There are two things butterflies want when looking for a garden to visit: nectar (the food source for adults) and host plants where the females lay their eggs and what the larva (caterpillars) need to grow. To create your own butterfly garden, you will want to plant both.
Nectar plants are those with flowers that produce the sweet fluid that many insects, including butterflies, use as food. Many of our native butterflies prefer plants that have pink, red, purple, yellow or orange flowers (the theme here is bright colors). Butterflies seem to be attracted to large areas with a single color, or closely related colors, rather than gardens with many different colors mixed together. Most butterflies have to land to get to the nectar so they prefer plants having either clusters of short tubular flowers, or flowers with large, flat petals. Butterflies are active from early spring through frost, and having a mix of plants in your garden that flower throughout this entire time will attract them all season long.
Since caterpillars are unable to travel far to find food, the female butterfly will locate and lay her eggs on the only plant type that the caterpillar will use for food. Most species of caterpillars are rather meticulous about the type of plant they eat. If the egg was not placed on the correct plant, the caterpillar hatching from that egg will not survive. Many native trees and other plants found in and around our yards are host plants for caterpillars. There are many varieties of plants that can be included in a garden as excellent host plants. Most gardeners do not like to see plants in their gardens that have been chewed on by insects. To avoid this, you may want to locate host plants in areas that are not highly visible, or in a separate garden area a short distance from the nectar plants. If you do not provide host plants, you will have fewer butterflies.
Location and Design
Both butterflies and the plants they prefer like bright sunny areas protected from high winds. When planning your butterfly garden, look for areas around your yard that get at least six hours of sun every day. In Northwest Georgia, areas with morning to mid-afternoon sun seem to work best. If your yard is not too large, you also can plan a garden that involves separate “islands” that are not adjacent to each other.
On cool mornings, butterflies will need to warm their bodies before they can become active. To do this, they often sit on a reflective surface such as a flat stone, spread their wings, and turn their backs to the sun. Their wings work like solar panels, absorbing the sun’s warmth that is then transferred to their bodies.
Does it look like your butterflies are eating dirt? Butterflies will often gather in groups on wet sand or mud, and look like they are eating or drinking. This is called puddling and they do it to obtain the minerals found in the soil. You can create a puddling spot in your garden by placing a shallow pan in the soil, filling it with coarse sand, and keeping it moist. You can add salt at a rate of ½ to ¾ cup salt (table salt or rock salt) to 1 gallon of sand, mix well and moisten. Locate the puddling area under a soaker hose or near a drip emitter to help keep the sand moist.
Some species of butterfly rarely feed on nectar and only visit a garden if it has some extra touches, like rotten fruit or manure. The best fruits are those that are either soft (banana) or moist (watermelon). Small amounts of fresh manure also will attract butterflies. If there are young children in your home, you may want to make sure that these items are in a protected area as they both sometimes attract wasps as well as butterflies.
Butterflies and Caterpillars are Insects
The use of insecticides will kill many butterflies and caterpillars. If a pest problem develops in your butterfly garden, consider a targeted approach by using integrated pest management (IPM). First, consider biological control, such as ladybugs, lacewings and preying mantids. These are predator insects often already present in a garden. If pests such as aphids, whiteflies, mealybugs, or spider mites become a serious problem, use insecticidal soaps or horticultural oils applied only to those areas on the plants where the pests are located. Widespread application of these or other insecticides may negatively affect the caterpillars on their host plants as well as the butterflies visiting nectar plants.
For additional information on pollinators, see the following publications:
“Environmental Enhancement with Ornamental Plants: Butterfly Gardening” at https://secure.caes.uga.edu/extension/publications/files/pdf/C%20975_2.PDF;
“Selecting Trees and Shrubs as Resources for Pollinators” at https://secure.caes.uga.edu/extension/publications/files/pdf/B%201483_1.PDF
“The Eco-Friendly Garden: Attracting Pollinators, Beneficial Insects and Other Natural Predators” at https://secure.caes.uga.edu/extension/publications/files/pdf/B%201456_2.PDF
If you have any questions, feel free to contact Brenda Jackson at Murray County Extension at 706-695-3031 or email