Some Great Plants for Attracting Butterflies in Central North Carolina

by Will Cook

A true butterfly garden needs to have nectar sources for adults, host plants for larvae to feed on, and shelter, which can be provided by any number of plants. Don't bother with "butterfly houses" -- they are strictly for ornament and don't do anything for butterflies. If your neighbors don't object, butterflies also love mud, fresh manure, and rotting fruit. Chapel Hill yard butterfly list where I tested out these plants (Note: I'm no longer living there).

Notes: B = Also great for birds, N = Native to North Carolina

Flowers for attracting nectaring adults:

  • Agastache spp. - Giant-Hyssop, Anise-Hyssop, Hummingbird Mint. A. foeniculum x rugosa 'Blue Fortune' is particularly attractive and easy to grow. The orange-flowered hummingbird-attracting southwestern/Mexican species usually die out after a year or two, but perform well as annuals. Notes: B,(N) (some species are native)
  • Apocynum spp. - Dogbane. Tied with various milkweeds as the #1 native plant for attracting butterflies in early summer, though it tends to be weedy. The most common species is Apocynum cannabinum (Hemp Dogbane). Notes: N
  • Asclepias spp. - Milkweed. The best native species for attracting butterflies in early summer, tied with Apocynum (Dogbane). Asclepias syriaca is the caterpillar host plant for Monarch. Butterfly Milkweed (A. tuberosa) and Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) are my favorites. Notes: N
  • Aster spp. - Aster. Many different species are good for butterflies. One favorite of mine is the Climbing Aster (Aster carolinianus), a deciduous shrub that is covered with large fragrant blooms late in the fall, continuing well after frost. I have 10' tall one leaning on a telephone pole guy wire with Carolina Yellow-Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) and Morning-Glory (Ipomoea tricolor 'Heavenly Blue') for support. Other Asters are perennials that die back to the ground every winter. Asters are also host plants for Pearl Crescent. Notes: N
  • Buddleja davidii - Butterfly Bush. This long-blooming hardy shrub is the #1 butterfly magnet. Many different cultivars are available - most do well, but I don't recommend the white and yellow cultivars. Other Buddleja species are also great, but B. davidii is the best in my experience. Also enjoyed by hummingbirds. Nursery catalogs often spell the genus "Buddleia", which is incorrect. Buddleja davidii rarely escapes from cultivation here, but in other areas it can be a noxious weed. Notes: B
  • Ceanothus americanus - New Jersey Tea. Low shrub for dry areas that is also the host plant for Mottled Duskywing. Notes: N
  • Cephalanthus occidentalis - Common Buttonbush. An excellent native shrub for pond margins and other sunny wet areas. In summer it's covered with white balls of flower clusters, which are usually covered with butterflies. Notes: N
  • Clethra alnifolia - Coastal Sweet-Pepperbush. One of the best native ornamental deciduous shrubs. Blooms in summer, with very fragrant flowers. Notes: N
  • Coreopsis spp. - Coreopsis, Tickseed. Many great native species to choose from. Notes: B,N
  • Cuphea spp. - Mexican False Heather, Mexican Cigar Plant, waxweed. Several species, mostly from Mexico, are attractive ornamentals and also super butterfly attracters. Bears no resemblance to heather, despite one common name. Some species also attract hummingbirds. Notes: B
  • Echinacea spp. - Purple Coneflower. E. purpurea is one of the best - right up there with Butterfly Milkweed. The rare native Smooth Coneflower (Echinacea laevigata) is also worth planting. Notes: B,N
  • Eupatorium spp. - Joe Pye Weed, Boneset. Joe Pye Weeds (several species) are tall perennials especially loved by large butterflies, such as swallowtails. The blue Mistflower (Eupatorium (Conoclinium) coelestinum) is one of the top late-season natural butterfly nectar sources in the Coastal Plain. The tall white Late-flowering Boneset (Eupatorium serotinum) attracts huge numbers of swallowtails along the C&O Canal in Maryland. Notes: N
  • Lantana camara - Lantana, Hedgeflower, Shrub-Verbena. Lantanas are super butterfly magnets, especially for skippers, and are also used by hummingbirds. The most magnetic seem to be the yellow ones. Most Lantanas are not hardy here, but a few, such as 'Miss Huff', are hardy in zone 7. If you have young children, be sure to get a cultivar, such as 'Miss Huff,' that does not produce fruits - they are beautiful, but poisonous. Lantana is a major weed problem in Hawaii and other places, but not here. Notes: B
  • Liatris spp. - Blazing Star. Many great native species to choose from. Notes: N
  • Malus spp. - Apple, Crabapple. In addition to the flowers, apple trees drop lots of fruit on the ground in summer and fall - rotting fruit is very attractive to several species that don't take nectar from flowers. Common Apple (M. pumila) is great, but I'd like to try the native Southern Crabapple (M. angustifolia). Notes: B,(N)
  • Mentha spp. - Mint. Especially good for hairstreaks. Plant in an area where they can be easily contained, since they tend to be aggressive spreaders.
  • Pentas lanceolata - Pentas. One of the best annual bedding plants for butterflies. Another bedding plant that some have had success with (but not me) is Globe-Amaranth (Gomphrena globosa) (which sometimes comes back from seed).
  • Phlox spp. - Phlox, Thrift. In addition to being highly ornamental garden plants, the many species and cultivars are good nectar sources for butterflies. Notes: N
  • Pycnanthemum incanum - Hoary Mountain-Mint. Amazingly attractive to hairstreaks and interesting species of wasps and bees. I have a 3'x8' patch next to a Redcedar and have seen as many as 14 Juniper Hairstreaks (record high count for N.C.), 10 Red-banded Hairstreaks, and half a dozen species of wasps on it at one time! Other species of Pycnanthemum are good, but don't seem to be quite as attractive. I got my super-magnetic variety from Bramble Wood nursery at the Raleigh Farmer's Market. Notes: N.
  • Salvia spp. - Sage. Smaller-flowered Salvias are good for butterflies. Good perennials include the Texan S. farinacea (Mealy-cup Sage), hybrid S. 'Indigo Spires', and several European species such as S. x superba. The large-flowered Salvias that attract hummingbirds are good for attracting large late fall butterflies, such as Cloudless Sulphurs. Salvia guaranitica is particularly highly recommended because it's so reliable and easy to grow. See Notes on Growing Salvias for more. The best place to get Salvias (by far) is Big Bloomers (see below). Notes: B,(N).
  • Sedum spectabile - Showy Sedum. This popular fall-blooming perennial is especially loved by hairstreaks. 'Autumn Joy' is the most popular cultivar.
  • Stokesia laevis - Stokes'-Aster, Stokesia. This perennial southeastern US native with big blue flowers does well in Chapel Hill as well as in my yard near Fancy Gap, Virginia (zone 6), where it's a favorite of Great Spangled Fritillaries.
  • Verbena spp. - Vervain. One of the best buttefly plants is Verbena bonariensis (Buenos Aires Verbena, Purple-top Vervain). The "Verbena on a stick" (as Tony Avent calls it) is the best of several species of Verbena that attract butterflies. It's a hardy perennial that reseeds itself. The similar Verbena brasiliensis (Brazilian Verbena) has smaller flowers and seems to be weedier and not as attractive to butterflies. Verbena hastata (Simpler's-Joy) is a native worth trying. I've rarely seen butterflies on the popular 'Homestead Purple' Verbena (Glandularia x hybrida). The cut-leaved South American Glandularia pulchella (usually sold as Verbena tenuisecta) may be worth trying. Notes: (N)
  • Vernonia noveboracensis - New York Ironweed. One of the top butterfly attractors in the mountains. Likes moister spots. Notes: N
  • Zinnia spp. - Zinnia. Some of the best annuals. Other annual composites, such as Tithonia, should do just as well. Avoid cultivars with doubled flowers.
  • "Weeds". Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), White Clover (Trifolium repens), and Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) are good butterfly plants. If you want to attract butterflies, you should not have one of the sterile "chemlawns" that are so popular nowadays. Notes: (N)

Host plants for butterfly larvae:

  • Aristolochia spp. - Pipevine. For Pipevine Swallowtails. A. macrophylla (Dutchman's-Pipe) is a handsome deciduous vine native to the mountains, but I've never tried growing it. Notes: N
  • Arundinaria gigantea - Cane, Giant Cane. If you have a moist area and space to let it roam, try our native bamboo. Cane is the host for many unusual and hotly desired butterfly species. Notes: N
  • Asclepias syriaca - Common Milkweed. The caterpillar host plant for Monarch is also a great nectar source. Notes: N
  • Asimina triloba - Pawpaw. Small, suckering bottomland tree for Zebra Swallowtails and tasty fruits. If you have limited space, try Dwarf Pawpaw (A. parviflora), which likes drier spots. Notes: N
  • Baptisia spp. - Wild Indigo. For Wild Indigo Duskywings. Closely related genera such as Thermopsis work as well. Notes: N
  • Brassicaceae (Cruciferae) spp. - Collard greens, creasy greens, and other cabbage family members are not only tasty and nutritious, they're enjoyed by Cabbage Whites, Checkered Whites, and Falcate Orange-Tips. Notes: (N)
  • Cassia spp. - Partridge Pea, Senna. Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista (Cassia) fasciculata) brightens up dry open woods. Host for Cloudless Sulphur, Little Yellow, and Sleepy Orange. Notes: N
  • Celtis spp. - Hackberries, Sugarberry. Three species are native to the Triangle area: Sugarberry (C. laevigata) is a common large tree that does best in moist areas. Common Hackberry (C. occidentalis) is similar but much less common. Georgia Hackberry (C. tenuifolia) is an uncommon small tree that does well in drier areas. Host for American Snout, Question Mark, Hackberry Emperor, and Tawny Emperor. Notes: B,N
  • Chamaecyparis thyoides - Atlantic White-Cedar. Rare native to the Coastal Plain that is the sole host plant for the (not surprisingly) rare Hessel's Hairstreak. It's highly unlikely that you'd get a vagrant Hessel's in the Piedmont, but you can always hope. Even without Hessel's, the tree is a fine ornamental that provides cover for other species of butterflies and birds. It is becoming easier to find as horticulturists look for alternatives to Leyland Cypress. Best in moist spots. Notes: B,N
  • Cornus florida - Flowering Dogwood. Host for Spring Azure. Notes: B,N
  • Foeniculum vulgare 'Purpureum' - Bronze Fennel. Excellent fodder for Black Swallowtails. Perennial herb. Non-bronze fennel works just as well, but isn't as attractive. Also good as a nectar plant for hairstreaks.
  • Ilex opaca - American Holly. Host for Henry's Elfin. Notes: B,N
  • Juniperus virginiana - Eastern Redcedar. For evergreen screening, plant this instead of the overplanted Leyland Cypress (which isn't native anywhere and does nothing for butterflies). Host plant for the Juniper Hairstreak, a pretty little mint-green butterfly. Best in drier, less acidic spots. There are many great cultivars, but they're difficult to find at garden centers -- you could just transplant seedlings that probably are sprouting in your yard (courtesy of birds). Notes: B,N
  • Lindera benzoin - Spicebush. Host for Spicebush Swallowtail. Needs a moist spot. Notes: N
  • Passiflora incarnata - Passion Flower. Might help lure a vagrant Gulf Fritillary or Zebra. Notes: N
  • Petroselinum crispum - Parsley. Great for "parsley-worms" - Black Swallowtail larvae.
  • Poaceae (Gramineae) spp. - native grasses. Many different species use various grasses as host plants. Some of the most grasses most commonly used for ornament include Andropogon/Schizachyrium spp. (broomsedge, bluestem), Chasmanthium latifolium (River Oats), Eragrostis spp. (lovegrass), Muhlenbergia spp. (muhly), and Panicum virgatum (Switchgrass). Plant Delights has a great selection of these. Be careful only to plant native grasses -- exotic grasses such as Cynodon dactylon (Bermudagrass), Digitaria spp. (Crabgrass), Festuca (Lolium) arundinacea (Tall Fescue), Microstegium vimineum (Japanese Stilt Grass, Nepalese Brown-Top), Paspalum dilatatum (Dallis Grass, Golden Crown Grass), and Sorghum halepense (Johnsongrass) are some of our worst weed problems. Some invasive exotics still commonly sold include Cortaderia selloana (Pampas Grass) and Miscanthus sinensis (Maiden Grass, Chinese Silver Grass). Though most don't cause problems, you can't be sure which ones will before you try them - it's not worth the risk to plant any exotic ornamental grass. Notes: B,(N)
  • Prunus serotina - Black Cherry. This weedy native small tree is the host plant for E. Tiger Swallowtail, Coral Hairstreak, and Red-spotted Purple. Also great for birds, as you can tell by all the seedlings that sprout in your yard. Notes: B,N
  • Quercus spp. - Oak. Every yard needs an oak tree. There are 16 native species in the area, from the majestic slow-growing White Oak (Q. alba) to the fast-growing Willow Oak (Q. phellos). Avoid the exotic Sawtooth Oak (Q. acutissima), since it is overplanted and there are many better native alternatives. Host for White M Hairstreak, Juvenal's Duskywing, and Horace's Duskywing. Notes: B,N
  • Salix spp. - Willow. Black Willow (Salix nigra) and other native willows are good for a wet spot and host for Viceroy. Notes: B,N
  • "Weeds". Many species of butterfly feed on various grasses, clover, Lamb's-Quarters (Chenopodium album), plantain (Plantago spp.), violets (Viola spp.) and others. A "chemlawn" monoculture is not good if you want more butterflies. If you can't get rid of the Crabgrass (Digitaria spp.) and Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon) that take over your garden, you can tell folks that you left them there for the butterflies! Notes: (N)

Where can I find these plants?

- Can't miss!

  • Big Bloomers in Tramway, just south of Sanford. A plant collector's dream - they have just about every perennial and annual you can think of (plus a few shrubs) at fairly cheap prices. Take US 1 south past Sanford, turn right (west) at the Tramway stoplight, then turn left at the first road past the elementary school (look for the sign on the right).
  • Niche Gardens is an excellent nursery just west of Chapel Hill.
  • The North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill. In spring and summer they have a native plant sale (behind the main building) and distribute free seeds to members.
  • Plant Delights south of Raleigh is pricey, but well worth a trip. If you're an avid gardener, you'll spend at least $100 the first time you visit!
  • The Raleigh Farmer's Market - be sure to visit Messenbrink's and Bramblewood.

- Recommended

  • Carolina Wild Nursery - a new native plant nursery in Anderson, SC
  • Cure Nursery - native wetland trees and shrubs in Pittsboro. Bill and Jennifer Cure sell at NCBG Chatham Growers' sales; visits to the nursery are by appointment only - call 919 542-6186
  • Garden Supply Company in Cary
  • The JC Raulston Arboretum at NC State (Raleigh) has occasional plant sales.
  • The North Carolina Division of Forest Resources offers large numbers of hard-to-find native tree seedlings at cheap prices.
  • Red Mill Nursery on Red Mill Road north of Durham specializes in trees and shrubs.
  • Southern States in Carrboro has a great selection at reasonable prices.
  • We-Du Natives - Marion, NC. Under new management since it merged with Meadowbrook Nursery in summer 2002.

- Worth a look

  • Camellia Forest Nursery west of Chapel Hill specializes in exotic trees and shrubs (especially Camellias), but has a few native bird/butterfly plants.
  • Carrboro Farmer's Market
  • Family Home and Garden on NC 55
  • Greensboro Farmer's Market

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All photographs and text ©2013 by Will Cook unless otherwise noted.