A growing pastime in America, with conservation benefits, is the practice of developing your garden and landscape in a way that will be beneficial to wildlife. In Texas we call this practice wildscaping, and for the butterfly enthusiast it offers the opportunity to bring color and diversity to your home and yard.
To attract the widest variety of butterflies quickly, begin with a selection of quality nectar plants. Numerous species of mint, salvia, lantana, verbena, aster, sunflower and mistflower fit this bill. Other good choices include milkweed, Indian blanket, gayfeather, groundsel, goldenrod, frostweed, ironweed, coneflower, kidneywood, Turk's cap, pavonia, phlox, whitebrush, beebrush, frogfruit and if you have a wet area, buttonbush, cardinal flower and standing cypress are great.
Knowledgeable gardeners will recognize that most of these suggested nectar plants fall into a few plant families, namely the aster, mallow, mint, and verbena families. Other plant species in these families can effectively draw in butterflies. Visit local established gardens such as those listed on our Hot Spots link to see what plants butterflies are attracted to in your area.
Extended list of Central Texas Nectar Plants - (pdf)
In addition to nectar plants, the butterfly gardener should add a selection of caterpillar food plants which provide for the juvenile butterflies. While plants rich in nectar will attract a wide variety of butterflies and other insects, caterpillar food plants each attract a narrow range of closely related butterflies. A classic example is the monarch and milkweed. Milkweed is a toxic plant that few insects can feed on, but monarch caterpillars are adapted to feed on nothing but milkweed. If one wants visiting monarchs to stick around, one should plant milkweeds.
Other large showy butterflies can be induced to linger longer by planting their particular caterpillar or host plants. To keep Gulf Fritillaries around plant passionvines, for Black Swallowtails plant parsley, for Bordered Patches plant sunflowers, for Pipevine Swallowtails, you guessed it, plant pipevines.
The preferred caterpillar food plants for most butterflies are listed in various butterfly field guides (for a list of recommended guides visit our link to local Butterfly, Plant and Gardening Guides) so if you see an attractive butterfly, identify the butterfly then look up and seek out its host plant to keep it coming back for more.
Extended list of Central Texas Caterpillar Food Plants - (pdf)
As neighborhoods mature, most people find that they have less space that receives full sun. The sunny spot is where one should place nectar plants as the same plant will produce more nectar in the sun than it will in the shade. Nectar gardens should receive at least a half day of sun. Caterpillar food plants can be placed in shady regions of the yard as their primary function is not to crank out nectar.
Planting multiples of the same nectar plant near each other is more attractive to butterflies (and other pollinating insects) than planting the same number of plants separate from each other. Grouping of host plants provides nearby resources if one plant should be fully consumed.
Employing a variety of growth forms from groundcovers, to shrubs, to vines, to annuals as well as a variety of flower shapes, sizes and colors will increase the diversity of butterflies that your garden will cater to.
Selecting a range of plant species so as to provide a continuous source of blooming flowers through most of the growing season is desirable. “Deadheading” (snipping off a flower after it wilts) can increase the duration of a plant's flower production.
In all cases, native plants are to be preferred. Not only are natives best suited to providing for the needs of native caterpillars and butterflies, but they are also best suited to weathering the regions environmental extremes of high temperatures, droughts, freezes as well as being best adapted to local soil chemistry. Natives also require less care, the prudent gardener can spend less time and money watering and more time enjoying.
Note that if one goes to an average nursery and asks for phlox, lantana, passionvine, and verbena, one is very likely to be offered non-native varieties and/or cultivated varieties (also known as “cultivars”). Modern cultivars are bred to produce long-lasting, showy flowers (which sell well), but are likely to generate less nectar than natives or heirloom varieties.
One should inquire if the plants offered are native or go in armed with some knowledge of what species are locally native. See the above linked lists for specific suggestions or consult our link to local Butterfly, Plant and Gardening Guides, or visit with local groups such as Native Plant Chapters, Butterfly Clubs or from Master Gardeners and Master Naturalists.
Infrequent bouts of deep watering will induce desirable deep root growth. Watering from below, as with a soaker hose, is preferable to watering from above which can dilute the flower's nectar.
Fertilize with care. Excess nitrogen can promote leaf and branch growth and discourage flower bud production. It can also induce late season growth that gets killed or stunted by frost damage. Phosphorus promotes flower bud production and hardiness. Potassium is necessary for well being.
Needless to say, the use of pesticides should be avoided as much as possible. If your garden experiences a pest outbreak, you might spot treat with soapy water which dehydrates insects but is not harmful to the environment. Note, most pest outbreaks are temporary affairs that resolve themselves naturally in a few weeks.
Putting out a plate of ripe fruit such as bananas will generally attract a suite of butterflies that rarely visit flowers. Such butterflies are more at home in the shade of a forest understory than on the open plains or south Texas brushlands. Forested regions generally offer fewer nectar sources so butterflies adapted to shady conditions tend to seek nutrients at sap flows, fermenting fruit, and even at animal scat.
Brushy areas of ones yard should be left to provide cover for butterflies during inclement weather, to supply pupation sites and for protection of overwintering butterflies.
Note that even the best designed and maintained garden will experience periods when few butterflies are visiting. This is to be expected. This is a good time to appreciate flowers for themselves as most are beautiful with or without an accompanying butterfly.