Favorite Summer Flowers for Butterflies

A tiger swallowtail perches and feeds on a purple coneflower.

One joy of summer is the butterflies that flit around our flower gardens. They do not mind the heat as long as they have plenty of moisture and nectar-rich flowers. There are many flowers that butterflies like best, both annuals, perennials, and even some shrubs. Among them are many of the common garden varieties that we have loved and grown for years with some that are perhaps lesser-known to many gardeners.

Common Garden Butterflies

Egyptian starcluster thrives in heat and butterflies cannot pass it up.

Some of the butterflies you may see this summer are common all over North America.  These include monarchs (Danaus plexippus), swallowtails (Papilio spp.), great spangled fritillaries (Speyeria cybele), American painted ladies (Vanessa virginiensis) and painted ladies (Vanessa cardui), spring azures (Celastrina ladon), and red admirals (Vanessa atalanta). And of course, gardeners can always expect some destructive but pretty cabbage whites (Pieris rapae), especially if they grow cabbage, kale, or other brassicas. Keep a lookout for others, but these are butterfly visitors that most gardeners will see. It also pays to get to know their caterpillars or larvae, so you don’t accidentally kill any. (Click here for a simple visual guide.)

About Butterfly Flowers

The flowers of this Verbena bonariensis have masses of tubular flowers that are just perfect for these painted ladies (Vanessa cardui).

Butterflies are not too picky about where to get their nectar, but there are a few flower traits best suited for butterfly pollination (psychophily). In general, butterflies have a sense of smell, sharp color vision, long curled tongues (proboscis), and they must land and perch to feed. That means butterfly flowers are scented to varying degrees, brightly colored, have tubular nectaries perfect for a butterfly’s proboscis, and are shaped for perching and feeding.

Some favorite butterfly perennials are black-eyed-Susans (Rudbeckia spp.), blanket flowers (Gaillardia x grandiflora), phlox (Phlox spp.), bee balms (Monarda spp.), coneflowers (Echinacea spp.), butterfly weeds (Asclepias spp.), and tickseeds (Coreopsis spp.).  Annuals include common cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus), lantana (Lantana camara), Egyptian starcluster (Pentas lanceolata), marigolds (Tagetes hybrids), sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), verbenas (Verbena hybrids), and zinnias (Zinnia hybrids). These flowers are largely sun-lovers that grow well in average to fertile soil boosted with an organic amendment, like Black Gold Natural & Organic Ultra Outdoor Planting Mix, which is also ideal for container plantings.

My Favorite Butterfly Flowers

Tall Garden Phlox

All butterflies, like this eastern black swallowtail, enjoy the nectar-filled, tubular flowers of tall phlox.

One of my favorite perennials is tall garden phlox (Phlox paniculata, Zones 4-8), which in the olden days was called the backbone of the garden. When I moved to my current house 31 years ago, there were already some old-fashioned tall phlox around the 1885 home, and I have let them gently spread. But, now there are so many outstanding new varieties, I can’t resist planting more. One of these is ‘Cloudburst’ by Proven Winners.  It blooms for 12 weeks, longer than most tall phlox, is fragrant, mildew resistant, and forms a mound of very intense purple-pink flowers.  ‘Cloudburst’ gets 28 inches tall and 40 inches wide and needs full to half-day sun to flower best.


A red admiral butterfly visits a purple coneflower.

Coneflowers are currently very popular, so of course, breeders work hard to bring us new varieties every year.  One of the best is Kismet® Red (Zones 4-8), a stunning new coneflower, with large, scarlet-red flowers that are held on stalks only 18 inches tall and 24 inches wide.  It keeps putting out fresh, fragrant blooms all summer, and it is drought-tolerant and deer-resistant.  ‘Kismet Red’ needs full to half a day sun and is an excellent choice for bouquets. Color Coded ‘Orange You Awesome’ (Zones 4-8) is another great selection with a long blooming season and tangerine-orange flowers that bloom on 18- to 22-inch stems


Pardon My Purple beebalm is flanked by Color Coded ‘Orange You Awesome’coneflowers in this pretty summer planting. (Image by Proven Winners)

The tall scarlet beebalm ‘Jacob Cline’ (Monarda didyma ‘Jacob Cline’, Zones 4-8) does double duty because it attracts butterflies and hummingbirds. Mine is blooming now, and its many red flowers are gorgeous. Most bee balms get up to 3 feet tall or more, but there is a new Pardon My Series, by Proven Winners that is much shorter and a good front-of-the-flower-bed plant with varieties of cerise-red, pink, purple, and lavender. ‘Pardon My Purple’ (Zones 4-8) is the most colorful with many flowers or purple-red on plants that are only 12 to 16 inches tall and 12 inches wide. Since bee balm is in the mint family, it is very fragrant (both leaves and flowers) making it deer-resistant—plant in full to partial sunshine.


A female monarch (the females have thicker black netting) feeds from the flowers of swamp milkweed.

There is a much-loved but threatened butterfly that is very selective about the plants it lays its eggs on, the monarch. Adults feed on all the flowers listed above, but the caterpillars only consume milkweed (Asclepias spp.) because milkweeds arm the caterpillars and butterflies with a bad-tasting toxin that protects them from predation. There are two kinds of perennial milkweeds that I love in the garden, the orange-flowered butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa, Zones 4-10) and pink-flowered swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata, Zones 3-8).  The species are beautiful,  but there are new varieties that are fancier than just the plain wildflowers.  Golden butterfly weed ‘Hello Yellow’ (Zones 3-9) is pretty and easily grown from seed, and the pretty pink ‘Cinderella‘ (Zones 3-9) swamp milkweed has vibrant color and nice fragrance.

An adult monarch feeds from salvia while a caterpillar feeds on a nearby milkweed that also holds a hanging chrysalis.

Monarchs are the only butterflies that migrate, some flying as many as 3,000 miles to overwinter in Mexico.  When spring arrives, they mate, and the females leave the males behind, start flying northward in the second week of March and continue their migration as the weather warms. Wherever they decide to stop, whether in Florida or Canada, the females begin to lay eggs, producing 3 to 4 new generations each year. When the weather cools, the monarchs begin to fly southward again where they overwinter in the forests of coastal California, and, more famously, the high-elevation oyamel fir forests of Mexico.

The Monarch population is down by 90 percent.  The main reasons are loss of habitat, with more land being built up and used for agriculture, and pesticides. So, please consider planting some milkweed in your flower garden this year.

Design an All-Season Butterfly Garden

Coneflowers and black-eyed-Susans are two essential summer-flowering perennials for butterflies.

A well-designed butterfly garden should have flowers all season and contain plants that feed the caterpillars of butterflies as well as the adults. You’ll know if you’ve done well when monarchs (Danaus plexippus), painted ladies (Vanessa cardui), swallowtails (Papilio spp.), and other butterflies visit your garden frequently and even stay to grow and pupate.

There are two ways to maintain constant blooms for your butterflies. You can 1) strategically plant spring, summer, and fall-flowering perennials they like, and 2) be sure to also plant ever-blooming annuals for butterflies. So many garden flowers are favored by lepidopterans, the task is easy. Just a couple of visits to the garden center should do it.

Then there is designing your butterfly garden. I have created an example of an easy, beautiful butterfly border design (below) that contains common butterfly flowers. Use it as a guide for mingling perennials and annuals together to offer flowers and larval food for butterflies through the season.

What Makes a Butterfly Flower a Butterfly Flower?

Pentas lanceolata Graffiti Violet flowers are tubular, colorful, and provide a nice landing pad for this Painted Lady butterfly. These are essential traits for a true butterfly-pollinated flower.

The technical term for butterfly pollination is psychophily. Some flowers are primarily pollinated by butterflies because they have suites of traits that attract these insects. In general, butterflies have a poor sense of smell, long curled tongues (proboscises), good vision, and must perch to feed. To accommodate these traits, flowers most adapted for butterfly pollination are:

  1. Not strongly scented
  2. Tubular and filled with nectar
  3. Colorful
  4. Shaped for butterfly perching with flat-topped or domed clusters or wide-petals

If you look for these traits, you don’t necessarily need to know the names of butterfly flowers. You can visually identify them.

Eight Favorite Butterfly Annual Flowers

Zinnias of all kinds are classic annuals for butterflies, such as this tiger swallowtail.

If you are just starting out with butterfly gardening, the fastest, lowest-cost way to attract them is with ever-blooming annuals. These can be started from seed or purchased as starts from the garden center. Here are eight of the very best annuals for butterflies that will not disappoint. All should be planted in the ground after the threat of frost as passed. (Click here to determine your last frost date.)

  1. Bloodflower (Asclepias curassavica): The beauty of this tropical milkweed is that its flower clusters of bright red, yellow, and orange just keep blooming throught the warm months. All butterflies love it, but the plants also feed monarch caterpillars. Often it will gently self-sow from year to year.
  2. Bloodflower is a great tender milkweed for all butterflies, such as this Queen butterfly.

    Purple Queen-Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota ‘Dara’): The lacy blooms of Dara Queen-Anne’s Lace are purplish-pink and loved by all butterflies. It is especially important to swallowtail caterpillars, which feed on the foliage.

  3. Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus): Butterflies are attracted to this widely popular, low-cost bedding plant, which is easy, beautiful, and can be found at any garden center.
  4. Heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens): The violet-blue flower clusters of heliotrope are equally loved by butterflies and bees. Keep the old flower clusters pinched off to make way for new fragrant domes of blooms.
  5. Lantana (Lantana camara): Gardeners living in hot, dry places should plant lantana for its multi-colored blooms of gold, orange, pink, and red, which are irresistible to butterflies. Those in the Bandana Series are compact and colorful.
  6. All butterflies are attracted to the long-tubed flowers of Madagascar periwinkle.

    Egyptian Starcluster (Pentas lanceolata): Everyone who plants a butterfly garden should grow the effortless Egyptian starcluster. Varieties may have lavender, pink, purple, red, or white flowers. Those in the Starcluster Series have extra-large clusters.

  7. Verbena (Verbena spp. and hybrids): There are so many fantastic garden verbenas and butterflies like them all. Superbenas are nonstop bloomers that come in many exciting colors, and the upright stems of Lollipop Brazilian vervain (Verbena bonariensis ‘Lollipop’) are equally attractive and popular with pollinators.
  8. Zinnias (Zinnia hybrids): Plant any zinnia. Butterflies like them all. My personal favorites are the classic, low, spreading Profusion Zinnias, with the deepest orange-red Profusion Fire being one of the finest colors.

Eight Favorite Butterfly Perennial Flowers

Long-blooming perennials, such as coneflowers are a favorite food of butterflies and other pollinators.
  1. Aster (Aster species and hybrids): Fall is a time when migrating butterfly species are on the move, and asters are one of the best flowers to feed them at this time. Their purple, violet-blue, pink or white flowers are also a delight. The compact, pale violet-blue flowered aromatic aster ‘October Skies’ (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium ‘October Skies’, USDA Hardiness Zones 5-8) is a billowy beauty that flowers in mid to late fall.
  2. Butterflyweed (Asclepias spp.): This is an essential larval plant for monarch caterpillars, and its clusters of brilliant orange flowers are long-blooming and bright. (Watch the video below to learn more about the many different kinds available.)
  3. Butterflybush now comes in very compact forms that fit well into perennial gardens.

    Butterflybush (Buddleia davidii): There are so many different Buddleia from which to choose, but new super dwarf varieties make them ideal for perennial borders. The 2-foot Pugster® Amethyst has especially large, pretty, violet flower clusters.

  4. Bluestar (Amsonia species and hybrids): The late spring or early summer blooming bluestar is an early garden flower for butterflies. ‘Storm Cloud’ is a spectacular form that creates a bushy 2-foot mound covered with clusters of pale blue flowers.
  5. Coneflowers (Echinacea species and hybrids): The large daisies of summer-blooming coneflowers come in lots of colors and feed many pollinators. Their dry seedheads even feed songbirds in fall and winter.
  6. Blazing Star (Liatris spp.): With bold spikes of purple flowers, blazing stars make quite a statement in the summer garden. Butterflies can’t get enough of their nectar. Try the Midwest-native prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya), which has massive flower spikes reaching 3-6 feet high from late summer to fall. The more manageable Kobold dense blazing star (Liatris spicata ‘Kobold’) is a spectacular bloomer with loads of rosy-purple flower spikes reaching skyward in midsummer.
  7. Butterflyweed is one of the prettiest perennial milkweeds for the garden.

    Tall Phlox (Phlox paniculata): Butterflies are drawn to all phlox flowers. Two favorite tall phlox varieties for summer butterflies are the heavy-flowering, pure white ‘David’ (4 feet) and the coral-pink flowered Garden Girls Glamour Girl (3 feet). Both are mildew resistant when most others are susceptible.

  8. Willow-Leaved Sunflower (Helianthus saliciflious): The natural form of this wildflower reaches a whopping 8 to 10 feet, but the heavy flowering variety ‘First Light’ reaches just 3 to 4 feet and becomes covered with yellow daisies in late summer to fall.

Garden Designs

I sketched this warm-hued, 4’x6′ butterfly garden with plants that I like. (front=Profusion Fire zinnias, sides=lantana Bandana Cherry and bloodflower, second row=tall red Egyptian starcluster and orange butterflyweed, third row=purple coneflower and black-eyed-Susans, and last row= First Light perennial sunflowers.

There are several designing rules of thumb when it comes to planting any flower border. Here are the five most important.

  1. Plant taller perennials towards the back or center of a flower garden.
  2. Leave space for colorful annuals towards the front of the beds. Everblooming annuals will extend the floral show.
  3. Consider flower color: Dot the garden with flowers in complementary colors that are pleasing to you.
  4. Consider bloom time: Choose a mix of flowers that bloom in spring, summer, fall, and all season. That way, your garden will never look dull and colorless.
  5. Create a rendering of your garden beforehand to get a sense of what it will look like.

Spring is the time to plan your butterfly garden and procure plants for it. Flower gardens are so much nicer when they feed wildlife, and butterflies are like flowers in flight. The more you have in your garden, the better.