Native Plants to Attract Butterflies

by Anne Kirkpatrick

Butterflies bring joy to any garden but remember you need nectar plants to feed the adults and host plants to feed the young caterpillars. Yes, the host plants fed upon by caterpillars may look a bit ragged, but learn to appreciate this part of nature as well, or place these plants in less conspicuous locations in  your garden. Listed below are excellent native plants that provide nectar for adults and leaves for the caterpillar larvae.

Whether devoting an entire garden to butterflies or adding natives to an established landscape, select the proper location for your plants. Butterflies enjoy a sunny location with good air circulation, but not one that is extremely windy.  Many of the plants suggested here thrive in part shade as well as full sun.

The recommendation are in two groups:  one group provides nectar sources for adult butterflies, while the other provides a food source to feed the next generation of their species - caterpillars. 

Nectar Sources for Butterflies


Achillea millefolium 'Paprika'

Achillea spp.
Yarrow
Perennial

Best grown in lean, dry to medium, well-drained sandy loams in full sun. Plants do well in average garden soils and tolerate poor soils as long as drainage is good. Plants also tolerate hot, humid summers and drought. If grown ornamentally, plants are best sited in locations protected from strong winds. Plant stems tend to flop, particularly in hot, humid climates such as St. Louis and/or if grown in moist, rich soils. Consider cutting back plant stems in late spring before flowering to reduce overall plant height. Cutting plants back to lateral flower buds after initial flowering will tidy the planting and encourage additional bloom. Plants may also be cut back to basal foliage after bloom. Divide clumps as needed (every 2-3 years) to maintain vitality of the planting. Plants spread aggressively by rhizomes and self-seeding, and can naturalize into substantial colonies if left unchecked. Achillea millefolium is native to Missouri.

Asclepias incarnata
Swamp milkweed
Perennial

Easily grown in medium to wet soils in full sun. Surprisingly tolerant of average well-drained soils in cultivation even though the species is native to swamps and wet meadows. Plants have deep taproots and are best left undisturbed once established.  Flowers are very attractive to butterflies as a nectar source. In addition, swamp milkweed is an important food source (albeit somewhat less important than upland species of Asclepias) for the larval stage of Monarch butterflies.  

Baptisia australis
Blue wild indigo
Perennial

Easily grown in average, dry to medium, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. Best in full sun. Tolerates drought and poor soils. Over time, plants develop slowly expanding clumps with deep and extensive root systems, and should not be disturbed once established. May be grown from seed, but takes several years to establish. Plants take on more of a shrubby appearance and tend to open up after bloom. Trimming or shearing foliage after bloom helps maintain rounded plant appearance and obviates a possible need for staking, but eliminates the developing seed pods which are very attractive.

Castilleja coccinea
Indian paintbrush
Biennial or short-lived perennial

Best grown in medium moisture, well-drained soils in full sun. This species is primarily biennial: basal rosette the first year and flowering stalk the second year, with plant death occurring shortly after seed set and with new seed usually germinating in early fall. Species is also semi-parasitic in that its roots will attach to and absorb some nutrients and water from the roots of certain other plants. Evidence suggests that paintbrush will perform best in cultivation when grown in combination with one or more of the plants it commonly parasitizes in the wild (e.g., Schizachyrium, Penstemon and/or Sisyrinchium). Difficult to grow from seed. Although plants will reseed in optimum growing conditions, reseeding alone is often not enough to keep plants in the garden unless new plants and/or additional seeding are done each year until a colony is established.

Ceanothus americanus
New Jersey tea
Small shrub

Easily grown in average, dry to medium, well-drained soils in full sun to part shade. Best in sandy loams or rocky soils with good drainage. Thick, woody, red roots go deep and help plant withstand droughty conditions, but make established shrubs difficult to transplant.  New Jersey tea is a compact, dense, rounded shrub which typically grows 2-3' tall (less frequently to 4').

Cephalanthus occidentalis
Buttonbush
Shrub

Buttonbush is a somewhat coarse, deciduous shrub.  Easily grown in moist, humusy soils in full sun to part shade. Grows very well in wet soils, including flood conditions and shallow standing water. Adapts to a wide range of soils except dry ones. Pruning is usually not necessary, but may be done in early spring to shape. If plants become unmanageable, however, they may be cut back near to the ground in early spring to revitalize.

Cercis canadensis
Redbud
Small tree

Eastern redbud is a deciduous, often multi-trunked understory tree. Easily grown in average, medium moisture, well-drained soils in full sun to part shade. Plants perform best in moderately fertile soils with regular and consistent moisture. Avoid wet or poorly drained soils. Since this tree does not transplant well, it should be planted when young and left undisturbed. Blooms profusely on bare branches in early spring (March-April) before the foliage emerges.

Chelone glabra
White turtlehead
Perennial

Best grown in moist to wet, rich, humusy soils in part shade. Appreciates a good composted leaf mulch, particularly in sunny areas. Consider pinching back the stem ends in spring to reduce mature plant height, especially if growing plants in strongly shaded areas where they are more likely to need some support. In optimum environments, however, staking is usually not required.

Clethra alnifolia
Sweet pepperbush
Small shrub

Sweet pepperbush, also called summersweet, is a deciduous shrub that is native to eastern U.S. but a wonderful addition to Missouri gardens for its summer bloom. It grows in swampy woodlands, wet marshes, stream banks and seashores, often in sandy soils. It is easily grown in average, medium to wet soils in full sun to part shade. Prefers part shade and consistently moist, acidic, sandy soils. Soils should not be allowed to dry out. Tolerates clay soils and full shade. Promptly remove root suckers unless naturalized look is desired. Propagate by cuttings. Prune if needed in late winter (blooms on new wood). 


Coreopsis grandiflora 'Early Sunrise'

Coreopsis grandiflora
Large-flowered tickseed
Perennial

Easily grown in dry to medium moisture, well-drained soil in full sun. Thrives in poor, sandy or rocky soils with good drainage. Tolerant of heat, humidity and drought. Prompt deadheading of spent flower stalks encourages additional bloom and prevents any unwanted self-seeding. Freely self seeds and can become somewhat weedy. Also spreads by rhizomes. Plants are somewhat short-lived and self-seeding helps perpetuate a good planting in the garden. Plants may be cut back hard in summer if foliage sprawls or becomes unkempt. Coreopsis grandiflora 'Early Sunrise' pictured.

Coreopsis tinctoria
Plains coreopsis
Annual

Easily grown in dry to medium moisture, well-drained soil in full sun. Tolerates light shade. Performs well in poor sandy or rocky soils. Tolerant of heat, humidity and some drought. Seeds may be sown indoors 6-8 weeks before last spring frost date. Set plants out after last frost date. Seed may also be planted outdoors after last frost date. Prompt deadheading of spent flowers may encourage additional bloom and prevents any unwanted self-seeding. Freely self seeds in optimum conditions.

Dalea purpurea
Purple prairie clover
Perennial

Easily grown in average, medium, well-drained soils in full sun. Thick and deep taproot enables this plant to tolerate drought well. May self-seed in optimum growing conditions.

Echinacea purpurea
Purple coneflower
Perennial

A coarse, rough-hairy, herbaceous perennial that is native to moist prairies, meadows and open woods. Easily grown in average, dry to medium, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. Best in full sun. An adaptable plant that is tolerant of drought, heat, humidity and poor soil. Divide clumps when they become overcrowded (about every 4 years). Plants usually rebloom without deadheading, however, prompt removal of spent flowers improves general appearance. Freely self-seeds if at least some of the seed heads are left in place.

Eupatorium ‘Phantom’
Joe Pye weed

'Phantom' is a hybrid Joe Pye weed useful for its smaller size, but some Eupatorium species are native to Missouri. Grows in full sun to part shade. Prefers moist, fertile, humusy soils which do not dry out. Cut plants to the ground in late winter. Best propagated by stem cuttings.  ‘Phantom’ is a dwarf variety that grows only 2-4’ tall. It is a clump-forming herbaceous perennial that produces attractive and long-lasting, terminal, dome-shaped, compound inflorescences of tiny, wine-red flowers from mid-summer to early fall.

Gaillardia pulchella
Indian blanket
Annual 

Easily grown in average, dry to medium, well-drained soils in full sun. Thrives in sandy soils and dry summer heat, and tolerates poor, dry soils. Sow seed directly in the garden after last frost date or start seed indoors 4-6 weeks earlier. Set seedlings out after last frost date. Space plants 12” apart. It may be difficult to find starter plants of annual gaillardias at local nurseries, since nurseries seem to primarily stock perennial gaillardias (e.g., see G. x grandiflora). Deadheading spent flowers is not necessary but will tidy the planting and may encourage additional bloom. Reseeds in optimum growing conditions if flowers are not deadheaded. Naturalized in Missouri.

Geranium maculatum
W
ild geranium
Perennial

Easily grown in average, medium, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. Prefers moist, humusy soils, but tolerates poor soils. Will naturalize in optimum growing conditions. Deadheading is tedious and probably unnecessary since plants usually do not repeat bloom. Foliage may yellow in hot summers if soil is allowed to dry out.  This wild geranium is a clump-forming woodland perennial which typically occurs in woods, thickets and shaded roadside areas throughout Missouri.

Glandularia canadensis
Rose verbena
Perennial

Commonly called rose verbena, clump verbena or rose vervain.  Typically occurs in prairies, fields, pastures, rocky glades, roadsides and waste areas in the central and southern parts of the Missouri(Steyermark). It is a clumping, sprawling plant that grows to 6-18” tall, and can spread rather quickly by pubescent, decumbent stems, rooting at the nodes where they touch the ground, to form an attractive ground cover. 

Helianthus annuus
Sunflower
Annual

Easily grown in average, moist, well-drained soils in full sun. Tolerates poor soils that are on the dry side. Plant seed in the garden after last frost date. Plants grow so rapidly that there is little reason to start seed indoors. Taller varieties should be sited in locations sheltered from strong winds. Plant foliage often declines as the summer progresses. Removal of browned and tattered plants from the garden after bloom may improve the appearance of the landscape, but is a great disappointment to local bird populations that love to feed on the seeds. If the plants must come down, consider saving the seed heads for feeding the birds in winter. Harvest seed from favorite plants for use the following year (some cultivars will not reliably come true from seed however).

Hibiscus lasiocarpus
Rose mallow
Perennial

Grow in average, medium to wet soil in full sun. Tolerates some light shade, but full sun produces best flowering and is the best environment for resisting potential diseases. Tolerates summer heat and humidity, but soil should be kept moist throughout the growing season.  A vigorous, erect, often woody-based perennial that typically grows 4-6'.

Liatris scariosa
Eastern blazing star
Perennial

Easily grown in average, dry to medium, well-drained soils in full sun. Somewhat tolerant of poor soils. Prefers dry, sandy or rocky soils. Will grow taller in fertile loams, but may need staking. Intolerant of wet soils in winter. Tolerant of summer heat and humidity. May be grown from seed, but may take several years to establish. Plants may self-seed in the garden in open areas.  This species of blazing star is an upright, clump-forming perennial that typically grows to 2-4’ tall in the wild.

Lobelia cardinalis 
Cardinal flower
Perennial

Easily grown in rich, humusy, medium to wet soils in full sun to part shade. Needs constant moisture. Will tolerate full sun in cool, northern climates, but otherwise appreciates part shade. Divide clumps in spring as needed. May self-seed in optimum growing conditions. Late summer bloom period. Attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds, but not cardinals.

Lonicera sempervirens 
Trumpet honeysuckle
Vine

Easily grown in average, medium, well-drained soil in full sun. Tolerates shade, but the profuseness of flowering is inversely proportional to the amount of shade. Adapts to a wide range of soils. Prefers moist, loamy soils. Blooms primarily on previous year's stems, so prune to shape after flowering.  Trumpet honeysuckle is a vigorous, deciduous, twining vine which typically grows 10-15' (less frequently to 20') and is one of the showiest of the vining honeysuckles.  Naturalized in Missouri.

Monarda bradburniana
Eastern beebalm
Perennial

Best grown in dry to medium moisture, well-drained soils in full sun to part shade. Tolerates somewhat poor soils and some drought. Plants need good air circulation to reduce powdery mildew. Deadhead flowers to prolong summer bloom. Tends to self-seed.  A clump-forming, mint family member that grows typically to 1-2' tall. Tubular, two-lipped, pinkish to whitish, purple-spotted flowers.  Long summer bloom period.

Prunus americana
Wild plum
Small tree

Easily grown in average, dry to medium, well-drained soils in full sun to part shade. Remove suckers to prevent unwanted spread. Fairly adaptable.  Small, deciduous, single trunk tree or multi-stemmed shrub which occurs in rocky or sandy soils in woodlands, pastures, abandoned farms, streams and hedgerows throughout Missouri.  White flowers (1" diameter) appear in March before the foliage.

Rhus aromatica
Fragrant sumac
Small shrub

Easily grown in average, dry to medium, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. Tolerant of wide range of soils except those that are poorly drained.  Medium green leaves turn attractive shades of orange, red and purple in autumn.  Tiny yellow flowers bloom at the twig tips in early spring before the foliage.  Female flowers give way in late summer to small clusters of hairy, red berries which may persist into winter.

Rudbeckia missouriensis
Missouri coneflower
Perennial

Easily grown in average, dry to medium, well-drained soils in full sun. Tolerates hot and humid summers and some drought.  Occurs in limestone glades in the Ozark region of the Missouri. Often spreads to form large colonies in the wild. Typically grows 2-3' tall and features daisy-like flowers with yellow rays and black center disks on branched stems.

Solidago speciosa
Showy goldenrod
Perennial

Easily grown in average, dry to medium, well-drained soil in full sun. Tolerates poor, dry soils. Remove spent flower clusters to encourage additional bloom.  Typically occurs in dry soils in open woods, fields and prairies throughout most of Missouri.  Features tiny, bright yellow flowers borne in dense, erect clusters.  Typically grows 2-3' tall.

Spiraea alba
Meadowsweet
Shrub

Grows in average, medium to wet, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. Prefers full sun. Needs constant moisture, and soil must not be allowed to dry out. Remove spent flower clusters to promote additional bloom.  Meadowsweet is an upright, deciduous shrub which grows up to 4' tall.  Features cone-shaped clusters (3-4" long) of tiny, white flowers that bloom in the summer.

Symphyotrichum novae-angliae
New England aster
Perennial

Easily grown in average, medium, well-drained soil in full sun. Prefers moist, rich soils. Good air circulation helps reduce incidence of foliar diseases. Pinching back stems several times before mid-July will help control plant height, promote bushiness and perhaps obviate the need for staking. Easily grown from seed and may self-seed in the garden in optimum growing conditions. Plants may be cut to the ground after flowering to prevent any unwanted self-seeding and/or if foliage has become unsightly.  

Viola pedata
Bird’s foot violet
Perennial

Best grown in sandy or gravelly, dry to medium moisture, well-drained soils in full sun. Tolerates light shade. Good soil drainage is the key to growing this plant well. Does not spread by runners. May self-seed in optimum growing conditions. Considered more difficult to grow than most other violets.  Commonly occurs in dryish soils in rocky woods, slopes, glades and roadsides. It is a rhizomatous, stemless perennial (to 4" tall).  Typically features variably colored flowers, the most common color forms being bi-colored with upper petals dark purple and lower ones light blue.  Blooms in early spring (March to May in St. Louis). 

Food Plants for Butterfly Larvae

Plants can appear a bit ragged when being fed upon by large numbers of larvae. Some gardeners may want to place these plants in the back of a border to help conceal the damage.

Agalinus tenuifolia
Slenderleaf false foxglove
Attracts: Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia)

Slender false foxglove is an annual best grown in medium moisture, well-drained soils in full sun to part shade. It prefers moist soils, but is sometimes found in the wild in dryish soils. This plant is an annual that will remain in the garden through self-seeding and/or reseeding each year. The roots of this plant are reported to be partially parasitic on the roots of neighboring plants.

Aristolochia tomentosa
Dutchman’s pipe vine
Attracts: Pipe vine swallowtail  (Battus philenor)

This vine is easily grown in average, medium, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. Prefers rich, moist soils. Intolerant of dry soils. If needed, cut back in late winter to control growth. Grows well from seed. The vine is commonly called Dutchman's pipe because the unusual, 2" long, yellowish-green, curved-trumpet flowers (each flaring at the calyx mouth to form three brownish-purple lobes) superficially resemble Dutch smoking pipes.


Asclepias tuberosa

Asclepias spp.
Milkweed
Attracts: Monarch butterfly  (Danaus plexippus)          

One of the best known species, A. tuberosa (butterfly weed) grows in average, dry to medium, well-drained soils in full sun. Drought tolerant. Does well in poor, dry soils. New growth tends to emerge late in the spring. Plants are easily grown from seed, but are somewhat slow to establish and may take 2-3 years to produce flowers. Mature plants may freely self-seed in the landscape if seed pods are not removed prior to splitting open. Butterfly weed does not transplant well due to its deep taproot and is probably best left undisturbed once established.  It typically grows in a clump to 1-3' tall and features clusters (umbels) of bright orange to yellow-orange flowers atop upright to reclining, hairy stems with narrow, lance-shaped leaves.  Long bloom period from late spring throughout the summer. Flowers are a nectar source for many butterflies and leaves are a food source for monarch butterfly larvae (caterpillars).

Asimina triloba
Pawpaw
Attracts: Zebra swallowtail  (Eurytides marcellus)  

The pawpaw is a small to medium tree (15 - 20’) easily grown in average, medium to wet, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade, preferring moist, acidic, fertile soils. It will grow in shade but becomes leggy. 

Chamaecrista fasciulata
Partridge pea
Attracts: Cloudless sulphur butterfly  (Phoebis sennae eubule

Partridge pea is an annual that is easily grown in average, medium moisture, well-drained soils in full sun to light shade. Plant stems will droop in too much shade. 

Centaurea cyanus
Cornflower
Attracts: Painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui

Cool weather annual is easily grown in average, medium moisture, well-drained soils in full sun to light shade. Plant stems will droop in too much shade. Plants tolerate poor soils. Avoid wet soils.  Plants may reseed in the garden. Deadheading spent flower heads will limit self-seeding, but in the process removes from the garden seeds that are loved by birds. Native to Europe, this annual cornflower has naturalized throughout much of the United States and southern Canada including Missouri.

Dalea candida
White prairie clover
Attracts: Dog face butterfly (Zerene cesonia)

This prairie native grows well in average, medium, well-drained soils in full sun. The thick and deep taproot enables this plant to tolerate drought well. It can be easily grown from seed and will self-seed in optimum growing conditions.   Also Dalea  purpurpea, purple prairie clover.

Lindera benzoin
Spicebush
Attracts: Spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus

Spicebush grows well in average, medium, well-drained soils in full sun to part shade. Fall color is best in sunny areas.  Spicebush is a Missouri native deciduous shrub with a broad, rounded habit which typically grows 6-12'.  

Ludwigia alternafolia
False loosestrife
Attracts: Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia

Grow in average, consistently moist to wet soils in full sun. Tolerates light shade. It may self-seed in optimum growing conditions. Also known as seedbox or rattlebox, it is a multi-branched, yellow-flowered perennial.  It is native primarily to marshes, wet meadows and swamps. 

Prunus americana
Wild plum
Attracts: Viceroy butterfly  (Limenitis archippus)  

A small tree easily grown in average, medium, well-drained soils in full sun. Thick and deep taproot enables this plant to tolerate drought well. May be easily grown from seed and will self-seed in optimum growing conditions.

Ptelea trifoliata
Wafer ash or hop tree
Attracts: Giant swallowtail  (Papilio cresphontes)

A shrub in eastern Missouri, the wafer ash is easily grown in average, dry to medium, well-drained soils in part shade to full shade. It tolerates full sun and is  adaptable to a wide range of growing conditions. 

Salix discolor
Pussy willow  (many other Salix spp.)
Attracts: Viceroy butterfly  (Limenitis archippus) and Mourning cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa)

A shrub or small tree, the pussy willow grows in average, medium to wet, well-drained soils in full sun to part shade, although it prefers full sun. It thrives in moist soils, but tolerates somewhat drier soils better than most other willows. Plants may be cut to the ground every 3-5 years to maintain a smaller shrub shape.   Willows as a group are hosts to numerous species of butterlies.

Sassafras albidum
Sassafras
Attracts: Spicebush swallowtail  (Papilio troilus

This small tree is easily grown in average, medium, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. Preferring moist, acidic, loamy soils, sassfras trees tolerate dry, sandy soils. Large taproot makes transplanting of established trees difficult. If root suckers are not removed, tree will spread and begin to take on the appearance of a large multi-stemmed shrub.  

Viola pedata
Bird’s foot violet
Attracts: Great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele)

The Viola genus is varied and versatile and serves as host to many butterflies. The bird’s foot violet is best grown in sandy or gravelly, dry to medium moisture, well-drained soils in full sun. It tolerates light shade. Good soil drainage is the key to growing this plant well.  It may self-seed in optimum growing conditions, forming large beds, but is considered more difficult to grow than most other violets.

Zizia aurea
Golden alexander
Attracts: Missouri woodland swallowtail (Papilio joanae)

Grows in average, medium moisture, well-drained soils in full sun to part shade.  Missouri native perennial which occurs most often in small colonies in moist woods and meadows, thickets, glades and prairies.  A member of the carrot family.


fennel

Parsley, dill and/or fennel
Attracts:
Black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)

Parsley, dill and fennel are not native to Missouri but they are common garden plants that are loved by the black swallowtail butterfly. When you plant these crops for culinary use, plant several extra plants to provide food for these butterflies.