Updated: Jun 1, 2022
Butterfly metamorphosis is fascinating for children and adults alike. Want to attract butterflies to your property? You can easily purchase colorful flowers like zinnias to attract them, however, a true butterfly garden supports all four stages of their life cycle: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Each butterfly species has its own requirements, and even preferred flower types for nectar. Therefore, a butterfly garden should not only attract adult butterflies with flowers but meet the requirements of their larvae (caterpillars) as well. The caterpillars need to consume specific plants in order to grow, form their chrysalis (the outer protective layer of a pupa), and complete metamorphosis. The plants that caterpillars need to consume are called larval host plants.
Photo, below from left to right: Rare Atala butterfly laying eggs on its larval host plant, coontie. Atala larvae during their feeding stage. Larvae attached to the bottom of coontie leaves and transforming into pupae. Transition from larvae to pupae.
You can start planning your butterfly garden by observing which butterflies visit your yard and neighborhood, and subsequently planting the larval host plants they require. If you've never seen a butterfly in your area, that's ok too! Building a butterfly garden is highly rewarding because "plant it and they will come" is 100 % true here. Butterflies you've never seen before can eventually find their way to your yard, or even your balcony, if you use the right plants and follow a few principles (I waited patiently for 7 years for Atala butterflies to find my yard!). To help you along, I've outlined my own butterfly gardening tips below, and listed my favorite larval host plants for southeast Florida:
Some tips and more information before you begin:
You can never have too many larval host plants! To sustain a caterpillar population, plan on planting most host plants in groups of 5 or more. If the host plant is a large shrub or tree, one plant is generally sufficient.
Grow larval host plants close to pollen and nectar sources. Some butterflies, like the Atala above, have a short lifespan and fly slowly. They usually don't travel very far from where they're born. Not every species is a strong flier like the monarch! So, make sure there are a variety of nectar sources nearby.
Good native plants as nectar sources: Spanish needles (Bidens alba), Florida lantana (Lantana involucrata), green buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus), dune sunflower (Helianthus debilis), blue porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis), fiddlewood (Citharexylum spinosum), Bahama strongbark (Bourreria succulenta), firebush (Hamelia patens), buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), scorpiontail, tropical sage (Salvia coccinea) and many more!
Good non-native plants as nectar sources: plumbago (Plumbago auriculata), firespike (Odontonema strictum), sweet almond bush (Aloysia virgata), Zinnia species, Mexican sunflower.
Different pollinators have their own preferences for flower color, shape, and fragrance. A well-designed butterfly garden will attract much more than just butterflies. Try to plant a high diversity of plant species to ensure you meet a wide range of needs. For example, Zebra longwing butterflies (Florida's state butterfly) and hummingbirds prefer red tubular flowers and Atala butterflies and bees prefer small, fragrant white flowers.
Butterflies see in UV light; their range of vision is quite complex. In general, their favorite colors are purple, pink, yellow, orange, white and red.
Butterflies generally avoid the color green when feeding, but the females will be attracted to green when they're ready to lay eggs.
Plants use contrast to create a UV light "nectar runway" on their flowers. Think of it like a bullseye to help butterflies find their way, since their vision is quite blurry. You can help them along by planting the same species in groups.
Butterflies taste with their feet, so some species prefer large flowers to act as a landing pad. This is why shallow dishes of fermenting fruit can attract butterflies as well. Therefore, it's a good idea to include a range of flower sizes.
Proboscis length varies with species (a butterfly's proboscis is like a straw used to drink nectar). Butterflies with a shorter "straw", like the Atala, prefer smaller flowers. Larger butterflies with a long proboscis might prefer tubular flowers.
Absolutely no pesticides! We may have the best of intentions, but sometimes even a "natural" pesticide can be harmful. The pesticide may be labeled organic, or be a DIY concoction from natural products in your kitchen, but it is still a chemical meant to kill living things. When we step in and try to control nature, are we adversely affecting something else we didn't think about? For example, when a plant is sprayed with a DIY dish soap mixture to kill soft-bodied insect pests like aphids, the soap can strip away the natural protective oils on the leaf surface, further weakening the plant. The aphids may be gone, but it was a missed opportunity to observe a swarm of ladybugs step in to act as nature's pest control. You may be devastated to find caterpillars voraciously eating your favorite plants, but if you kill them, you may be taking away a meal for a baby bird. We must think of our butterfly gardens as a fully functioning ecosystem that is home to a variety of animals, as well as plants. As the diversity of plants increases, you will begin to notice nature balances itself in its own way. Click here for more information on integrated pest management (IPM), my preferred method for managing problems in the landscape.
Butterfly gardening requires a relaxed attitude - caterpillars can quickly defoliate their host plants. The plants eventually recover, oftentimes looking better than ever afterwards. Think of it as nature's pruning! If you must keep your garden looking tidy, I recommend placing larval host plants where they're not in a prominent location or focal point.
Provide shelter for adult butterflies and caterpillars alike. Butterflies like both open, sunny areas for feeding (think wildflower meadow) and shrubby understory (think woodland edge) where they can feel protected. For example, zebra longwing butterflies (Florida's state butterfly) roost on branches at night in large groups and prefer a woodland setting for doing so. Like adults, caterpillars seek more protected areas to pupate, oftentimes traveling very far from their host plants. Try to help them feel protected by planting densely, as in nature.
My favorite native larval host plants for home landscapes:
Corkystem passion vine (Passiflora suberosa)
Dainty vine with coiling tendrils. Can be up to 15 feet long, but often smaller.
Tolerates a range of conditions from full sun to shade, slightly moist to dry well-drained soil
Larval host for Gulf fritillary, Julia heliconian, and Zebra longwing butterflies
Alternatives: Other Passiflora species like Maypop (Passiflora incarnata) or non-native Passiflora edulis, which produces the edible passion fruit
Pictured below: Two Gulf fritillary caterpillars munching on corkystem passion vine. My preferred "trellis" for this small host vine: the base of a small tree. When the vine is completely defoliated by caterpillars, the landscaping is not as visually impacted.
Coontie (Zamia integrifolia)
Small cycad (an ancient group of plants resembling palms) from 1 to 3.5 feet tall and around; slow-growing
Tolerates full sun to shade, but soil must be well-drained
Grow in a group as a foundation planting or tall groundcover to help establish an Atala butterfly colony, a very rare butterfly that is easy to attract in the Miami-Dade county area with coontie, its larval host plant!
Wild lime (Zanthoxylum fagara)
Large shrub or small tree, very sculptural
Aromatic foliage, but watch out for sharp thorns! Works best out of high traffic areas or as part of a privacy screen
Tolerates full sun to partial shade, well-drained soil
Larval host for swallowtail butterflies like the Giant, Schaus', and Black swallowtails
Bahama (Senna mexicana var. chapmanii) or Privet Senna (Senna ligustrina)
Small to large shrubs best for full sun, well-drained conditions
Showy yellow flowers
There are many non-native Senna species available in the nursery trade, but I've observed they are not as attractive to butterflies as our native host plants
Larval host for Cloudless sulphur, Sleepy orange, and Orange-barred butterflies
Turkey tangle frogfruit (Phyla nodiflora)
Fast-growing creeping ground cover; tolerates foot traffic better than other native groundcovers and can grow dense enough to crowd out weeds
Tolerates a variety of conditions, but prefers soil with a humus top layer and on the moist side
Larval host for White peacock, Phaon crescent, and Common buckeye butterflies
Milkweed (Asclepias species)
Best for a sunny, open wildflower meadow
Choose native milkweed species over non-native species like Tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica). There are 21 species of milkweeds native to Florida, but unfortunately, not all are commonly available in nurseries. A great mail-order resource is Florida Native Wildflowers nursery.
Larval host plant for Monarch, Queen and Soldier butterflies
Pineland croton (Croton linearis)
Small, open shrub for full sun and well-drained, sandy soil
Larval host for federally endangered Bartram's scrub hairstreak and Florida leafwing butterflies. These butterflies are so rare, you may never attract them to your yard, but the flowers of Pineland croton are excellent at attracting a variety of pollinators. Atala butterflies and skippers are especially attracted to them.
Florida Keys blackbead (Pithecellobium keyense)
Accent or specimen shrub or small tree; the showy flowers attract a wide variety of pollinators, so it makes a great addition to the butterfly garden
Larval host for Cassius blue and Large orange sulphur butterflies
Other larval host plants to increase diversity: Gumbo limbo, red bay, live oak, Spanish needle, bay cedar, pineland acacia, sweet acacia, locust berry, saw palmetto, bunch grasses like Fakahatchee grass, and many others!
Happy butterfly gardening!