Butterfly Garden Plants

Written By:  Noreen Tolman

Butterfly gardening is a wonderful way to add color and diversity to your landscape with butterfly plants, as well as add life and color by attracting the wonderful array of butterflies that are native to the Houston area. Butterfly gardening is also an excellent way to teach children about nature, plants and the environment.

There are two types of butterfly plants that one needs for a successful Butterfly Garden. There are “host plants”  and there are “nectar plants”.

Host plants are specific plants that specific butterflies come to lay their eggs on, and the caterpillars feed on  throughout their caterpillar stage. Most butterflies are very particular, others not so much.  Many host plants will also double as nectar plants.

Nectar plants are non-specific blooming plants that attract the adult butterflies to get nectar from. Butterflies are not particular at all about their nectar plants.  Most nectar plants that one sees are not host plants.

If you plan on having a butterfly garden, and want to attract certain types of butterflies, you definitely need to plant the host plants. Obtain host plants from sources that you know do not use pesticides. Often a nursery itself might not use pesticides, but they might get the plants from a grower that does. Systemic fertilizers/pesticides are equally as harmful since the pesticides are in the plant. This might not be harmful on a nectar plant, but it is deadly on a host plant. Washing the plant might work with sprayed on insecticides, but it won’t work with systemics, that go into the root system and into the plant itself. A sure thing is if you see larvae on a plant at a nursery, then you KNOW it is safe. If there are absolutely no larvae on any of their plants, chances are they either themselves use pesticides, or the grower did.  Please be advised that if you have a butterfly garden, refrain from using pesticides, especially systemics on your host and nectar plants. 

Many feel that butterfly larvae (caterpillars) kill the plant by eating the leaves and sometimes parts of the plant, but this is NOT true.  The plants quickly recover and put on thicker, healthier foliage. The caterpillars do not harm the plant in any way, nor the blooms.  The caterpillar will even fertilize the plant with their castings, so this also helps the plant stay healthier, and grow more vigorously.   

Why is it important to have host and nectar plants? My analogy……a town that has nothing but restaurants will have many visitors but few people stay. If you have hotels and homes for them to live in, they will stay. Many say that Butterflies remember where they came from as a known place to have host plants, and will return there to lay their eggs….thus building a community.

Some important, easier to obtain, host plants to get you started, and what butterflies use them:

    • Milkweeds (Asclepias sp.) for the Monarchs and Queen
    • Pipevines (Aristolochia sp.) for the Polydamas Swallowtail
    • Aristolochia fimbriata for the native Pipevine Swallowtails
    • Pawpaw tree for the Zebra Swallowtail
    • Dill, Parsley, Fennel for the Black Swallowtail
    • Spicebush, Sassafras, Camphor and Bays for the Spicebush Swallowtail and Palamedes (sometimes Avocado for this species of Butterfly)
    • Passion vines (Passiflora sp.) for the Gulf Fritillary, Julias, and Zebra
    • Citrus trees for the Giant Swallowtail
    • Acacia/Cassia/Senna plants for the Sulphur
    • Sunflowers, Asters for the Checkerspot
    • Ruellia, Shrimp plant, (plants of Acanthaceae family) for the Texan Crescent and  Buckeye
    • Beans and legumes, Hyacinth bean vine (Dolichos lablab) for the Long Tailed Skipper

Having a good butterfly book, is essential in having a butterfly garden. There are a number of interesting butterflies that feed on grasses, trees, flowers, etc. that you might like. Knowing the host plant, or what the larvae look like, so you don’t kill something that might be a butterfly is important. Two of my favorites that I use regularly are: Butterflies of  Houston & Southeast Texas by John & Gloria Tveten…….as well as, A Field Guide to Butterflies of Texas, by Raymond W. Neck…..it is one of the Texas Monthly Fieldguide series. I highly recommend these for identifying Butterflies, caterpillars and their host plants. 

Happy Butterfly Gardening!!!!