complete butterfly garden, include host plants, which both feed caterpillars and provide egg-laying spots for butterflies. These host plants include clover, alfalfa, fennel, snapdragons, hollyhock, pansies, spice bush, sunflowers and marshmallows.