Butterflies are attracted to brightly colored, fragrant flowers that provide nectar. By understanding butterfly preferences, gardeners can plant flowers that will attract more butterflies. The most popular flowers among butterflies include lantana, verbena, zinnias, cosmos, bee balm, butterfly bush, and milkweed. Butterflies use their long, tubular proboscis to drink nectar from flowers. They have taste receptors on their feet to help them find nectar-rich blooms. Butterflies also need flowers for reproduction—they lay eggs on or near plants that will serve as food for their caterpillars.
What types of flowers do butterflies prefer?
Butterflies are most attracted to flowers that are:
- Brightly colored red, yellow, orange, pink or purple
- Open and shallow shaped with accessible nectar
- Arranged in clusters or flat-topped clusters
- Sweet smelling and rich in nectar
- Native species that bloom for long periods
Butterflies cannot see the color red, but they can see reddish-purple hues. Their color vision is best for yellow, orange and purple flowers. Butterflies also use scent to locate nectar sources. Fragrant flowers like lilacs, heliotrope and nicotiana attract more butterflies. Open, flat-topped flowers like daisies, coreopsis and asters allow butterflies easy access to nectar.
Top butterfly flowers
Here are some of the best flowers for attracting a diversity of butterflies:
Lantana comes in a rainbow of colors including red, yellow, pink, purple and orange. Different butterflies are attracted to different color lantana flowers. The nectar-rich, clustered blooms provide food for many butterfly species. Lantana is a non-native plant that blooms from summer through fall.
Verbena bonariensis produces clusters of tiny purple or pink flowers on tall stems. The flat-topped flower heads offer accessible nectar for butterflies. Verbena blooms from midsummer into fall, providing late season food for migrating butterflies.
Zinnias come in almost every color except blue and have a high nectar content. The daisy-like blooms attract swallowtails, monarchs, painted ladies and other butterflies. Plant zinnias in masses for best effect. Look for single flowered, heirloom varieties of zinnia.
The bright flowers of cosmos are a favorite of both bees and butterflies. Different species have blooms in white, pink, magenta and orange shades. Cosmos is easy to grow from seed and will bloom all summer long up until frost.
Also called monarda, bee balm has tubular flowers in shades of red, purple, pink or white. The clusters of shaggy-looking blooms attract hummingbirds as well as butterflies. Bee balm flowers through summer into fall. Grow mildew-resistant cultivars for best results.
Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) lives up to its name, attracting a wide array of butterflies. The large, cone-shaped flower clusters come in colors like purple, pink, magenta and white. Butterfly bush blooms from early summer until fall.
Milkweed is the only host plant for the monarch butterfly. Female monarchs lay eggs on milkweed because it’s the only food source for monarch caterpillars. Milkweed flowers also provide nectar for adult monarchs. Look for native species of milkweed.
When and where to see butterflies on flowers
Butterfly watching is most rewarding on warm, sunny days when butterflies are most active. Butterflies typically feed in early morning and again in late afternoon before dusk. Here are some tips for spotting them on flowers:
- Plant flowers in open, sunny spots protected from wind.
- Choose native flowers suited to your climate and growing conditions.
- Plant flowers in large clumps or clusters to make them more visible.
- Include plants that bloom at different times to provide nectar all season.
- Add flat rocks or gravel for butterflies to bask in the sun.
- Provide some wet soil or mud for butterflies to get needed minerals.
Position chairs or benches near flowers so you can sit quietly and wait for butterfly activity. Use binoculars to get a closer look as butterflies feed on the blooms.
Tips for attracting more butterflies
In addition to planting the right flowers, you can take other steps to draw more butterflies to your yard or garden:
- Avoid using pesticides which can harm butterflies.
- Supply shallow water sources like a birdbath, fountain or mud puddle.
- Allow vegetation like grasses and nettles to grow for egg-laying.
- Plant in layers with trees, shrubs and different flower heights.
- Include host plants that provide food for caterpillars.
- Provide overwintering sites such as brush piles where butterflies shelter.
- Connect your garden to natural areas, parks and other green spaces.
Making your landscape welcoming to butterflies offers rewards. You’ll get to enjoy the beauty of these fascinating creatures as they feed, rest and flutter about your flowers.
Common butterflies and their favorite flower types
Different butterflies are attracted to different flowers depending on their proboscis length and feeding preferences. Here are some common butterflies and the flowers they frequent:
|Swallowtails||Lilac, viburnum, azalea, butterfly bush|
|Monarchs||Milkweed, zinnia, lantana, verbena, butterfly bush|
|Painted Lady||Cosmos, zinnia, blanket flower, thistle|
|American Lady||Purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, ironweed|
|Red Admiral||Rotting fruit, sap flows, mud puddles|
|Buckeye||Snapdragon, verbena, milkweed, aster|
|Skipper||Butterfly bush, privet, lilac, purple coneflower|
As you can see, there is diversity in flower preferences among common backyard butterflies. To attract more species, provide a variety of flower colors, shapes and bloom times.
Butterflies are attracted to brightly colored, sweet smelling flowers that provide abundant nectar. By planting the right flowers, you can invite more of these beautiful pollinators to your garden. Top butterfly flowers include lantana, zinnia, butterfly bush, bee balm, cosmos, and native milkweed. Also make sure to provide open, sunny areas protected from the wind where butterflies like to congregate and feed. With the proper flowers and habitat, you can enjoy watching a variety of dazzling butterflies visit your garden all season long.