Butterflies: Plants to attract them, and concerns

Butterflies: Plants to attract them, and concerns

It’s nearing October and I’m still seeing some butterflies around – a few Western Tiger Swallowtails although they’re much fewer, some Cabbage Whites and a variety of those little orange ones that I’ve given up identifying. I checked in with a couple butterfly aficionados on what plants were ushering in the butterflies during the late summer months.

Tiger Swallowtail on Bee-Balm - our Sycamore trees are a host plant

Tiger Swallowtail on Bee-Balm – our Sycamore trees are a host plant

As many know, I love to tout native plants since natives are usually the host plants for local butterflies. Plant them and they will come…. For example, I previously wrote about how the rare El Segundo blue butterfly that has made a comeback in an area next to LAX, Los Angeles mega-airport. Native buckwheat was planted to replace the non-native vegetation in the area called Surfridge, formerly an exclusive community of homes.

Favorite Butterfly Plants – MIDWEST/EAST

I touched base with Susan Damon, whose yard in St. Paul MN I’ve featured in past blogs (see  Favorite Plants in Midwest and Landscaped Yard Ushers in Butterflies). Earlier this month she said they were seeing a lot of bees–bumblebees, leaf cutter bees and others, although”butterfly numbers are way down this year, but we have had Monarchs, tiger swallowtails, fritillaries and skippers.” She attributes the butterfly decline to last year’s drought and a cold wet spring, but admits the pronounced difference in numbers scares her. (See last section below on herbicide and other concerns.)

But first, a review of  Susan’s favorite plants:

New England Aster

New England Aster

New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae) –  an important late-blooming nectar plant

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpura) A classic prairie plant, great nectar source for butterflies and seed source for goldfinches and other songbirds.

Cupplant - attractive and long-lasting

Cupplant – attractive and long-lasting

Cupplant (Silphium perfoliatum) – a tall, long-blooming plant. Damon  always see Monarchs and Swallowtails feeding on these plants.

Meadow Blazingstar (Liatrus ligulistylis) – An undisputed Monarch butterfly magnet.

Prairie onion (Allium stellatum) – does well in dry conditions, and easy to grow from seed.  Attractive, good nectar source for bees and butterflies

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) – A major monarch attractor (both as host plant for egg-laying and for nectar) that is attractive, fragrant and long-blooming. Damon also likes common milkweed.

Purple Coneflower – (Echinacea purpura) The classic prairie plant, great nectar source, also seed source for goldfinches and other songbirds.

Joe -Pye Weed and Sweet Joe-Pye weed – Excellent nectar sources  with the latter fairly shade tolerant

Goldenrods – Damon likes the stiff and showy goldenrod.

Other good host plants:

Purple Coneflowers dot the Damon's yard

Purple Coneflowers dot the Damon’s yard

  • Violets – host for fritillary butterflies
  • Golden alexanders – host for the black swallowtail
  • Pusseytoes – host for the American painted lady

Favorite Butterfly Plants  – WESTERN

I also checked in with Monika Moore who runs a monarch butterfly waystation in her Fullerton CA yard, which provides an important resting and breeding stop to monarchs migrating down the California coast. She’s personally released over 300 monarchs so far, with the monarch waystations releasing about 5400. “If all gardeners just planted a few host and nectar plants for butterflies we could bring numbers back up, “says Moore. She says it’s very easy to become a monarch waystation – see www.monarchwatch.org for the details.

Monika’s favorites:

IMG_8614 milkweed


Tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) is Moore’s best food source for monarchs in August and September.

Hairy Balls (Gomphocarpus physocarpa) – produces lots of leaves and seed pods

Lantana (Verbenaceae sp) – Moore’s best and easiest – she calls it her magnet plant

Other nectar flowers – note all are flowers that lay flat

  • Rubeckia Denver Daisy
  • Mexican Daisy
  • Scabiosa atropurpurea,
  • Marigold Harlequin
  • Queen Anne’s Lace
  • Cosmos
  • Hollyhock
  • Purple cone flower
  • Shasta daisy
  • Butterfly bush

Herbicide Concerns?

As has been noted in some research studies, Damon believes that industrial agricultural practices in the Midwest–herbicide use in connection with GMO crops and farmers tilling nearly every inch of available ground–are having devastating impacts on butterflies and other pollinators. “Ten years ago, I counted as many as 50 Monarchs in my garden at a time in late August.  The numbers have steadily declined each year since then, and are the worst ever this year,” This year the largest number of Monarchs she’s seen at one time is four. Most days it’s been one or two. She says her butterfly-loving friends have had the same experience.

Moore takes a positive stance and encourages people to attract butterflies. “We can all speculate about what is the cause of the declining numbers or we can work together and plant the host and nectar plants that they need to bring the numbers back up. All talk is never good. Let’s see some action,” she says.

What we can do?

  • Plant butterfly-attracting plants
  • Eat organic – which takes away GMO concerns and herbicide/pesticide use
  • Minimize herbicide (such as Roundup) and pesticide use
  • Encourage land preservation
About Linda Richards

My goal is to educate about the science of nature in layperson speak, through my writing, science and education background. I grew up in the Chicago area, loved living in Minneapolis before gravitating to the West, which is now home.


  1. Wow Linda, thank you so much for this wonderful article. And for bringing this to my attention. Your wonderful work brings education and caring for our earth. Hopefully this will inspire others to be good stewards. The next generation is depending on us.
    God Bless,
    Monika U. Moore

Speak Your Mind