Plants for butterflies: the best butterfly-friendly plants for the garden


I am a student of agricultural sciences and a real country kid. At home, I love tending my small vegetable garden and spending time out in nature. When not outdoors, I love to write. Beyond gardening and writing, however, I am particularly passionate about wildlife.

Favourite fruit: currants and raspberries
Favourite vegetables: salsify, savoy cabbage and potatoes

What would a garden be without butterflies? We can hardly bear to think about it! Here are 10 butterfly-friendly plants that are sure to attract some beautiful garden friends.

two monarch butterflies
Butterflies beautify and enrich every garden they visit [Photo: Kate Besler/]

Not only are butterflies beautiful, they are also very important pollinators. Wild plants and even some crops depend on butterflies for reproduction. However, you might be concerned about attracting butterflies to your garden, and then having to deal caterpillar leaf damage. But have no fear! Caterpillars prefer wild plants such as stinging nettle (Urtica), dock (Rumex) and grass, not garden plants. In the rare case that caterpillars do infest a garden plant, they may indeed leave unattractive holes all over the plant. However, the plant is unlikely to die. In fact, most plants recover quickly and, for your bravery, you may be rewarded with some colourful garden visitors!

What makes a butterfly-friendly plant so friendly? 

Firstly, butterfly-friendly plants should be butterfly friendly, not just caterpillar friendly! It sounds obvious, but it is easy to mistake. Caterpillars tend to find enough food in stinging nettles and wild herbs without much help, and the young larvae usually do not require specialty beds. Instead, focus on butterflies, who can struggle to find nectar.

Both butterflies and caterpillars will be happy to have an overgrown corner of the garden where wild plants are free to spread. However, if you prefer more contained flowers, here are ten of the best plants for butterflies!

1. Globe thistle

With its spectacular globe flowers that seem to float high above the ground on slender stems, the globe thistle (Echniops ritro) is other worldly. Like almost all thistle species, globe thistle is a vital source of nectar for butterflies, especially the painted lady butterfly!

butterfly on globe thistle
When visited by butterflies, the globe thistle makes an especially stunning sight [Photo: Kerrie W /]

2. Privet

Privet (Ligustrum vulgare) can be found in many gardens. This will come as no surprise – the plant makes for an ideal hedge; it is undemanding, robust and can be pruned into just about any shape! What is more, for many butterfly species, such as the meadow brown or small tortoiseshell, the privet’s nectar-filled, white flowers are an ideal food source. With so many advantages, it is worth making some space for a privet!

moth on privet
Privets are not only gorgeous hedge plants, but also are sure to attract butterflies to your garden [Photo: Lioneska/]

3. Phlox 

The phlox (Phlox) plant provides a veritable sea of nectar rich flowers. It is a magnet for bees and one of the most important food sources for butterflies. Also referred to as the flame flower, phlox produces fireworks of colour from June to September. Despite its dramatic appearance, this flower is relatively easy to care for, making phlox a favourite among gardeners.

butterfly feeds from a plant
For butterfly gardening, phlox is a must [Photo: Christopher A. Salerno/]

4. Spiked loosestrife

The stunning spiked loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) has large, dark-pink flowers, which thirsty butterflies, like the comma and small tortoiseshell, adore. Abundant with nectar, moths are also drawn to this plant, and it is essential fodder for caterpillars.

brimstone butterfly
The pictured brimstone butterfly will also collect nectar from purple loosestrife [Photo: Bob Chappell/]

5. Evening primrose

Upon hearing “butterfly”, a colourful, daytime butterfly probably comes to mind. However, about 80% of all butterflies are in fact moths. Moths are nocturnal, and so are particularly attracted to plants that produce their aroma at dusk. Evening primrose (Oenothera) is a wonderful example that attracts moths with radiant flowers that bloom from June to September.

moth on an evening primrose
Evening primrose is especially favoured by moths. [Photo: Dora Zett/]

6. Valerian

The perennial valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is known best as a holistic remedy for anxiety and insomnia. From June-July, however, this medicinal plant produces beautiful, large, white and pink flower umbels. These flowers have a wonderful aroma, which not only attracts people, but butterflies. False heath fritillary caterpillars, in particular, use this plant as a food source, and most species of butterfly adore the flowers’ nectar. Additionally, this herb is very popular with cats, who treat it like catnip (Nepeta).

admiral butterfly on a valerian flower
For the admiral butterfly especially, valerian flowers are a welcome food-source [Photo: Martin Fowler/]

7. Lavender 

With its unique appearance and irresistible scent, lavender (Lavandula) transforms every garden into a Mediterranean oasis. This plant is a jack-of-all-trades. It is extremely easy to care for, has soothing properties and is edible. Lavender also repels mosquitoes, and attracts butterflies! From the Pieridae to the small tortoiseshell, almost every butterfly species uses this plant for food, though caterpillars will refuse to feed on it.

butterfly on lavender
The lavender plant is a jack of all trades and will certainly help in butterfly gardening [Photo: Stephan Morris/]

8. Purple stonecrop

For butterflies, finding enough food in late summer can be a challenge; most flowers have already bloomed. Fortunately, the purple stonecrop (Hylotelephium telephium) offers a solution. From July onwards, this plant’s large, umbrella-like inflorescences begin to bloom and will not wither before winter. This provides butterflies, like the peacock and comma butterfly, plenty of food, even in autumn. Purple stonecrop is also a succulent. As such, it is not only beautiful but very hardy – drought, heat and temperatures down to -20°C will not bother this butterfly-friendly plant.

butterfly and a purple stonecrop
Easy to care for and attractive to butterflies, the purple stonecrop is a great addition to the garden [Photo: Sabiritip/]

9. Goat willow

Goat willow (Salix caprea), also known as pussy willow or great sallow, is an important source of nectar for butterflies and bees – it is the only native willow species that grows outside of swamps and floodplains. Salix caprea begins to bloom in March and April, providing butterflies with food in the spring. The peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies, amongst others, are particularly attracted to goat willow. Many moth caterpillars and a few diurnal butterfly caterpillars will also enjoy snacking on the willow’s leaves.

butterfly on goat willow branch with catkins
Goat willow catkins are an important source of nectar in the spring [Photo: Alexander Demyanov/]

10. Sage

Many gardeners will have already planted sage (Salvia) for medicinal use or as a herb. This undemanding plant bears striking purple flowers from June to August that butterflies love. The flowers store their nectar deep, providing only long-trunked insects, like butterflies, the food – so there is plenty for them! Meadow sage (Salvia pratensis) is particularly popular with common blue butterflies and the famous swallowtail.

moth and a sage flower
Sage is not only popular for humans [Photo: NH/]

To help butterflies even more, you might want to build an insect house. And to attract bumblebees to your garden, be sure to plant some bumblebee-friendly plants!

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