Butterflies need four things: food, water, mud and poop. Let’s start with food. Most butterflies feed on nectar from flowers. They prefer a flat flower using it as a landing pad. They will also go to plants with a lot of small flowers arranged in spikes or clusters, and the “powder puff” types. They are attracted first to purple, like liatris, heliotrope, Russian sage, coneflower, Joe Pye weed or scabiosa and for the fall, perennial asters.
Next are the gold and yellow flowers: coreopsis, marigolds, golden rod and yarrow. Do be careful where you plant yarrow and it has a tendency to take off for the nearest highway. It is not only invasive. It’s a stinker to get rid of. Do plant thionia. This is a big girl ranging up to 6 feet tall and with wrist-sized stalks. You will need to pull those stalks in the spring unless you have a tractor. To say they are well rooted, is to say Minnesota is a bit cold in the winter.
Butterflies love daisies, partly because they face the sky, have a flat face and are easy to land on. There is plenty to eat on a daisy because the center is really a collection of small individual flowers.
Dandelions are nothing but double flowered daisies and good butterfly, bee and other pollinator food. Herbs are a big hit with some butterflies. Zinnias, especially the tall old-fashioned one are loved by most butterflies. Many herbs have small flowers that attract butterflies.
Some butterflies like fruit. Because they don’t have much power in their proboscises, (think tongue) the fruit needs to be soft or overripe. The mushier the better and if it is fermented get out of the way. Try melons, pears and rotting crabapples on a flat plate for a feeder.
Butterflies need water. They drink best from a thin film of water on paving or the edge of a puddle. Hose off your pavers on a hot day and watch the fun. Or you can line a saucer with gravel and add water to just barely cover the gravel.
Why are butterflies seen around mud puddles? It’s not just for the water but also for the mud. They need chemicals and minerals in the mud for reproduction. And poop? Dampen some manure and you will attract butterflies. Apparently, there are minerals and other attractants in it — yucky as we think it is.
Now about milkweed for monarchs. Do plant it but not ever in your flower garden or your vegetable garden. Milkweed is another wanderer. It just loves to get into good soil. The darn plant pops up many feet away from the mother plant and is difficult to remove. Dill, carrot flowers, Queen Ann’s lace, parsley, coriander, oregano and fennel will attract swallowtails.
Seedlings of young trees, especially native trees, attract egg laying butterflies and the giant silk moth.
Plant a row of annual butterfly flowers on the edge of your garden. They will attract not only butterflies but other pollinators including bees. The butterflies will keep weeding interesting and the bees will pollinate your tomatoes. What could be better?
Bev Johnson is a Master Gardener with the University of Minnesota Extension. Her column appears in the Weekend Edition.