Butterfly Gardens

Buckeye Butterfly
Photograph by Samantha Peckham

A few years ago, Olbrich Botanical Gardens was certified as a “colossal” Monarch Waystation by the Monarch Watch organization. If you’d like to create your own butterfly oasis, here are a few tips to get started.

Site Selection
It’s important to find a suitable site in your yard. Look for a spot somewhat sheltered from the wind that has good sunny exposure. If needed, you can create a space sheltered from the wind using trees and shrubs or even some tall fencing. Medium-sized trees and shrubs protect butterflies from windy conditions, give them a place to roost at night, and provide protection from predators. Shrubs, like beauty bush ( Kolkwitzia amabilis ) or butterfly bush ( Buddleja davidii ), not only provide shelter, but their flowers are a good food source for butterflies as well.

Butterflies are cold-blooded creatures that need the sun to warm up in the morning, so a spot with early-morning sun exposure will be best. A few small boulders, garden pavers, or patches of open ground will heat up in the morning sun and give butterflies a place to rest and warm up. Many plants that attract butterflies are sun loving as well, so a site that provides at least six hours of sun will be ideal all around.

Water is also important for butterflies not only for the moisture they receive, but also for the salts and minerals some of them need in their diets. Butterflies prefer damp areas on the ground where they can “puddle.” A wide, water-tight container, such as the top of a bird bath or tray from a pot, filled with coarse sand and buried to the rim would work well. Keep the water level just under the surface of the sand and top it off regularly, especially in the heat of the summer.

There are many plants (annuals, perennials, and shrubs) to choose from for your butterfly garden. Keep in mind that you need two types of plants—nectar plants to feed butterflies, and host plants they can lay their eggs on and to provide food for their caterpillar offspring. There can be overlap between the two types of plants, though some butterflies have very specific preferences for each (for example, Monarchs need milkweed as a host plant). Try to plant a diverse range of nectar and host plants, and use at least six of each variety so there are plenty of flowers for all the butterflies visiting your garden.

Want to dive deeper into butterfly gardening?
The Schumacher Library at Olbrich Botanical Gardens has many resources about butterflies in your area and the types of plants they prefer.

Mark Shimasaki is a former horticulturist at Olbrich Botanical Gardens.

Olbrich Botanical Gardens
3330 Atwood Avenue
Madison, WI 53704