Stay in the know about wildlife, water quality, and ecosystems on Sanibel and Captiva Islands and in Southwest Florida

How to Plant a Butterfly Garden

May 1, 2024
Zebra Longwing Butterfly On Firebush

Want to attract butterflies to your garden? SCCF’s Native Landscapes & Garden Center created a helpful guide to get you started! Butterflies are not only beautiful to look at, but they also serve an important ecological role. Butterflies pollinate our native plants and provide an important food source for many of our native wildlife species.

“The first step to designing and planting a butterfly garden is to plant native plants,” said Garden Center Assistant Sophie Carpenter. “Native plants provide butterflies with both the nectar and foliage they need as caterpillars and adults.”

Choose colorful nectar sources

Monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed

Choose flowers with bright colors! Butterflies tend to be attracted to red, yellow, orange, purple, and pink blossoms. Flowers that are flat-topped, and/or clustered are preferred as they provide a place for butterflies to land while feeding. Species such as milkweed, goldenrod, yellowtop, water hemlock, and elderberry are good options among many others!

“Butterflies need nectar for their entire adult lives, if possible provide a continuous nectar source in your garden by selecting a variety of plants that will bloom at different points throughout the season,” said Carpenter.

Zebra longwing caterpillars

Plant larval host plants

When planning a butterfly garden it is important to not only plant nectar providing plants to attract and feed adults but also plant larval host plants. Since many species of plants produce toxins to ward off predators, many caterpillar species have adapted to only consuming certain plant species.

Because of this, many butterfly species will only lay their eggs on specific native plants. These native plants, known as host plants, provide food for caterpillars. A well-known example of this is monarch butterflies and native milkweed (Asclepias spp.)

Make it a sunny location

Most butterfly species feed primarily in the sun except for our native zebra longwing butterfly, which prefers part sun to shade. If possible, try to design your butterfly garden in a sunny spot, ideally in an area that receives full sun in the mid-morning through mid-afternoon.

Say no to insecticide use

While garden pests can be frustrating, many of our beneficial insect species (including butterflies and caterpillars) are often unintentionally harmed when insecticides are applied.

Common native host plants on Sanibel

  • Blue Porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis) Host for tropical buckeye.
  • Corky-Stemmed Passion Vine (Passiflora suberosa) Host for julia, zebra long-wing, and gulf fritillary.
  • Coontie (Zamia integrifolia) Host for atala butterfly.
  • Matchweed (Phyla nodiflora) Host for white peacock, phaon crescent, and common buckeye.
  • Sunshine Mimosa (Mimosa strigillosa) Host for little sulphur butterfly.
  • Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) Host for monarch, queen, and soldier butterflies.
  • Wild Petunia (Ruellia caroliniensis) Host for white peacock and common buckeye.
  • Bay Cedar(Suriana maritima) Host for martial scrub-hairstreak.
  • Strangler Fig (Ficus aurea) Host for ruddy daggerwing.
  • Wild Lime (Zanthoxylum fagara) Host for giant swallowtail.

“There are more native host plants on Sanibel and Captiva, this is just a condensed list of some of the common species found on the islands,” said Carpenter.

For more information:

Florida Native Plant Society

National Wildlife Federation

Stop by the Native Landscapes & Garden Center at 1300 Periwinkle Way to learn more about planting a butterfly garden, Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.


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