The jewel-bright colors and delicate motions of butterflies add beauty to any garden. Their pollinating activity makes them as useful as they are lovely. You can design your herb garden to attract butterflies.
Butterflies may prefer ornamental varieties of sage and other common herbs, but you can also attract butterflies with basic kitchen herbs. Read on to learn more about the herbs that will attract the most beautiful butterflies to your garden.
What Do Butterflies Need?
Caterpillars need plenty of leafy material to eat. Many caterpillars are specialized feeders, able to live on only a few types of plants. The list below includes herbs that are host plants for various caterpillars.
Adult butterflies feed on the nectar in blossoms. Nectar plants are also included in the list that follows. Large flat blossoms, or clusters of short tubular flowers, work best for butterflies, giving them space to perch as they feed. Pink, purple, orange, yellow, and red flowers are especially attractive to butterflies.
In addition to food, butterflies need warmth, light, and water.
I encourage butterflies to come to my garden by setting out a shallow container filled with pebbles and mostly covered with water. The pebbles provide perches from which the butterflies can safely drink. Some Extension articles suggest a simpler setup—a plain clay saucer.
Butterflies prefer sunny gardens. I have flat rocks set out at intervals in my herb garden. These give me something to stand or sit on as I work, But when I’m not on them I often see butterflies spread out flat against the stone, soaking up warmth and sunlight.
List of Herbs to Include in Your Butterfly Garden
Annual Herbs To Plant in the Spring or Summer
Basil can be a nectar plant if you let it bloom, though you’ll get the best-flavored leaves by pinching the flower heads off.
Calendula, sometimes grown as a medicinal herb, is also an attractive nectar plant for butterflies.
Chamomile is a nectar plant as well as a tea herb.
Cilantro is a host plant for black swallowtail caterpillars as well as a nectar plant.
Dill is a host plant for black swallowtail and anise swallowtail caterpillars as well as for other beneficial insects. It is also a nectar plant when it blooms
Perennial Herbs to Grow Year Round
Angelica is a nectar plant when it goes to flower in its second year. The plant will die if you let it go to seed, but you can let it bloom for the butterflies and then cut it back before the seeds mature.
Borage is a nectar plant for various species and also a host plant for Painted Lady butterflies
Chive blossoms are good nectar sources, though you’ll get better harvests of culinary chives if you cut the flowers off.
Echinacea, also known as coneflower, is a nectar plant that attracts many types of butterflies.
Fennel is a host plant for black swallowtail and anise swallowtail caterpillars.
Hyssop is a nectar plant as well as a culinary herb.
Lavender is a nectar plant for many types of butterflies. Butterfly Gardeners Quarterly reports that English lavender, Lavandula angustifolia, seems more attractive to butterflies than Spanish lavender, L. stoechas.
Lemon balm is a nectar source and also a host plant for the caterpillars of the White Peacock butterfly.
Mint of various kinds is also a good nectar source and a host for Painted Lady and White Peacock butterflies as well as Gray Hairstreaks. Mountain mint, Pycnanthemum virginianum, is said to be a particular favorite of butterflies and other pollinators because of its many flowers and long bloom time.
Parsley is a host plant for black swallowtail and anise swallowtail caterpillars
Salvia, the ornamental form of sage, is a highly attractive nectar plant. The editor of Butterfly Gardens Quarterly says varieties with deep tube-shaped flowers will attract hummingbirds but not butterflies.
However, many specialized salvia and sage varieties with shorter blossoms are highly attractive to butterflies. These include cherry sage, pineapple sage, scarlet sage, blue sage, and anise-scented sage. See the full list at https://butterflywebsite.com/articles/bgq/herb-gardens-for-butterflies.cfm. Plain culinary sage is also a nectar source.
Tarragon—at least French tarragon—is a host plant for Oregon Swallowtail caterpillars.
Thyme also offers nectar and attracts butterflies.
What Types of Butterflies Are Attracted to Herbs
Most adult butterflies will visit a wide variety of flowering herbs. Just what you’ll see depends on your location.
Here in upstate New York we often see swallowtails (tiger, black, and giant) with their bold color patterns and distinctively shaped hind wings. These often visit our echinacea and sometimes our other herbs.
Other showy frequent visitors include Monarchs, assorted bronzy-winged fritillaries, Painted Ladies, and Red and White Admirals. In Washington State, Clare Hagen Doyle noted often sees Western tiger swallowtails, Lorquin’s admirals, and skippers. She mentioned lavender as a favorite spot for the latter.
While butterflies aren’t too particular about where they get their nectar, caterpillars are quite particular about what types of leaves they eat. You’ll provide a good habitat for swallowtails of all kinds, Painted Ladies, Gray Hairstreaks, and White Peacocks if you grow their host herbs. See the list above for details.
Which Herbs Are On Your Butterfly Garden List?
Herb gardens are obviously useful, providing fragrance, flavor, and natural remedies. But they can also be very beautiful, both in themselves and in the butterflies they attract.
You don’t need to grow every plant on this list in order to attract butterflies. I certainly don’t, and there are still butterflies all over my herb garden. But it may help to plan the herbs you grow so that there are flowers blooming over a long season.
Some plants, like chives and basil, are usually grown for their leaves and taste best before blooming, but butterflies love their flowers. You may want to select some of these plants to pinch back for kitchen use, letting others bloom to bring in butterflies.