by Hendrica Regez and Donna VanBuecken
Butterfly gardeners show they care deeply about the environment and their connection to nature. While providing food and shelter for monarchs and other pollinators, they also help to conserve native plants, reduce habitat fragmentation, and increase biodiversity in the landscapes. In turn, these healthy ecosystems directly affect the quality of our food, water, and air—and what could be more important than that?
Planting and caring for native plants can open up new worlds to even the most experienced gardeners! Some patience, some rain, and following these steps for planting a native plant butterfly habitat garden will help you create your own moments to remember. Here are the steps for success in planting a native plant butterfly habitat garden.
Steps To Create a Butterfly Habitat Garden
1. Preparation: Evaluate your site and choose a spot with at least six hours of sunlight. Simply add native plants to an existing garden, or replace a patch of lawn. If replacing a lawn, start with a clean planting bed and remove non-native vegetation if necessary. Select plant species that match the light, soil, pH and moisture conditions of your garden plot. See: Native-Plants-and-Landscaping.
2. Design Considerations: To be visually appealing, select native plant species of varied heights that bloom at different times. These plants will provide nectar for adult butterflies throughout the season. Don’t forget to include native grasses such as little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) not only for contrast, but also to help keep the blooming forbs upright. If at all possible, plant at least two types of milkweed for monarchs and then additional host species for caterpillars of other butterfly species.
Enhance your garden by adding a butterfly puddling spot and small brush pile for over-wintering species like mourning cloak butterflies. Take a “before” photo of site.
3. Plant Selection: Make a sketch of the planting plan, and perhaps color-code bloom times for early, mid-season, and late flowers. Fall blossoming nectar-rich plants are particularly important to migrating monarchs. Make a list of your plant species and check the number needed. Allow for sufficient room between plants as they mature. Apply mulch to provide an initial weed barrier. Find a reputable native plant nursery that carries plants and seeds from your area (local genotype) and uses best management practices appropriate for sensitive ecosystems. If seeding, use a nurse crop of oats (Avena sativa) or annual rye (Lolium multiflorum only) to reduce weed growth.
4. Maintenance: At first, water regularly, remove weeds, and keep mulched until the garden is established. Since this garden is wildlife food, try being pesticide-free. Some butterfly gardeners cut back some stalks of summer milkweed (late June or early July) to force new leaves for monarch caterpillars — be sure to transfer any eggs or larvae to plants that you don’t cut back. Later in the season (August-September), practice benign neglect! In the fall, leave some dead leaves and stalks to provide overwintering sites for pollinators. Go back to your garden plan and update. Take an “after” photo of your garden.
5. Register: You can register your Butterfly Garden habitat. Both Monarch Watch (MW) and the North America Butterfly Association (NABA) provide butterfly garden certifications. The Monarch Watch Waystation certification program encourages the planting of places that provide necessary resources for monarch butterflies to produce successive generations and sustain their migration. The NABA program promotes habitat for butterflies, as well as other pollinators. If your Waystation or NABA butterfly habitat garden is planted in at least 75% native species, you can also be recognized by Wild Ones. See Native Plant Butterfly Garden or Habitat Recognition instructions.
6. Monitor: Keep records of monarchs observed. The website www.monarchjointventure.org provides contacts for several monitoring programs to consider. Each week or two keep track of your observations, such as which plants are preferred by butterflies and other pollinators as host plants and nectar or pollen sources. Take photos of the garden throughout the season and share your favorites on the Wild Ones website.
7. Share: Invite others to visit your garden or habitat to enjoy the beauty of the butterflies in the natural landscape you created. Then share your seeds or divisions of plants to help start another butterfly garden!
Why Native Plants Matter
Butterflies and moths depend generally on native plants as their larval host plants. In the case of monarchs, milkweed species are critical for their survival. Whenever possible, grow local genotype and local ecotype native plants that have co-evolved in their native habitats with other plants and with wildlife such as insect pollinators. Local native plants are vigorous and hardy. Adapted to their region, local ecotypes can survive winter cold and summer heat. The deep roots of native plants, especially those of prairie plants, trees and shrubs, hold soil, control erosion and withstand droughts. Native plants, once established, will require less watering and may support natural pest control. To prevent the local extinction of native flora, plants should be bought from reputable nurseries and not dug from natural areas. For local genotype/ecotype guidelines refer to http://www.wildones.org/learn/local-ecotype-guidelines/.
Native host and nectar plants provide much needed food for monarchs and their larvae. At the same time these plants repay the gardener with beauty and interest throughout the year. These are the plants of the open spaces that Europeans encountered for the first time on their journeys throughout North America. Many of these plants have become unknown to us again. Some of their names hint at their history: Ironweed, New Jersey Tea, Sneezeweed…. As beautiful in the garden as they were in the prairies, they surely are worthy of further study and consideration in landscapes!
Let these plants take you back in time as they feed the monarchs – and you will create your own moments to remember. There are plants for any situation, from gravel to marshland. Those listed below should grow in average garden soil. Need information about a specific plant, planting situation, or source for buying locally native plants? For more advice (or encouragement!) with any native plant project, be sure to check out the excellent information on landscaping with native plants at http://www.wildones.org/learn/.
Host Plants for Monarchs
Monarch larvae feed exclusively on milkweeds. Plant at least ten individual milkweed plants in your butterfly garden, if possible. Choose at least two different species. Wild Ones recommends you include common milkweed since it is the Monarch’s preferred species of milkweed. It may grow into large clumps, but if there is room in your garden, please include it. Douglas W. Tallamy, PhD, tells us in his book Bringing Nature Home, “Without Milkweeds there can be no monarchs.”
These are the native milkweed species that are recommended by Monarch Watch, North America Butterfly Association, and Wild Ones for the northeast monarch migration region (Midwest and Northeast USA):
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias ncarnata)
Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Purple Milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens)
Prairie Milkweed (Asclepias sullivanti)
Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata)
Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata)
Sullivant’s Milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii)
Nectar plants provide food for adult monarchs and other pollinators throughout the season. Pick from early, mid, and late flowering species and have at least three different kinds of plants in bloom at any time. Include the mid-season flowering milkweeds. Not only will you offer a dependable food source to the monarchs, but your butterfly garden will have visual interest all year long.
Try growing some of these native plants in your butterfly garden or habitat. (Species listed alphabetically according to scientific names.)
Early Nectar Plants
Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea, A. laevis, A. interior)
Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida)
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
Pussy willow (Salix discolor)
Wild blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum, V. angustifolium)
Wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica)
Wild strawberry (Fragraria virginiana)
Wild lupine (Lupinus perennis)
Foxglove beard-tongue (Penstemon digitalis)
Wild phlox (Phlox divaracata)
Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium)
Common blue violet (Viola sororia, Viola spp.)
Mid-Season Nectar Plants:
Shrubs and Vines:
Leadplant (Amorpha canescens)
New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus)
Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
Sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa)
Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
Sumac (Rhus typhina, Rhus glabra, Rhus spp.)
White meadowsweet (Spirea alba)
Nodding wild onion (Allium cernuum)
Dogbane (Apocynum cannabium, A. androsaemifolium)*
Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Wild blue indigo (Baptisia australis)
Partridge pea (Cassia fasciculta)
Tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum)
Swamp thistle (Cirsium muticum)
Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata, C. tripteris, Coreopsis spp.)
Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida)
Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium)
Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)
Joe pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum, E. purpureum)
False sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)
Round-headed bush-clover (Lespedeza capitata)
Blazing star (Liatris spicata, Liatris liguistylis, Liatris spp.)
Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
Dotted horsemint (Monarda punctata)
Common cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex)
Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum)
Yellow prairie coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)
Orange coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida)
Blackeyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
Wild senna (Senna hebecarpa)
Purple stemmed aster (Symphyotrichum puniceum)
Hoary vervain (Verbena stricta)
Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum)
Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea)
*Not a milkweed species.
Late Flowering Nectar Plants:
Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
False aster (Boltonia asteroides)
Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)
Calico aster (Symphiotrychum laterifolius)
Stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida)
Showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)
Heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides)
Smooth aster (Symphyotrichum laevis)
New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)
Ironweed (Vernonia gigantea, V. missurica)
About the Author
Hendrica Regez volunteers with the Rock River Valley, IL, Chapter of Wild Ones: Native Plants, Natural Landscapes, a national not-for-profit environmental education and advocacy organization based in Wisconsin. The organization promotes environmentally sound landscaping practices to preserve biodiversity through the preservation, restoration, and establishment of native plant communities.