Get It Growing: How to create butterfly-friendly gardens

Butterflies are some of the most beautiful creatures on the planet, but their existence is threatened by loss of habitat, pesticide use, and pollution. A butterfly-friendly garden is an easy way to enjoy these creatures and help them in the process.

The life cycle of a butterfly is complex and must be considered in designing a butterfly-friendly garden. The cycle starts with the adult female depositing a fertilized egg on a carefully selected plant. A larva (or caterpillar) hatches from the egg and spends most of its time eating the leaves of the plant on which it hatched. As it eats, the larva grows and sheds its skin several times.

When the larva finishes growing, it forms a protective casing around itself called a chrysalis. Inside the chrysalis, the larva is transformed. When the transformation is finished, an adult butterfly emerges.

Creating a butterfly-friendly garden starts with research on native butterflies. “Butterflies of the North Olympic Peninsula,” a pocket guide written by local butterfly enthusiast, Kristi Murray Knowles, will help with this process. This guide, which includes delicate pen and ink drawings, is available at the Olympic National Park Visitor Center and many local bookstores.

Next, learn which flowers and plants those butterflies feed on. Adult butterflies dine on all sorts of nectar-producing flowers but are most attracted to those that are purple, bright pink, yellow, orange and red. A succession of flowers with different bloom times will ensure nectar throughout the growing season.

Photo by Terry Spivey, USDA Forest Service (
Attract butterflies like this white pine butterfly to your home garden using certain native plants.

Photo by Terry Spivey, USDA Forest Service ( Attract butterflies like this white pine butterfly to your home garden using certain native plants.

Because female butterflies lay their eggs on or near plants that later become food for the larva, to attract adults you must provide plants the larvae like to eat (called host plants). Host plants tend to differ among butterfly species. If you want to attract a particular type of butterfly, include host plants specific to that butterfly. The caterpillars will feed on these plants, so be prepared to tolerate some chewing damage.

In selecting plants, focus on native species because they will be easiest to establish and grow (see sidebar).

Avoid exotic species, like Butterfly bush (scientific name: Buddleia davidii), which can be invasive and threaten native flora.

Because butterflies must supplement their nectar-rich diets with extra salts and nutrients, situate shallow saucers of mud on the ground throughout your garden; these will provide nutrient rich gathering places for butterflies.

Place flat rocks in sunny areas to encourage butterflies to bask since they use sunlight to keep themselves warm.

Avoid the use of pesticides or herbicides in your garden, and remember, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) will kill any feeding caterpillar, not just the bad guys.

By offering the right food and comfortable surroundings, butterflies will be drawn to your garden and will quickly see how friendly it is!

Jeanette Stehr-Green is a certified WSU Clallam County Master Gardener.

Native plants that attract butterflies

Arrow-leaf groundsel (Senecio triangularis)

Black hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii)

Blue or red elderberry (Sambucus caerulea and S. racemosa)

Bush cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa)

Choke cherry and bitter cherry (Prunus virginiana and Prunus emarginata)

Edible or Indian thistle (Cirsium edule)

Elegant Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium elegans)

Fleabane (Erigeron compositus)

Hardhack spirea (Spiraea douglasii)

Highbush cranberry (Viburnum edule)

Mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii)

Nettles (Urtica species)

Pacific bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa)

Pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea)

Spreading phlox (Phlox diffusa)

Redstem ceanothus (Ceanothus sanguineus)

Stonecrop (Sedum species)

Willow (Salix species)

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

‘Reflections on the Garden’

Make sure to join us for the upcoming Digging Deeper presentation, “Reflections on the Garden: Q&A,” by a panel of Clallam County Master Gardeners, set for 10:30 a.m.-noon on Saturday, Sept. 17, at the Woodcock Demonstration Garden, 2711 Woodcock Road. Presentations and workshops cover basic gardening topics relevant to most home gardeners. Seminars are free, but donations to help support the WSU Clallam County Extension Master Gardener program or Master Gardener Foundation of Clallam County are appreciated. Find more information at