We all know that feeling of excitement and awe on spotting beautiful butterfly as they gracefully flutter from flower to flower. Blessed with some of the most ornate, unique, and enchanting markings in the natural world, butterflies have provided us with a source of pure delight for millennia.
But these winged insects have far more to offer than just fleeting glimpses of their exquisite beauty. Butterflies are some of the most important creatures in the animal kingdom, and without them, our natural world would simply cease to exist as we know it.
With butterfly populations in decline, it’s paramount that we take measures to protect these precious pollinators and their habitats before it’s too late. We’ve put together a guide to 29 of the very best butterfly-friendly plants that you can grow to safeguard our butterflies for years to come.
Why are butterflies so important?
Butterflies are an enormously diverse group of fauna, comprising over a quarter of a million individual species, each one as enchanting, as decorative, as unique, and as valuable as the next.
Butterflies as we recognise them today probably evolved around 50 to 100 million years ago, and several millennia later, they are still some of the most important creatures on the planet. Just like bees, they are prolific pollinators, helping to fertilise over ninety percent of the world’s plant species as they travel from flower to flower in search of nectar to eat.
Butterflies are also an incredibly efficient form of biological pest control, preying on harmful insects that threaten our precious food crops, without harming beneficial flora and fauna. Moreover, butterflies themselves are a critical part of the wider food chain, constituting a valuable food source for larger creatures such as birds and bats. Without butterflies, food crops would fail, plant species would struggle to reproduce, and a significant portion of our planet’s ecosystems would collapse.
The presence of butterflies indicates a thriving, healthy, and diverse ecosystem. In recent times, however, butterfly populations are decreasing, and as our butterflies disappear, so does the vitality of the ecosystems they leave behind. Climate change, habitat destruction, the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers in agriculture, and urbanisation are all major contributing factors to the population decline of butterflies the world over.
What is a butterfly garden?
As butterfly populations decline, it’s important that we all try to do our bit to help protect these vital creatures and the ecosystems which rely on them. Creating a butterfly garden is the most effective way that you can support native butterfly species.
A butterfly garden aims to replicate, replenish, and enhance butterflies’ natural habitats and ecosystems which have supported them for millions of years. By planting butterfly-friendly flowers, shrubs, and trees in your outdoor space, not only will you be protecting butterflies and our environment, but you will also get to experience the rich diversity of stunning butterflies and other creatures who will come to visit your butterfly garden.
The best thing about creating a butterfly garden is that pretty much anyone can do it, regardless of your gardening abilities, the time you can dedicate to nurturing your butterfly-friendly plants, or the space available to you. Gardeners who are tight on time can opt for wildflowers which require very little care and almost thrive on neglect.
Novice gardeners can choose almost indestructible plants like heathers, ivy, or clover. Even the tiniest balcony or window box can be transformed into a butterfly garden by using small flowering plants and herbs.
Choosing the right plants for your butterfly garden
Choosing the right plants for your butterfly garden is really important. A little research and thoughtful planting will ensure that you can create a thriving, healthy, and sustainable pollinator paradise.
Native plants are best
It’s important to choose local and native species for your butterfly garden since these plants will have evolved in synchronicity with your native butterflies over millions of years, forging a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship. Non-native plants may not provide the kind of environment or nourishment that your local butterflies need.
Avoid invasive species which can quickly outcompete native plants, causing even more harm to your butterflies’ already fragile natural habitat.
Consider your climate and location
As well as opting for native plants, select plants which are well suited to growing in the specific conditions of your garden. If your garden is regularly exposed to harsh winds or cold temperatures, opt for hardier plants. If you have a sheltered or very sunny space, you can go for more tender, warmth-loving plants. Butterflies tend to feed more in sunnier spots, so try to plant your butterfly-friendly flowers in the sunniest parts of your garden.
If there is a particular butterfly species that you hope to attract, do some research into which plants that species favours. Some species of butterfly use only one host plant to breed or feed on, whilst others are less selective.
Opt for bright colours and open flowers.
Scientific studies have shown that butterflies are far more likely to be attracted to brightly coloured flowers. Purples and blues are the most appealing to butterflies, but reds, pinks, oranges and yellows are all certain to entice hungry butterflies. Try to group the same plant species and similar coloured flowers together so that they are easier for butterflies to find.
Additionally, chose plants with wide open or bell-shaped flowers, as the nectar is much more accessible to pollinating insects. Avoid extensively hybridised cultivars and double-flowered varieties as they can often be sterile or tricky for butterflies and other pollinators to access the nectar through their intricate petal formations.
Host plants and Nectar plants
When selecting plants for your butterfly garden, consider what purpose each plant will serve. Aim for a mix of host plants and nectar plants. Flowering plants will provide plenty of nutritious nectar, whilst plants with dense foliage are good host plants, providing shelter and a safe place for butterflies to lay their eggs. Some plants such as nasturtium or sunflower offer both food from nectar and shelter as host plants, so these multifunctional plants are a great choice if your butterfly garden is limited on space.
It’s really important to consider the whole life cycle of butterflies when selecting plants for your butterfly garden, and that means including caterpillar-friendly plants too, since they need to eat plenty of foliage and leaf matter to help them make the transition from caterpillar to butterfly.
Use a diverse mix of plants
To encourage a wide variety of butterfly species to visit your garden, and to promote diversity in the wider ecosystem, it’s important to include a wide variety of different plant species. Choose plants with varying blooming times that will provide food and shelter at different times of the year, from early spring through to late autumn and even winter, when food is most scarce.
Best plants for your butterfly garden
We’ve rounded up 29 of the best butterfly-friendly plants for you to grow. This list includes both nectar and host plants, early spring blossoms and late-season bloomers to sustain your butterflies right through the year.
- Alliums are nectar-rich plants that provide plenty of nutrients for butterflies. From midsummer onwards, they produce large, pom-pom-like flowers in a bright purple colour, making them easy for hungry butterflies to spot. Alliums are particularly attractive to Monarchs, Red Admirals, and Painted Ladies.
- Bellflower, also known as Campanula, will certainly attract plenty of butterflies to your garden with their vivid violet petals. The fluted shape of the flowers makes their nectar easily accessible and their long flowering season from summer through to autumn makes them a long-lasting food source.
- Bluebells are almost irresistible to butterflies with their electric blue flowers. These early flowering plants will provide plenty of food for your butterflies as they emerge from their hibernation in spring.
- Buddleias are a must-have plant in any butterfly garden. They produce hundreds of tiny blue, pink, and white flowers that will attract masses of butterflies throughout summer and well into autumn. Providing food, shelter and a safe place to breed, it’s no wonder these multi-functional plants have earned the nickname of ‘butterfly bush’!
- White Clover produces lots of little nectar-rich flowers for butterflies to feast on throughout summer. It also makes a fantastic pollinator-friendly and low-maintenance alternative to traditional sterile turf lawns.
- Comfrey is a true super-plant with its bright pink and purple flowers proving irresistible to butterflies. And not only does it provide nectar and shelter for a whole host of beneficial wildlife and pollinators, but it can also be cut back and turned into an organic plant fertiliser once it finishes flowering in late summer.
- Cornflower is another native wildflower with bright blue blooms that attract plenty of butterflies. Flowering from June to September, these striking plants are an eye-catching addition to any butterfly garden.
- Cosmos is a stunning summer-blooming plant with large, wide-open flowers that give butterflies easy access to their pollen. Available in a range of colours from deep reds to bright pinks and vivid violets, they are a cheerful butterfly-friendly flower.
- Dahlias are truly stunning plants, beloved by gardeners for their enormous showy flowers and rainbow spectrum of colours. Although it might be tempting to choose a more intricate double-flowered variety, in the butterfly garden it’s better to choose a simpler, single-flowered dahlia variety with easily accessible nectar for late summer and into autumn.
- Forget Me Nots provide much-needed nutrition for your butterfly population in early spring after a long winter spent in hibernation. These low-growing, spreading flowers are a great choice if you want to cover a large area with butterfly-friendly plants, and their delicate pale blue blooms are a welcome sight after a long harsh winter.
- Heathers are a fantastic choice for a butterfly garden since they bloom long into autumn and sometimes even into winter, providing plenty of late-season nectar to give your butterflies the energy they need to survive the winter hibernation. They also provide shelter and a safe space to breed, attracting a wide variety of species, including the rare Silver-Studded Blue.
- Hebe is an evergreen shrub with a nice long flowering season, providing a secure food source for your butterflies from as early as May right up until late September if conditions are right. Hebe’s dense foliage offers shelter, protection, and a safe place to lay eggs.
- Honesty is a stunning native wildflower with deep fuchsia and violet-coloured wide-open blooms. It provides plenty of nectar throughout spring and summer. Honesty is a particular favourite of the delightful Orange-Tip butterfly.
- Honeysuckle usually blooms from late spring to mid-summer and its elegant fluted flowers offer easily accessible nectar to a huge variety of butterfly species. They also give off a beautifully sweet scent that both you and your butterflies will enjoy.
- Hyssop is a favourite source of nectar for many species of butterflies, especially the delightfully decorative Monarch species. Flowering from mid-summer to late autumn in a range of beautiful colours, they are the perfect autumnal addition to any butterfly garden.
- Ivy produces its flowers late in the year, providing crucial nourishment to sustain your butterflies into winter when food is scarce. Its dense foliage also provides shelter and a safe space for them to hibernate.
- Lavender attracts plenty of butterflies with their bright purple blooms and fabulous fragrance. They also double up as an effective organic pest deterrent for harmful insects which are deterred by their strong perfume!
- Lilac is a truly charming shrub that attracts swarms of butterflies throughout spring and summer with its elegant purple-hued blooms and delicate fragrance.
- Nasturtiums are an important food source not just for butterflies, but also for caterpillars! Cabbage white butterflies lay their eggs on the underside of the nasturtium leaves, which are then eaten by the young caterpillars that emerge from the eggs, providing them with plenty of nutrients and energy ready to transform into an adult butterfly.
- Nettles are a favourite breeding place for many beautiful butterfly species, including Tortoiseshells, Red Admirals, and Painted Ladies. Whilst they might not be the prettiest plant in your butterfly garden, they are certainly one of the most nutritious and are a valuable food source for newly emerged caterpillars and moths too! Non-stinging varieties are a good choice for a busy butterfly garden.
- Oregano is a multifunctional, fragrant herb that can effortlessly make the transition from kitchen garden to butterfly garden. Its delicate pink flowers provide an aromatic feast for butterflies in late spring and early summer.
- Phlox is a stunning flower with big, showy, bright-coloured blooms. Flowering from spring to late summer, and available in a variety of eye-catching colours, these nectar-rich plants are irresistible to butterflies.
- Primrose is an early-blooming flower that provides much-needed nectar for butterflies and other pollinators in early spring. Their delicate, open flowers mean weary butterflies can easily feast on the nectar as they emerge from winter hibernation.
- Purple Loosestrife is a semi-aquatic wildflower, making it perfect for pond borders in a butterfly garden. Its summer blooms are rich in nutritious nectar and its statuesque height and violet inflorescences make it a real eye-catching plant.
- Roses are some of the most beloved flowers in British gardens. Whilst there are thousands of cultivars to choose from, hybrid varieties tend to be double-flowered, which means your butterflies won’t be able to access the precious nectar very easily. Instead, try to select a single flowered or heritage variety with bright coloured flowered and a sweet scent to attract plenty of butterflies to your garden.
- Sage is another butterfly-friendly herb, enticing a variety of different species to feast on its nectar-rich flowers during the summer and even into autumn. Pineapple sage is a late-blooming variety that is especially attractive to butterflies with its sweet aroma.
- Sunflowers are the quintessential summer flower, bound to bring sunshine and cheer to any and every butterfly garden. Their bright petals attract plenty of butterflies to feed on their ample supply of nectar, whilst their lush foliage is an excellent food source for caterpillars.
- Sweet William would make a truly decorative addition to your butterfly garden with its brightly coloured two-toned petals. They will provide plenty of nectar all through summer.
- Thyme is best known as a flavourful herb for cooking, but butterflies find its pretty purple flowers equally delicious and nutritious. Flowering from spring through to summer, thyme’s delicious fragrance makes it irresistible to many species of butterflies.
Extra things to consider in your butterfly garden
Aside from an abundance of butterfly-friendly plants, you should also try to incorporate a water source for your butterflies to drink from. This doesn’t need to be an elaborate pond or water feature, a shallow bowl filled with fresh water will suffice. Just remember to add a rock or a piece of wood so that butterflies can get in and out of the water easily.
You should also try to incorporate nesting materials such as twigs, leaves, rocks, or log piles to provide your butterflies with a safe place to hibernate over winter. Avoid using chemical pesticides or herbicides in your butterfly garden, since they can cause serious harm to the butterflies and to other plants and animals nearby.
As butterfly populations continue to decline rapidly, it’s vital that we do our bit to protect them and their habitats while we still can. Of course, we all want to continue enjoying the ethereal beauty of butterflies that have fascinated us for millennia, but most importantly, we must protect these precious pollinators so the ecosystems which rely on them can continue to thrive. Hopefully, our guide to butterfly-friendly blooms has inspired you to create your own flutterly fabulous butterfly garden.