Flowers that attract adult butterflies

Bob Dluzen
Special to The Detroit News

In the poem “Blue-Butterfly Day,” Robert Frost describes butterflies as “…flowers that fly and all but sing.”

If you want to attract as many of those flying flowers to your home as you can, you’ll need flowering plants growing nearby.

Not all flowers, however, are suitable for butterflies. Butterflies on the wing are looking for flowers that have lots of nectar and a good landing platform for them to cling to.

Growing butterfly plants gives you the opportunity to observe butterflies in every stage of their lifecycle that you might not see otherwise.

If you remember from your middle school biology, butterflies feed on nectar using their specially shaped tongue called a proboscis. The proboscis is hollow like a drinking straw and very long in proportion to the butterfly’s body.  This feeding structure is kept rolled up near the head of the insect when not in use. When a butterfly finds a flower, it unfurls its proboscis, inserts it into the flower and sucks up any nectar that might be there.

Small tubular flowers are especially adapted to the butterflies' proboscis. These tubular flowers cannot be too long, or the butterfly will nor be able to reach all the way down to the nectar, which is usually at the base of the petals.

Through the years I’ve grown a lot of different kinds of flowers. In no particular order, here is a list of common plants you’ll find suitable for attracting adult butterflies: thyme, valerian, heliotrope, Asclepias incarnata (common name-Red Swallowwort), phlox, alyssum, verbena (all the different kinds of verbena are good -- Verbena bonariensis is very easy to grow here in Michigan), thistle, scabiosa, columbine, chrysanthemum, herbs (many of them are good nectar flowers), milkweed (attracts at least 17 different kinds of butterflies), Queen Anne's lace, liatris (common name gayfeather), gaillardia, butterfly bush, Echinacea purpurea  (common name purple coneflower), violets, lilac, yarrow, Rudbeckia hirta (common name black eyed Susan), monarda (common name bee balm), lupine, marigold, daisy, lavender and  zinnia.

Other things you will want to consider when you plant your butterfly garden is to have a sunny site sheltered from the wind. Butterflies prefer to feed in the sun but get tossed around by breezes fairly easily.

A shallow, flat container of water with sand is good too. Butterflies seek out shallow water to cool off on hot days. Even just a mud puddle is beneficial to them. Certain essential minerals are required nutrients for reproduction; those minerals are most easily found dissolved in water obtained from mud.

These cold, dark winter days are a good time to plan how to make your yard more inviting to butterflies. Make a list and order flower seeds now to avoid being disappointed before your favorite flower variety is sold out. 

An even more ambitious garden is one that includes plants that the larvae of butterflies need to eat, but that will have to be another blog.