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Plant Butterfly Weed for Attracting Monarch, Swallowtail Butterflies

Plants for Attracting Tiger, Black Swallowtails

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Butterfly weed.

Picture of butterfly weed.

Courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden

Why grow a plant with the rather unappealing name of "butterfly weed"? Well, for those who appreciate the beauty of flowers, a garden designed to attract monarch butterflies is a natural extension of the purely horticultural side of their landscaping. Attracting monarch butterflies to the landscape begins with recognizing the fact that the monarch butterfly is attracted to different plants at different points of its life cycle.

Of course, there's more to the butterfly world than monarchs. And attracting other butterflies, including tiger swallowtails and black swallowtails, depends on recognizing this same fact: grow particular plants to attract adult swallowtails, and grow another set of plants to serve as hosts for swallowtail caterpillars. Although sometimes you get lucky, and a single plant can serve a double function. Butterfly weed is such a plant (for a picture of butterfly weed, see the photo above).

Buy It as Butterfly "Plant," Grow It as Butterfly "Weed"

Before listing the plants that are effective for attracting adult butterflies with their nectar (Page 3), as well as those plants sought as hosts by their larvae, or "caterpillars" (Page 2), I'd like to begin with some information about one flower that is rather special. Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a type of milkweed, and as such is automatically a potential host for the monarch's caterpillars (although the common milkweed is perhaps superior in this regard). It is also a favorite nectar-source of a number of butterfly species, including the tiger swallowtail and black swallowtail. It should be immediately apparent, then, why this perennial is widely thought of simply as "the butterfly plant."

Butterfly weed is also a very attractive landscaping plant in its own right, even if you’re not interested in planting a butterfly garden. It is also deer-resistant. When nurseries and seed companies aren't pushing it as the "butterfly plant," the preferred moniker seems to be, "butterfly flower." The rationale appears to be that, if people are being asked to pay money for something, it doesn't seem prudent to market it as a weed. Yet as a type of milkweed, that's precisely what it is -- and the butterflies won't mind a bit. In fact, they're rather partial to weeds.

Adult butterflies crave nectar from flowers -- the more, the better. Some flowers contain more nectar, and it is these that will be most effective in attracting butterflies. Flower color can also be important, with more vibrant colors attracting butterflies more readily -- especially when single colors are grouped in masses. Butterflies are near-sighted and are more easily attracted to large stands of a particular color. In addition, some plants are easier than others for butterflies to land on.

But as we'll see on Page 2, you don't even need to grow flowers, per se to attract butterflies. The caterpillars of both tiger swallowtails and black swallowtails feed on some popular garden plants that are also eaten by humans. But most folks will prefer to attract butterflies while at the same time enjoying the lovely flowering plants craved by numerous kinds of butterflies.

Landscaping enthusiasts are very much on the same page in this matter as the French poet, Ecouchard Le Brun, when he wrote, "The butterfly is a flying flower, the flower a tethered butterfly." Anyone interested in beautifying the landscape with delicate flowers understands this connection, drawn so succinctly by the poet.

On Page 2 we'll look at some of the plants that serve as hosts for caterpillars. Some of these are fine landscaping plants in their own right. For instance, flowering dogwood trees and hollyhock. For a picture of a flowering dogwood tree, see photo #2 above (accessed by clicking on the "More Images" link below the photo, which opens the mini-photo gallery). For a picture of a hollyhock, click the photo above to access the same mini-photo gallery. If the thought of caterpillars makes your skin crawl, just think of them as "butterflies in the making"....

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