Butterfly Gardening in Wisconsin

“Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it turned into a butterfly.”

Monarchs have been visiting nectar plants, particularly New England aster, over the past several weeks, in preparation for their long flight south.

When choosing plants to add beauty to the garden, consideration of their potential value to wildlife has become a priority in our selections.

Southern Wisconsin Butterfly Association’s advice on gardening for caterpillars and butterflies:

•  Plant large patches of individual flowers that are good nectar sources.  Select a diversity of flowers that bloom at different times.
• Include caterpillar food plants. Butterflies lay eggs on these food plants, and the resulting
caterpillars often rely exclusively on this “host” plant for food (also called a “host” plant).  By planting groups of each plant species, any caterpillar damage will be less noticeable.
• Provide shelter and resting spots. Include trees and shrubs in your yard; they provide butterflies with spots to roost overnight and escape predators, heat, wind, rain. Place large flat rocks where they will be warmed by the morning sun. Butterflies will use these rocks to bask so they can warm up enough to fly on cool mornings.
• Butterflies need sun, as do the nectar and caterpillar food plants. Select a garden spot that gets at least six hours of sun each day, with some protection from wind if possible. Kill any existing turf. Amend soil with compost as needed.
• Mulch beds with composted leaves or shredded bark to reduce the need for watering and add nutrients to the soil.
• Avoid using pesticides and herbicides. Most pesticides will kill butterflies and caterpillars and other beneficial insects.  Herbicides wipe out dandelions, a great early nectar source.
• Provide moisture. Fill a shallow container with sand, bury it, and keep it moist so your butterflies can sip water and nutrients. Or scrape a small depression to create a moist area (water as needed).
• Leave dead plants standing in fall to avoid disposing of chrysalises. Caterpillars often leave their food plant and climb up another plant or structure before forming a chrysalis, which can be hard to spot. Besides providing a substrate for overwintering chrysalises, dead plants add interest and provide seeds for the birds. In late spring, loosely pile up plant debris in back of your garden; do not place
in a compost bin until later in summer. Some butterflies do not emerge until
• Provide alternate food sources. Some butterflies, such as Mourning Cloak, prefer sap or rotten fruit to nectar. Place rotted bananas or watermelon in a shallow dish in a location where wasps will not be a problem.
• Learn to identify butterfly caterpillars

Top Food Plants for Caterpillars 

(Butterfly caterpillars that use each plant are in bold.)
• Parsley, Fennel, Carrots or Dill–Black Swallowtail
• Partridge Pea (Cassia fasciculata)–Little Yellow
• Snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus)–Common Buckeye
• Asters–Pearl Crescent
• Milkweeds (Common, Swamp, Butterflyweed)–Monarch
• Nettles (Urtica)–Eastern Comma, Milbert’s Tortoiseshell, Red Admiral.
Hide this plant in the middle of bed, and wear gloves when working near it.
• Pussytoes (Antennaria) and Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritaceae)–American Lady
• Senna (S. hebecarpa)–Sleepy Orange, Cloudless Sulfur
• Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)–Baltimore Checkerspot
• Violets–Great Spangled Fritillary; Aphrodite, Meadow Fritillaries
• Native grasses, such as Prairie Dropseed and Little Bluestem–several species of skippers, Common Wood Nymph
• Dutchman’s Pipe, Aristolochia macrophylla, A. tomentosa or A. durior–Pipevine Swallowtail, a rare, beautiful butterfly that in some years moves north to Wisconsin from the south.
• Eastern Red Cedar–Juniper Hairstreak
• Black Cherry–Coral Hairstreak, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Spring Azure
• Hackberry– American Snout, Hackberry Emperor, Question Mark, Tawny Emperor
• Oaks–Banded Hairstreak, Red-Spotted Purple
• Pines–Eastern Pine Elfin
• Poplars, aspens–Mourning Cloak, Red-Spotted Purple, Viceroy
• Willow–Mourning Cloak, Viceroy

Top Native Nectar Sources

• Blue Vervain (Verbena hastate)
• Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
• Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
• Hoary Vervain (Verbena stricta)
• Joe-pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum)
• Mountain Mints (Pycnanthemum)
New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae)
• Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida)
• Prairie Blazing Star (Liatris pycnostachya)
• Puccoons (Lithospermum)
• Rough Blazing Star (Liatris aspera)
• Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida)
• Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
• Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

Top Non-Native (non-invasive) Nectar Sources

• Bloodflower (Asclepias curassavica)
• French Marigolds
• Lantana
• Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia)
• Salvia “Victoria Blue”
• Verbena bonariensis
• Zinnias
• Coneflower (Rudbeckia)
• Garlic Chives (Allium tuberosum)
• Phlox (native species also good nectar sources)
• Sedum “Autumn Joy”
• Bluebeard or Blue Mist (Caryopteris)
• Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii)

Lawn Nectar Sources (dandelions & other weeds)

• Dandelion flowers are an important early nectar source for many butterflies when not many other plants are blooming
• White clover—Tiny butterflies, such as the Eastern-tailed Blue, will nectar on clover, which also  provides nitrogen for your grass.
• Hawkweed–Many butterflies enjoy nectaring on hawkweed.