Let’s Plant for Butterflies!

Deb Groth of Groth’s Gardens & Greenhouses
Winterset, Iowa

January. It’s the dead of winter. Deep snow, thick fog and light mist press upon my window panes.  Long naps and copious cups of coffee cannot make this go away. I find the best antidote to the winter doldrums is to plan for spring. It’s still too early to start seeds, but there are plenty of things we can do to lift our spirits as we look toward brighter days.

Gardening for butterflies and other pollinators has been a trend for several years and it’s still popular. Not only do pollinator plants attract butterflies but our native bees as well. Bees are important for pollinating many fruit and vegetable crops for proper development and good yields. People often remark on how many butterflies and bees we have here on the farm and part of that is due to my choice of annuals, perennials, shrubs, roses and trees. The rest just comes naturally from the nature of a farm – weeds, wood piles, mud puddles and cattle poo.

If you want to garden for butterflies now is the time to start Googling butterfly plants for Iowa and information on creating a butterfly haven for the home gardener.

Armed with a list of plants before visiting your first greenhouse will help you achieve this goal. As we winter weary, color starved Iowans enter greenhouses and garden centers in spring it’s tempting to fill our carts with whatever catches our eye. If attracting butterflies is your objective you’ll be looking for heat and sun loving plants that will provide plenty of nectar, shelter and places for the females to lay their eggs.

Some people prefer not to have bees in the yard, particularly if they have bee allergies, so they may want to avoid the following list of pollinator plants. Flowers attractive to butterflies also provide bees with a steady source of nectar. I’ve worked around bees in gardens since childhood and have been stung only twice. Once when I attempted to dig out an iris surrounded by a nest of bumble bees (x!z@#!) and the other when deadheading salvia at dusk, disrupting the slumber of another unsuspecting bumble bee. Needless to say, I posed a threat to their safety and paid the price.

My focus for this writing will be on annuals since that’s what we grow at Groth’s. A quick Google search will include many more as well as native and nativar perennials, trees and shrubs that provide the proper habitat for attracting butterflies.

Cosmos. This plant tops most of the lists I’ve researched and for good reason. Cosmos love the heat and full sun and so do butterflies! They are available in many different varieties and range from 12” to four feet tall. Apollo, Cosmic and Sonata are shorter series. Bright Lights is much taller and blooms from midsummer until frost.These plants  are easily sown in the garden in mid to late May after the soil has warmed. They also make great cut flowers! Dwarf varieties can be grown in large pots which put them up where butterflies will be drawn to them.

Marigold. Marigolds are often referred to as America’s favorite flower. And why not? They bloom from spring through fall in bright hues of yellow, orange, red and cream, are nectar rich and disease resistant. Select single-flower varieties as butterflies can’t feed from the pom pom or double varieties. French marigolds are preferred for pollinators and the Disco and Durango varieties are good series to try.

Lantana. Lantanas become more popular every year. Colors range from pink, orange, yellow, red, lavender and white. Full sun brings out the best blooms. I prefer them in larger pots or baskets as they dry out quickly in hot, windy weather in pots with less soil volume. They are a top pick food source for monarchs and fritillaries as they migrate in the fall. Newer varieties, such as Proven Winners Luscious series, the Lucky series, Shamrock series and the new Passion Fruit bloom continuously as they are bred to not set seed.

Petunia. A favorite full sun, easy care flower! Newer vegetative varieties bloom continuously, are self-cleaning and do not require deadheading. Petunias come in a wide range of colors and are filled with nectar. Many are quite fragrant in the early morning and evening hours. Top varieties are Proven Winners Supertunias, Wave petunias, SureShot petunias and any of the newer vegetative petunias. These are the only type of petunias we grow at Groth’s and our customers love them!

Sunflower. Select varieties that bloom all summer with multiple branching to attract butterflies all season. Suncredible from Proven Winners and Sunfinity are two varieties introduced in the last few years. Removing the spent blooms encourages fresh flushes of color and keeps the plant tidy. I prefer them planted in the ground as they can get  3 – 4 foot tall and are then susceptible to wind damage when grown in pots.

Blue salvia. Most of the annual varieties will grow 24 – 36” tall and are great planted in a bed with marigolds, petunias or zinnias. The shorter varieties can work in larger pots but I think they hold up better in the ground. Butterflies are crazy for them and they add movement and texture to the garden. Look for Mysty and Mystic Spires as well as the Rockin’ series from Proven Winners. Black and Blue salvia is popular, grows quite tall, and is best planted in the garden.

Verbena. There are many new varieties of verbena which bloom all summer and don’t require deadheading. Proven Winner Superbena and the Firehouse verbena series have worked well for me. I prefer verbena in pots  and baskets mixed with other pollinator plants to make the blooms more available to butterflies.

Angelonia. This is a relatively new plant with snapdragon like blooms. It loves the heat and sun and makes a great thriller in a large pot or can be planted in the ground. It has a slight grape scent and colors are basically purples, pinks and white. There are some spreading varieties available that cascade around the edges of pots and baskets. We’ve grown several different varieties and have found the Archangel and Serena varieties to be more compact and hold up better in the wind.

Tithonia. This is a back of the border heat lover sporting orange blooms during the summer. It branches freely and can be observed “dripping” with butterflies. I grew Fiesta Del Sol this past summer on the south side of the porch in an area with dry soil and learned to give it some extra water while watering my pots and baskets on the porch. The catalog says it works well in large planters. My open, country environment doesn’t support such claims and the wind weary plants are usually removed from the pots by mid-summer.

Zinnia. Zinnias are definitely on the fine dining list for butterflies! A rainbow of colors, flower forms and plant habits are available. The long blooming plants make great cut flowers. Taller varieties to plant in the garden would be Cut and Come Again and State Fair. I’m particularly fond of the Profusion series which is shorter and great for the front of the border, blooms continuously and requires no deadheading. It makes a great ground cover although the stems aren’t long enough for cutting. Avoid the double bloom varieties since the tightly held petals make it difficult for butterflies and other pollinators to feed.

In addition to providing plants attractive to butterflies and other pollinators it’s important to provide a water source. This could be a birdbath with rocks placed in it where butterflies can land to warm themselves in the sun and enjoy a sip of water before fluttering away. Just providing a “mud bath” of soil and water in a shallow tray is a butterfly delight.

Butterflies also need protection from wind and storms and will appreciate being able to hide behind shrubs, in trees and grasses, behind fences, buildings and other barriers.

Of course, protection from pesticides is imperative and avoid using them on blooming plants where butterflies and other pollinators are feeding.

Finally, embrace a little messiness in your gardens. Some of our pollinator friends benefit from leaves and plant stems left over in our gardens for their winter habitat. Wait for garden clean up until temperatures are consistently in the the 50’s to provide protection from the cold for our slumbering friends. By then the soil will be warmer and ready for planting and mulching and you’ll have the satisfaction of being in sync with Mother Nature.

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