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What is a butterfly garden?

Where have all the butterflies gone? Few sights are more delightful than that of a butterfly flitting from flower to flower. But sadly, butterflies have become all too rare in our rapidly changing environment.

Due in part to increasing environmental awareness, more and more people are changing their home landscaping methods in order to attract and conserve butterflies. Reducing the use of pesticides and growing butterfly-friendly plants are simple ways to invite butterflies to your doorstep. Butterfly Gardening is a concept designed to attract butterflies through the growing of two types of plants: food plants for the caterpillars and nectar plants for the adults.

Choosing the location for your garden is very important. Butterflies are “sun-loving” — they use their wings as solar panels, warming their bodies so they can fly. Also, most butterfly plants prefer full sun. Shrubs and trees will provide the protection that butterflies need on windy or rainy days, as well as providing a location for butterflies to roost at night. Grouping plants with similar needs for mass effect to attract butterflies is also helpful.

This page includes information on the types of plants needed to start a butterfly garden and will introduce you to just a few of the species of butterflies that are found in south Florida. Once you have an active butterfly garden, you may want to learn the butterflies you are seeing. Close-focusing binoculars and a good field guide are essential for this effort.


What is a butterfly?

Butterflies are members of the insect order Lepidoptera, a word that describes the presence of scales on their wings. It is derived from the Greek words lepis, for scale, and pteron, for wing. Butterflies, like other insects, have segmented bodies divided into three major parts: head, thorax, and abdomen. Every butterfly has four stages to its life: egg, caterpillar (larva), chrysalis (pupa), and adult. The time spent in each stage varies with butterfly species. The gradual passage through the four stages is known as metamorphosis. The cycle begins as the adult female lays her eggs on the appropriate larval plant.


Host Plants

Butterflies must have plants on which to lay their eggs. Butterflies have evolved with the native plants of a particular ecosystem and, therefore, are “finicky” eaters. In fact, most butterflies will only eat one type of plant making it very important to choose the correct plants for the butterflies that are found in your area. Butterflies are equipped with a highly sensitive sense of smell, which enables them to identify their larval food plants from great distances. Some excellent larval food sources for our area are listed below – many of these are available in native varieties. If you choose an exotic species, make sure that it is not listed as an “invasive” exotic.


  • Zebra Heliconian - **Passionvine, Passiflora spp.

  • Gulf Fritillary - **Passionvine, Passiflora spp.

  • Julia Heliconian - **Passionvine, Passiflora spp.

  • Monarch - **Milkweed, Asclepias spp.

  • Queen - **Milkweed, Asclepias spp.

  • Polydamas Swallowtail - Pipevine, Aristolochia spp.

  • Black Swallowtail - Parlsey, Fennel, Dill

  • Orange-barred Sulphur - Cassia, *Senna and *Chaemecrista spp.

  • Cloudless Sulphur - *Chaemecrista spp.

  • Giant Swallowtail - **Citrus

  • Palamedes Swallowtail - *Red Bay

  • Cassius Blue - **Plumbago

  • Atala - *Coontie

*Native Plant **Native varieties available

Nectar Plants

Flowering nectar plants are the most important source of food and nourishment for adult butterflies. Nectar is a sweet, sugary substance produced by many flowers. The butterfly obtains sugars from it that it needs for energy to survive and fly.


  • Pentas (Red & Hot Pink esp.)

  • *Firebush, Hamelia patens

  • **Porterweed Stachytarpheta spp.

  • *Scorpionstail Heliotrope, Heliotropium angiospermum

  • Ageratum spp.

  • *Blue Mistflower, Conoclinium coelestinum

  • Golden Dewdrop, Duranta repens

  • *Butterfly Sage, Cordia globosa

  • *Wild Coffee, Psychotria nervosa

  • *Fiddlewood, Citharexylum spinosum

  • Jatropha spp.

  • **Lantana, L. involucrata or depressa

  • Butterfly Bush, Buddleia spp.

    *Native Plant   **Native varieties available

Nurseries that sell butterfly-attracting plants

The following are a few nurseries in the Palm Beach County area that sell butterfly plants:

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