30 Unique Plants That Attract Butterflies

Close-up Monarch butterflies resting on flowers
DebraLee Wiseberg / Getty Images

Plants that attract butterflies — and plants that encourage pollinators in general — play a pivotal role in the ecosystem. Of the 1,400 crop plants grown around the world (including all of our food and plant-based industrial products) almost 80% require pollination by insects and animals.

Finding the right combination of plants to attract butterflies starts with accommodating the caterpillar stage of their life cycle, when their primary activity is eating. Different types of butterflies feed on different plants, so planting a wide range in your garden is best, and likely to also attract other pollinators. Read on to discover 30 different plants that attract butterflies.

What Do Butterflies Eat?

The butterfly life cycle has four stages, beginning with eggs that hatch to release caterpillars, or larvae, that eat almost constantly and grow rapidly until the third stage, the pupa. The larvae of many butterflies aren't particular about what they eat, and enjoy a variety of herbaceous plants, but some are picky, including the celebrated monarch, whose larvae only eat milkweed. Black swallowtail larvae eat the leaves of dill, parsley, carrot, and fennel, while painted lady larvae enjoy thistle leaves.

Once they reach adulthood, butterflies emerge from a chrysalis to mate and begin the cycle again. Most butterflies prefer flower nectar, but others may feed on liquids found in rotting fruit or on ooze from trees. Butterflies prefer to feed in sunny areas protected from wind, and a clean water source nearby will also encourage them to linger.

Warning

Some of the plants on this list are toxic to pets. For more information about the safety of specific plants, consult the ASPCA's searchable database.

1
of 30

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Close-up image of a beautiful Malachite Butterfly collecting pollen from Orange and red Tropical Milkweed flowers
Jacky Parker Photography / Getty Images

Milkweed is often one of the first butterfly plants gardeners mention because it is very important for monarch butterfly survival. Adult monarchs feed on the nectar of many flowers, but they breed only where milkweeds are found. Native to the United States, these herbaceous perennials have yellow to orange blooms in the summertime and do well in poor, dry soils. Seeds take a couple of years to be well-established, and eventually the plant forms clumps between 1 and 3 feet high that don't transplant well.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Full sun.
  • Water: Water when soil dries on top. Drought tolerant.
  • Soil: Well-draining.
  • Pet Safety: This plant is toxic to cats and dogs.
2
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False Indigo (Baptisia australis)

baptisia australis perennial herb prefers rich soil that retains moisture and habitat in the sun or partial shade. Under these conditions, it grows somewhere to the height of an adult.
beekeepx / Getty Images

A perennial native to the central and Southeastern United States, Baptisia australis is an upright shrub with purple blooms that emerge in spring, typically found in rich woodland environments. Considered an excellent low-maintenance plant, false indigo can tolerate heat, humidity, and periods of drought. Baptisia are host plants for several species of butterfly, including orange sulphur, clouded sulphur, frosted elfin, eastern tailed blue, hoary edge, and wild indigo duskywing.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Partial Shade.
  • Water: Keep soil moist as plants establish. Drought tolerant.
  • Soil: Rich, well-draining.
  • Pet Safety: Toxic to cats and dogs.
3
of 30

Black Willow (Salix nigra)

Willow and butterfly
Andreika40044 / Getty Images

Also known as the swamp willow, black willow trees thrive in moist soils and are native to the Eastern United States and Mexico. The largest willow found in the Americas, this tree grows along the edges of lakes and streams and can reach heights of up to nearly 150 feet in the Mississippi River valley. Black willows attract several butterflies in the Callophrys genus as well as Compton tortoiseshells and northern pearly-eyes.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Full sun to part shade.
  • Water: Keep soil moist.
  • Soil: Fine silt or clay.
  • Pet Safety: Toxic to cats and dogs.
4
of 30

Scarlet Sage (Salvia splendens)

Hummingbird and Red Salvia Flowers in the Garden
Marcia Straub / Getty Images

A tender perennial with vibrant red flowers ideal for butterflies and hummingbirds, Salvia splendens bloom continuously from spring to fall and is native to Brazil. Ideally suited to high humidity and year-round warmth, varieties available in the United States can tolerate cold as an annual.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Full sun to part shade.
  • Water: Water when top of soil dries out. Keep relatively moist.
  • Soil: Fertile, well-draining.
  • Pet Safety: Non-toxic to cats and dogs.
5
of 30

Flowering Tobacco (Nicotiana alata)

Nicotiana alata or flowering tobacco
Mark Turner / Getty Images

Also known as jasmine or sweet tobacco, flowering tobacco is native to South America and is a sun-loving plant with a pleasantly sweet fragrance. Flowering tobacco starts easily from seed and blooms from late summer through the fall. Removing dead blooms and lightly pruning flowering tobacco will encourage further blooming.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Full sun to part shade.
  • Water: Water when top inch of soil dries.
  • Soil: Well-draining; use a well-balanced fertilizer.
  • Pet Safety: Toxic to cats and dogs.
6
of 30

Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium)

Floral background and natural pattern with violet aromatic aster (symphyotrichum oblongifolium) flowers blooming in the park. Cluster of purple aster flowers.Autumn beauty in the garden
Salomatin / Getty Images

A hardy, herbaceous perennial native to the Northeastern and central United States, aromatic aster generally tolerates poor soils and drought, and is part of the daisy family, featuring similarly shaped, purple flowers. Typically occurring on limestone glades, slopes, prairies, and dry open ground, this plant hosts caterpillars from silvery checkerspot butterflies as well as a variety of moths, and also provides nectar for numerous pollinators when it blooms in late summer.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Full sun.
  • Water: Drought tolerant.
  • Soil: Neutral to slightly acidic preferred.
  • Pet Safety: Non-toxic to cats and dogs.
7
of 30

Butterfly Bush (Buddleja davidii)

Peacock Butterfly, UK
Tim Graham/Getty Images / Getty Images

Also known as summer lilac or orange eye, butterfly bush is native to central China and Japan and has been classified as invasive in parts of the United States, so be sure to research regulations in your area before planting it in your garden. That said, the butterfly bush attracts a variety of pollinators. Western tiger swallowtails and black swallowtails, among many other butterfly species, seem drawn to this plant.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Full sun.
  • Water: Water freely when in bloom, otherwise sparingly.
  • Soil: Fertile, well-draining.
  • Pet Safety: Non-toxic to cats and dogs.
8
of 30

Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa))

Sprauge Lake and Hallet Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park
hiramtom / Getty Images

Native to the Rocky Mountains, ponderosa pines are known for their ability to quickly establish deep roots, growing up to 60 feet tall with a 25 foot spread (these trees do require a larger yard). Because of their roots, they're often planted for erosion control, though gardeners also enjoy their fresh fragrance and lush needles. Research published in Restoration Ecology showed that butterfly species richness and abundance increased two-three fold after one year in areas where ponderosa pine forests were restored.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Prefers full sun. Tolerates some shade.
  • Water: Water regularly as tree establishes. Drought tolerant in adulthood.
  • Soil: Well-draining. Slightly acidic.
  • Pet Safety: Toxic to cats and dogs.
9
of 30

Pasture Thistle (Cirsium discolor)

Field Thistle A1R_8688
Chimperil59 / Getty Images

Painted lady larvae enjoy dining on pasture thistle, native to much of the United States and parts of Canada. Numerous butterflies feed on the plant once it produces flowers — large, showy, purple blooms that produce a generous amount of nectar and pollen. This plant grows primarily at the edges of forest openings and prairies.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Full sun, tolerates partial shade.
  • Water: Keep soil moderate to dry. Minimal watering once plant established.
  • Soil: Well draining. Moderately acidic.
  • Pet Safety: Non-toxic to cats and dogs.
10
of 30

Dill (Anethum graveolens)

Dill Plant
By Eve Livesey / Getty Images

Most people are familiar with dill because its leaves and seeds are commonly used in cooking. Part of the celery family, dill plants have finely divided, thread-like fronds, similar to those of fennel, and produce delicate, yellow flowers as the plant seeds. Hot summers and bright sunlight aid in this herb's cultivation, and partial shade will greatly reduce the plant's yield. The caterpillars of several species of swallowtail feed on dill.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Full sun.
  • Water: Keep soil evenly moist as seeds germinate, then water when top 1-2 inches dry.
  • Soil: Rich, well-draining.
  • Pet Safety: Non-toxic to cats and dogs.
11
of 30

River Birch (Betula nigra)

Caterpillar fringe on a birch leaf. A group of caterpillars on a green birch leaf stand in columns.
Alexandra Proshina / Getty Images

Tiger swallowtail and morning birch larvae feed on river birch trees, also known as black birch and water birch. Native to the Eastern United States, it's one of the few heat tolerant varieties of birch tree, which commonly prefer colder Northeastern weather. As the name suggests, river birch is typically found near rivers and swamps, meaning it's ideally suited for planting in wetter areas.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Full sun to partial shade.
  • Water: Keep soil moist.
  • Soil: Sandy, loamy.
  • Pet Safety: Toxic to cats and dogs.
12
of 30

Cabbage (Brassica oleracea)

lot of caterpillars on cabbage
Kokhanchikov / Getty Images

A biennial plant native to southern and western Europe, Brassica oleracea is a species that includes many commonly consumed edibles including broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and kale. Hearty and tolerant of drought and poor soils, the European cabbage butterfly (seen in the Western United States from April to October) will feed on this plant in its larval stage.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Full sun, 6-8 hours daily.
  • Water: Needs 1-1.5 inches per week if there's no rain.
  • Soil: Well-draining, well-balanced fertilizer.
  • Pet Safety: Non-toxic to cats and dogs.
13
of 30

American licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota)

Glycyrrhiza lepidota, called American Licorice

Gerald Corsi / Getty Images

Part of the bean family and native to most of North America, American licorice, also known as wild licorice, is a food source for the larvae of the silver-spotted skipper and Melissa blue species of butterfly, among others. Producing large groupings of small, white blooms, they're also a nectar source for pollinators when in bloom from June to August.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Full to partial sun.
  • Water: Not drought tolerant. Water weekly.
  • Soil: Rich; add organic matter.
  • Pet Safety: Potentially toxic to cats and dogs in large quantities.
14
of 30

Common Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)

Purple and Lilac Flowers
Nicholas Kostin / Getty Images

Common lilacs, also known as French lilacs, are native to the Balkan Peninsula and part of the olive family. These large deciduous shrubs are often found growing on rocky hills and produce dense groupings of purple to white flowers with four lobes. These flowers provide food for a variety of butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, and moths.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: 6-8 hours of sun; partial shade.
  • Water: Keep soil evenly moist.
  • Soil: Clay/loamy, well-draining. Low acidity.
  • Pet Safety: Non-toxic to cats and dogs.
15
of 30

White Sagebrush (Artemisia ludoviciana)

Silver wormwood
Hans Verburg / Getty Images

Native to North America and part of the daisy family, white sagebrush has several other common names including silver wormwood, western mugwort, Louisiana wormwood, and grey sagewort. This perennial grows to be about a foot tall and has leaves covered in wooly grey or white hairs, and also attracts a variety of butterflies and moths.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Full sun.
  • Water: Water moderately when top of soil is dry.
  • Soil: Sandy/gritty. Well draining.
  • Pet Safety: Non-toxic to cats and dogs.
16
of 30

Common Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)

Sunflower
Stephanie Nantel / Getty Images

A stout annual, sunflowers can grow to be up to 8 feet tall, and have coarse hairy stems that produce flowers between July and October with large brown centers and plentiful yellow rays. This plant's seeds provide food for a number of species of native wild birds, and it hosts almost a dozen butterflies and moths in California alone.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Full sun.
  • Water: Allow soil to dry thoroughly between waterings.
  • Soil: Dry, disturbed clay or heavy sand.
  • Pet Safety: Non-toxic to dogs and cats.
17
of 30

Alfalfa (Medicago sativa)

Alfalfa
Ivana Karic / Getty Images

A perennial flowering plant in the legume family, Alfalfa is related to clover and is a nectar source for a variety of butterfly species, including orange and clouded sulphur as well as checkered white. Cultivated as food for livestock by the Ancient Greeks, this plant is native to south central Asia but found in many parts of the world today. Typically living 4-8 years, alfalfa has a well-developed root system and is particularly drought tolerant.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Part shade to full sun.
  • Water: Water regularly until well established, then drought tolerant.
  • Soil: pH of 6-7. Deep, well-draining.
  • Pet Safety: Seeds are toxic to dogs.
18
of 30

Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum)

Southern Arrowwood
Anastasia Jorge / Getty Images

Also known as American viburnum, these shrubs are native to the Eastern United States and have berries often eaten by songbirds. Producing showy white flowers in the late spring, arrowwood viburnum has a moderate growth rate and should be planted in the spring or early fall.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: At least 4 hours each day.
  • Water: Water thoroughly and often. Tolerates wet soil.
  • Soil: Loamy, well-draining.
  • Pet Safety: Non-toxic to cats and dogs.
19
of 30

Flossflower (Ageratum houstonianum)

Purple ageratum flowers in the flowerbed.
Eugene4873 / Getty Images

Flossflower is also commonly called bluemink, blueweed, pussy foot, or Mexican paintbrush, and is native to Central America, where it grows in pastures and moist forest clearings. Its soft flowers appear in a variety of blues, pinks, and purples, and look almost like powder puffs, or strands of floss, hence its name.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Full sun. Tolerates partial shade.
  • Water: Water when top inch of soil is dry.
  • Soil: Well-draining. Tolerates a variety of soil types.
  • Pet Safety: Toxic to cats and dogs.
20
of 30

Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides)

Cotton wood tree flowers
raksyBH / Getty Images

Cottonwood trees are native to North America and can grow to be almost 200 feet tall, as one of the region's largest hardwood trees. Known for their ability to grow quickly, eastern cottonwoods can see height growth of 10-15 feet per year during their first few years, and produce flowers with small seeds attached to cotton-like strands. Larvae of Weidemeyer’s admiral, western tiger swallowtail, and mourning cloak butterflies feed on this tree.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Full sun.
  • Water: Keep soil moist.
  • Soil: Sandy/silty.
  • Pet Safety: Not lethal, but could upset pet's digestion if seeds are consumed once they drop from tree.
21
of 30

Goldenrod (Solidago goldenmosa)

Beautiful yellow, summer flowering of Goldenrod plant also known as Solidago Goldenmosa
Jacky Parker Photography / Getty Images

Goldenrod, once the state flower of Alabama, is a perennial flowering plant in the aster family native to the United States. An attractive source of nectar for bees, butterflies, wasps, and other pollinators, goldenrod is considered a weed by some, but its attractive flowers and role as a food source for pollinators make it popular in wildflower gardens.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Full sun.
  • Water: Keep soil moist until plant is established; then, watering not needed outdoors.
  • Soil: Well-draining, sandy. Tolerates poor soil.
  • Pet Safety: Toxic to cats and dogs.
22
of 30

Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Blackeyed Susans
RiverNorthPhotography / Getty Images

Part of the sunflower family, black-eyed Susans are originally native to the eastern part of the U.S., and are currently present throughout all 48 contiguous states. An upright annual with a daisy-like flower head, this plant works well in garden borders or in a cultivated patch of wildflowers, with its nectar attracting a variety of pollinators.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Full sun.
  • Water: Water when top inch of soil is dry.
  • Soil: Well-draining; pH 6-7.
  • Pet Safety: Could cause gastrointestinal issues if large quantities are ingested.
23
of 30

Hollyhock (Alcea rosea)

Close-Up Of Pink Flowering Holyhock Flower
Merethe Svarstad Eeg / EyeEm / Getty Images

An ornamental flowering plant native to China, hollyhock is a food source for checkered skipper and painted lady butterfly larvae. This plant can grow to be 5-8 feet tall, and does not typically require staking, with large blooms in a variety of colors that appear between July and September, depending on the region where it is planted.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Full sun.
  • Water: Water weekly and from beneath as foliage is rust-prone.
  • Soil: Well-draining. Tolerates wide range.
  • Pet Safety: Non-toxic to cats and dogs.
24
of 30

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Echinacea with purple flowers
agatchen / Getty Images

Native to North America, this herbaceous perennial typically reaches 2-3 feet tall at adulthood and blooms through the summer and into the fall, providing nectar for a variety of bees and other pollinators. Ideal for curbs and walkways, these plants are commonly cultivated ornamentals that can tolerate drought and different soil types.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Full sun.
  • Water: 1 inch weekly.
  • Soil: Tolerates dry, rocky, soil, but not wet. Well-draining.
  • Pet Safety: Non-toxic to cats and dogs.
25
of 30

Verbena (Verbena bonariensis)

Comma butterfly eating from Brazilian Verbena
49pauly / Getty Images

Purpletop verbena is a rapidly growing perennial native to tropical South America that produces fragrant rose-purple flowers, often blooming within the first year of being planted from seed. Because of its rapid growth, the plant is considered a noxious weed in some areas and has been declared invasive in Washington state, so consult local agricultural extension agents before planting.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Full sun to partial shade.
  • Water: Needs regular moisture.
  • Soil: Poor soil acceptable but must be well-draining.
  • Pet Safety: Toxic to dogs and cats.
26
of 30

Shasta Daisy (Chrysanthemum maximum)

a wide angle view of a medium sized cluster of white daisy blossoms
Mark R Coons / Getty Images

America horticulturalist Luther Burbank created the Shasta daisy in the late 19th century, combining a number of different species of daisies and naming it after Mount Shasta, because the plant's white petals resemble the mountain's pristine snow. These daisies grow well in containers, as they are aggressive growers and may need to be routinely thinned in a garden bed.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Full sun.
  • Water: Need 1 inch a week of rainfall.
  • Soil: Moderately fertile. Well-draining.
  • Pet Safety: Toxic to cats and dogs.
27
of 30

Zinnia (Zinnia elegans)

Zinnia Flowers in Rock Garden
Steve Terrill / Getty Images

Zinnias have large, brilliantly colored flowers in a wide range of shades that provide nectar for several species of butterfly including western tiger swallowtails, silver-spotted skippers, and painted ladies. These annuals will grow and bloom quickly and thrive when seeds are sewn directly into the garden bed.  

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Full sun.
  • Water: Water regularly, allowing top of soil to dry between waterings.
  • Soil: Sandy/loamy.
  • Pet Safety: Non-toxic to cats and dogs.
28
of 30

Firewheel (Gaillardia pulchella)

Summer wild field with feral Indian blanket flowers and butterflies
Yurikr / Getty Images

Native to northern Mexico and the south central United States, firewheel is a hardy plant that does best in hot, dry climates and thrives in desert environments. This flower provides nectar to a variety of butterfly species, and the leaves are a food source for bordered patch butterflies and painted schinia moths.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Full sun.
  • Water: Drought tolerant.
  • Soil: Sandy/loamy; well-draining.
  • Pet Safety: Toxic to cats and dogs.
29
of 30

Bright Lights (Cosmos sulphureus)

Yellow cosmos and a butterfly
I am happy taking photographs. / Getty Images

Painted lady and monarch butterflies enjoy the nectar of cosmos flowers, vibrant orange yellow blooms present summer through fall. Cosmos are native to Mexico and the Southeastern United States, and can grow up to six feet high with a three foot spread, working well in garden arrangements bordering other, shorter plants.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Full sun.
  • Water: Very drought tolerant. No water typically needed outdoors once plants establish.
  • Soil: Neutral to slightly acidic. Tolerates poor soil.
  • Pet Safety: Non-toxic to cats and dogs.
30
of 30

Bee Balm (Monarda clinopodia)

Basil balm

Mark Turner / Getty Images

There are almost two dozen species of the flowering herb bee balm, belonging to the family Monarda. Flowers can be found in a variety of colors, including red, pink, and purple. One popular variety that attracts butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds, white bergamot, features white flowers (as the name suggests) and is native to the Eastern United States. It's wise to look for native plants when building a butterfly garden, because butterflies in the area have adapted to look for those species.

Plant Care Tips

  • Light: Full sun. Tolerates some shade.
  • Water: Keep soil evenly moist.
  • Soil: Well-draining. Tolerates many soil types but prone to mildew without good air circulation.
  • Pet Safety: Non-toxic to cats and dogs.
View Article Sources
  1. "Why is Pollination Important?U.S. Forest Service.

  2. "Habitat Needs." U.S. Forest Service.

  3. "Baptisia (False or Wild Indigo)." Clemson Cooperative Extension Home & Garden Information Center, 2010.

  4. "Aromatic Aster: Symphyotrichum oblongifolium." USDA.

  5. Opler, P.A. and W.S. Cranshaw. "Attracting Butterflies to the Garden." Colorado State University, no. 5.504.

  6. Waltz, Amy E. M., and W. Wallace Covington. "Ecological Restoration Treatments Increase Butterfly Richness and Abundance: Mechanisms of Response." Restoration Ecology, vol. 12, no. 1, 2004, pp. 85-96., doi:10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00262.x

  7. "Thistle Caterpillar." Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

  8. Krischik, Vera. "Butterfly Gardening." University of Minnesota.

  9. "Sunflower." California Native Plant Society Calscape.

  10. Ogden, Lauren Springer, and Scott Ogden. Waterwise Plants For Sustainable Gardens. Timber Press, 2011.