If you want to bring butterflies into your garden, think of your landscape as a nectar restaurant. To be a good restaurateur, it’s important to know a few things about your patrons, meaning you can’t plant just any ol’ flowers and assume that you’ve put out the neon “open” sign. You see, butterflies have very particular tastes and preferences, and these beautiful insects must be lured in by your gardens’ décor. If you can seduce them by attending to their every need, you’ll find butterflies clambering to get into your garden party.

Pipevine swallowtail on butterfly bush

The purple flowers of butterfly bush attract a lovely pipevine swallowtail.

Photo Credit: Amy Dee Stephens

Skipper on Aster

Asters, a butterfly favorite, invite a small, brown butterfly called a skipper (so named because it quickly skips from flower to flower).

Photo Credit: Amy Dee Stephens

Bed of zinnias

A mass of brightly colored flowers, like this bed of zinnias, can lure butterflies right out of the sky.

Photo Credit: Amy Dee Stephens

First off, the right color scheme is an absolute must! Yellows, oranges and purples seem to be butterfly favorite (although you can find these incredible insects sipping nectar from white, pink or blue flowers, as well). Good examples of proven yellow plants that attract butterflies are sunflowers, coreopsis and black-eyed Susans – and even dandelions! For an array of oranges, try lantana, milkweed and marigolds. Purple beauties include verbena, purple coneflower and aster.

It’s easier to attract butterflies’ attention if you plant these flower colors in large groups. While butterflies don’t see fine details from the air, chances are they’ll notice a mass of their favorite colors and flutter down for a closer look. If you don’t have the space for large plantings, don’t worry. Even one pot of nectar flowers can make a few butterflies very happy.

The right lighting is also key. No less than full sun will attract these winged beauties, as the sun is vital to butterflies in several ways. First, butterfly-attracting plants need full sun to stimulate photosynthesis and maintain nectar production in their blossoms. Second, butterflies must be warm before they can fly (which is why you don’t see them on cloudy days). And finally, butterfly eggs need heat to develop and hatch.

A strong fragrance is also important to these insects. Their sensory organs are on their antenna, tongue and feet, so you bet butterflies can sniff out a scent! Lavender, honeysuckle, lilac and other such aromatic plants will get butterfly taste buds watering.

Finally, don’t forget to take a few security measures to protect your butterflies. Most good restaurateurs would be offended (if not horrified) if their patrons were eaten, but chances are that a bird will, indeed, swoop down and gobble one up of your guests sooner or later. Like all insects, butterflies are part of the food chain. But if you can provide a place of escape for your garden visitors, you’ll increase their chances of living to see your garden another day.

Offering butterfly shelter can be as easy as planting taller plants, like hollyhocks, at the back of your garden. A climbing vine along a fence also works well, as does a conifer plant or two. Just keep in mind that the majority of your nectar plants need full sun, so keep your taller ones at one end of the garden. Tall selections also provide butterflies protection from strong winds if the plants are placed along the north or west side. (After all, getting blown away from the “table” can ruin a great meal!)

Once you get these ideas growing in your “nectar restaurant,” you’ll be ready to lay out the welcome mat! Your mass of fragrant, colorful flowers planted in a sunny spot out of the wind is sure to delight even the pickiest of butterflies. And once these incredible insects start coming, you’ll be able to enjoy the life they bring to your garden from spring through fall!