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.

Five Bold Salvias for Summer-Long Color

Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’ is tall, beautiful and blooms effortlessly.

Ask any gardener what their favorite plant is, and you are sure to get multiple answers. Some of my favorites are in the genus Salvia. It offers a wide variety of garden plants with impressive flowers.  I have many containers scattered throughout my garden, and there are more pots planted with salvias than any other flowers.  When I say Salvia, I am not just referring to common bedding types, like mealycup sage. My favorites are bold, perennial everbloomers.

Though many of the varieties that I plant are technically perennial if we have a severe winter they may not survive. My philosophy is that the plants provided me with so much enjoyment that even if they die, they were worth it. Fertile soil with good drainage is essential for potted salvias, so I use Black Gold® Natural & Organic Potting Mix and often add Black Gold® Perlite as an added insurance for good drainage. Most also require full sun to thrive and bloom to their fullest.

Here are my top five favorite bold salvias that will bloom through summer. As an added bonus, all are very attractive to hummingbirds.

Anise-Scented Sage

Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’ has been a longtime favorit,  and we have had at least one pot on our deck for many years.  It begins blooming in May and continues until fall.  Often plants at garden centers will be in bud or bloom, and the flowering will continue until frost.  Cut the old flower stems back to prevent the plant from going to seed, which will increase flowering.  It is marginally winter hardy. In my yard, the stems die to the ground but often the roots will survive.

Salvia guaranitica ‘Amistad’ is similar in habit to ‘Black and Blue’ except the flowers are darker and more violet instead of blue.  It is a consistent bloomer just like ‘Black and Blue’.

Scarlet Sage

Scarlet sage comes in several colors other than red, including purple, white, pink, salmon, and peach.

The tender perennial Salvia splendens ‘Saucy Red’ has flowers that look ‘muddy red’, according to a friend visiting my garden. This might not sound like an attractive color, but the plant is spectacular when it comes into full bloom.  ‘Saucy Red’ blooms late in the season, and in my garden it does not begin flowering until late summer.  It has not been winter hardy where I live, but further south it will live from year to year. The tall ‘van houttei Peach’ is another recommended Salvia splendens variety with palest peach-pink flowers.

The Wish Salvias

Salvia ‘Embers Wish’ has brilliant blooms on tall plants. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Salvia ‘Embers Wish’ was a new salvia for me last year, and I am planting it again this year.  It has coral-red flowers that appear early and continue all summer.  It is a prolific bloomer and a vigorous plant, reaching 4-feet high. It received full sun in my garden, and the flowers did not fade.  The roots did survive the winter and new growth is now appearing. Salvia ‘Wendy’s Wish’ is almost exactly the same but it has violet-pink flowers.

Bolivian Hummingbird Sage

Bolivian hummingbird sage has very attractive fuzzy pink flowers. (Image by Scott Zona)

Bolivian hummingbird sage (Salvia oxophora) was also new to me last year, and the flowers look the least like a typical salvia. It also goes by the common name Fuzzy Bolivian Sage because the flowers have a fuzzy, almost velvety look.  It prefers some afternoon shade in areas where it is very hot.  It is not winter hardy and since I did not want to lose it, I took the pot into our garage during the cold weather. While the plant did not look so good when I took it outside this spring, I cut it back about half way and new healthy looking growth is appearing.

Texas Sage

Texas sage can really take high, summer heat.

Classic Texas sage (Salvia coccinea) is a tender perennial that has bright red flowers that bloom all summer and well into fall to feed migrating hummingbirds. There are also white and coral-pink varieties. Pinch back the old flowers of this heat-tolerant tender perennial to encourage more blooms.

Try any one of these salvias, and I do not think you will be disappointed. You’ll have colorful blooms all season and hummingbirds to spare.

Spring Rhododendron and Rose Care

Once Rhododendron flowers have died, remove them from the base to stop seed development.

Spring is a good time for some general maintenance pruning on some trees and shrubs.  If your rhododendrons have not been deadheaded, it should be done as soon as possible.  I have to smile to myself when I use the word ‘deadhead’ as it is commonly used in garden lingo and many of us think everyone understands the meaning but that is not always the case.  I once had someone ask me, very seriously, what exactly did I mean when I said ‘deadhead’!  And when I paused briefly to consider the question, I could understand their uncertainty.

Beneath each rhododendron bloom lies two leaf buds. Be sure not to cut these off when deadheading your rhododendron.

Deadheading Rhododendrons

To put the word in the context, deadheading rhododendrons means to remove all of the unattractive dead or dying flower clusters.  If left on the plant, they will begin to produce seed, which takes energy the plant could be using for growth and vigor.  Look closely at the flower cluster, and it will have a stem that attaches to the branch.  The flower cluster should be cut or snapped off just above the junction where it meets the branch.  Remove the stem carefully because at the base there will be one, or several, new leaf buds forming that will emerge as the present year’s new growth. Be sure not to cut these.

Rhododendrons can also be pruned hard if they have gotten too tall.  Pruning after blooming is ideal.  If pruning is delayed, the buds for next year’s flowers will develop, and pruning hard will result in few or no flowers the following year.  If this has happened, and the plant needs to be pruned for height purposes, hard pruning should not harm the plant but don’t expect flowers.

Summer Rose Care

Cut the stems of hybrid teas lower than normal to regulate shrub size while encouraging more flowering

Hybrid tea roses often grow to six feet or more in one season, which is an unwelcome height in many gardens.  It is easy to continually prune roses throughout the season, as flower stems are cut for arrangements, but this may not be enough.  So, try cutting flowers and pruning at once. For example, if the desired rose height is four feet, go down the stem to the desired height when cutting a flower.  Roses are quite forgiving, and soon new flower buds will follow.  The advantage of pruning continuously throughout the season is that there will always be some bloom on some of the plants.  We are growing roses for their flowers and everything we can do to encourage flower production and keep the bush the size we want is the ideal goal to strive for.

Pruning Trees & Shrubs in Summer

Sometimes I think it is easier to do spring pruning on deciduous trees and shrubs because it is easier to see what branches need to be removed.  Once they have lost their leaves, it can be difficult to remember which branches were well placed and which were not.  Home gardeners can also prune and shape spring-flowering shrubs, such as lilac, Korean spice viburnum, and daphne, once flowering has ceased. With shrubs like these, it is essential to prune just after they flower to ensure you don’t remove next year’s flowers.

Prune lilacs just after they have bloomed. (Image by Jessie Keith)

As we head into summer, we have been having some record high temperatures here in the Pacific Northwest with little rain.  Many plants are suffering from these temperatures, but some techniques can help. It is not too late to add a mulch of Black Gold Waterhold Cocoblend Potting Soil, to help preserve soil moisture.  Plants in pots will benefit from this as much as those in the ground.  Try it. You will be surprised at the water-holding properties of this mix, and I think your plants will thank you.

Tried-and-True Early Summer Flowers

Hartlage Wine summersweet
Hartlage Wine sweetshrub of one of several resilient early summer bloomers in Mike’s garden.

Unseasonably warm weather continues here in the Pacific Northwest, and the plants are responding to it. In many cases they need supplemental watering earlier than what would be the norm. And while my lawn has remained green with no extra water, many plants are showing signs of stress with the heat. This is especially true for those grown in containers and newly planted color spots. I am very glad that I used Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix in all my pots this spring because it has done an excellent job of holding moisture for my summer flowers. Continue reading “Tried-and-True Early Summer Flowers”