The Truth About Butterfly Gardening: Part One

Butterfly gardens have continued to gain popularity over the last several years.  Even home owners who are less inclined towards the use of native plants lighten up about having butterflies in their yards.  And yet, the many butterfly gardens we see:
  • consist of the same species
  • end up looking ratty
  • are filled with native plants outside their range
  • contain non-native nectar and host sources
 Well, let’s evaluate the positives and negatives of butterfly gardens.

A good thing about butterfly gardens is that, if done correctly, they provide open habitat for butterflies as well as some other insects.  They can also be formal and filled with showy flowers, at least in the beginning.  Butterfly gardens do attract the larger butterflies, and are certainly a better alternative to landscapes which do not attract any insect life.  They are also very approachable and easy to install, making them especially good for schools, libraries, and other public areas.  Butterfly gardens help reduce nature deficit disorder in our youth, they encourage children to go outside, nurture their sense of wonder, and teach them about ecological interrelationships.  Who hasn’t had fun raising caterpillars and watching their metamorphosis?

The goal for most butterfly gardens is to obtain both nectar plants and host plants.  Nectar plants provide a food source for adult butterflies to feed on.  Host plants are those which the adult butterflies lay their eggs on, and then caterpillars feed upon the leaves, eventually pupating and transforming into adults. 

-Typical butterfly garden. Showy, but where are the butterflies?

Nectar plants can be various, and many non-native species are utilized.  Still, the native old standards usually include:  Firebush (Hamelia patens), Pineland Lantana (Lantana depressa var. depressa), Red sage (Salvia coccinea), Necklace pod (Sophora tomentosa var. truncata), and Wild coffee (Psychotria nervosa or P. sulzneri).  All are fine species, and I think that all native plant yards in peninsular Florida should contain Firebush and Wild coffee. 

Pineland Lantana is native to only Dade and Monroe counties.  The stuff being sold throughout the rest of the state may not even be native germplasm, but some hybrid morph of Lantana camara, so please stay away from that one.  Red sage comes down to about Sanibel on the west coast, and Brevard County on the east coast, and is not found in nature south of there.  The native Necklace pod is a small glabrous tree found in coastal areas.  The one in your yard may not even be our native variety, it is likely the fuzzy shrub Sophora tomentosa var. occidentalis, which is found in Texas and parts of the Caribbean, and appears to be hybridizing with our native variety.

 Other nectar plants commonly found in butterfly gardens are Pentas (Pentas lanceolata), Clerodendrums, Blue plumbago (Plumbago auriculata, which is also a host), and many other non-natives. 

- Butterfly Garden using a mixture of natives and non-natives. Again no butterflies.

The majority of butterfly gardens focus on what I call the showy “Macrobutterflies” such as Monarchs, Heliconids (Zebra longwings, Julias, Gulf and Variegated Fritillaries), Pipevine and Giant Swallowtails, which are commonly sought after in my area (yes, I am leaving out a few species for brevity).  Plants to attract these beauties may or may not be native to the region.   Monarch larvae prefer Mexican or Scarlet Milkweed (Asclepias currasavica), a non-native milkweed often sold to butterfly garden enthusiasts.  This plant isn’t exactly invasive, but can spread a bit, and isn’t native to Florida.  Most of our native milkweeds are difficult to cultivate and grow, and generally do not last long in the landscape.

 Pipevine swallowtails host on Aristolochia spp. In my area, south Florida, there is only one native Aristolochia which is extremely rare, found in a remote area of only one park. Most Aristolochias used in the garden are non-native tropicals.  Native Aristolochias may be found in central and north Florida, however.  The Heliconids favor our native corkystem passionflower (Passiflora suberosa), found throughout most of peninsular Florida. They also host on others such as Maypop (Passiflora incarnata), not native my area, but found throughout the remainder of the state, as well as the many cultivated Passionflowers from the tropics. 

Giant swallowtails feed on members of the Citrus family. The native Wild lime (Zanthoxylum fagara) is a favorite, but they also enjoy many other species of Citrus, a genus native to SE Asia.  I still encourage people to grow Citrus, as who doesn’t want an orange, grapefruit, or Key lime in their yard?  That being said, butterfly gardens all have a suite of usually fewer than  10 or so host plant species, which is not terribly diverse, and may not be appropriate for your area.  This is a form of Homogeocene, the concept of using the same species in cultivation throughout the world’s landscape.  An important consideration is that the smaller, yet just as beautiful, butterflies - not to mention all the other cool insect species, are left out.
This leads us to the drawback of the very name “butterfly garden”.  The gardens described above focus on a single group of insects, while we should be trying to attract all wildlife, not just the ones with good PR.  Not sure I’ve ever seen a “wasp garden,” or a “spider garden,” but they are all important to us, and to a balanced yard.

Steve Woodmansee
Pro Native Consulting

Editor's Note: Hang on to your hats folks,  Steve has a LOT more to say in Part Two


David said…
Great post.
Thanks for articulating a lot of thoughts I've had. Here is a link to a similar post of mine:
In the end, if butterfly or pollinator or hummingbird, or whatever garden gets people interested in gardening for wildlife or conversation and gets people to think about their actions than it is a great thing. But I totally agree with the misguided attempts at butterfly gardening. Let us not forget one of the best pollinators you never see in a pollinator garden- ants.
Ginny Stibolt said…
There are specific problems with using scarlet milkweed in butterfly gardens. For one, it blooms year-round in south Florida, so many of the monarchs don't complete their navigation to Mexico.
Also, populations of Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a protozoan parasite that is fatal to Monarch butterflies, may build up on the leaves of tropical milkweed when it is allowed to remain evergreen. If you cut back tropical milkweed plants once a year, the spores of O. elektroscirrha are eliminated.
For more details see and
Hobo Botanist said…
Apparently, most populations of monarch butterflies in Florida are residential, and do not migrate to Mexico. see the following reference:
Anonymous said…
Monarchs in South Florida, usually below Tampa, do not migrate. They stay here all year long.Scarlet milkweed works just dandy here in southwest Florida.

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