Butterfly Gardening in Georgia

Photograph of a butterfly perched on a flowerIn North America there are over 750 species of butterflies; Georgia boasts 160. Almost any yard in Georgia can lure over 30 different species a year. Butterflies are great pollinators and will help every plant in your garden. You can lure butterflies to your garden if you provide host plants for the egg laying and larval stage, nectar plants for the adult stage, a water/moisture source, and protection.

Life of a Butterfly:

– Butterflies don’t tend to their offspring

– Egg stage is particularly vulnerable. Female deposits eggs in large numbers on or near a suitable host plant. Eggs are many shapes and colors according to the species of butterfly. After 4-10 days the eggs hatch (except in late summer or fall when then they may overwinter until bud break the following spring)

– After hatching a tiny caterpillar emerges and starts eating voraciously on its host plant (some species eat their egg shell first)

– Most eastern butterflies feed at night and take refuge within folded leaves or webs by day. Each species has distinct coloring and patterns.

– As caterpillar grows it sheds its skin many times. After 3 or 4 weeks they form a chrysalis. Each species has a different chrysalis.

– They overwinter and emerge in spring with small, damp wings. They hang with wings down and slowly pump blood through its veins until they are dry. They then rest for an hour and then start flying. During Winter Hibernation is sometimes interrupted on warm sunny days when the butterflies emerge to fly and feed.

Gardening for Butterflies:

– Provide areas suited for all four stages – egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, adult

– Identify the butterflies you hope to attract – given what each requires.

– Generally they fly when temps are 60 – 108 degrees. So, situate your Butterfly garden in a warm, sunny area with wind protection.

– Add stones, bricks or bare patches of ground as they act as solar collectors where they can bask in the sun and raise their body temps.

– PLAN and then plant your Butterfly garden. Include a mix of host plants and nectar plants that the species you want to attract prefer. Not all butterflies like the same thing!!! Most butterflies will only lay eggs on a specific plant suited to that butterfly (i.e., monarchs only want milk weed to lay eggs.) Almost all Butterflies will eat a variety of nectar plants.

– Plan for continual bloom from early spring thru late fall. With nectar plants, single flowers produce more nectar and are more accessible to butterflies vs. double blooms.

– Butterflies are attracted to expanses of many different colors – so plant in groups or clumps rather than a single plant.

– Don’t be too compulsively neat. Grasses offer shelter and are larval hosts to several species. If a garden is too neat it is easier for predators to find the butterflies. Be careful when removing leaves and plant debris as it could shelter a future Butterfly. Keep an area of your yard “The Butterfly Area” where you don’t rake the leaves in order to provide for homes during the winter for eggs or larva.

– Several butterflies feed on rotting fruit, so incorporate a fruit tree or create a feeding station with a bucket of overripe fruit. Banana peels are an excellent treat for your Butterflies!

– Provide a shallow pool with muddy edges. Several species are irresistibly drawn to minerals in mud, so use a shallow dish buried in the ground to lip level and add sand and water every day to keep the sand moist.

– Do not use pesticides or herbicides in your Butterfly Habitat.

– Study the list of host plants for larval (caterpillar) stage and the list of nectar for adult stage.

– Keep bird feeders and bird baths away from butterfly habitat area as birds will eat the caterpillars more easily.

Every caterpillar is not your enemy. Learn to tolerate a few chewed leaves. Pesticides and herbicides not only kill the pests they kill the butterflies!

Here are some common Butterflies of Georgia and some of the larval host plants they need:

Monarch – milkweeds, including butterfly weed, milkweed vines (Matelea)
Spicebush Swallowtail – spicebush, sassafras
Tiger Swallowtail – tulip poplar, green ash, white ash, sweet bay, wild cherry
Gulf Fritillary – mollypop or maypop, green passionflower or other passionflowers
Long-Tailed Skipper – members of the bean family
Silver-Spotted Skipper – black locust and other members of the bean family
Zebra Swallowtail – pawpaw
Pipevine Swallowtail – pipevine, snakeroot
Buckeye – broad-leaf plantain, ruellia, gerardia
Red-Spotted Purple – wild cherry
Snout Butterfly – hackberry
Hackberry Butterfly – hackberry, elms
Giant Swallowtail – Hercules club, members of the citrus family
Black Swallowtail – members of the carrot family including dill, fennel, parsley and Queen Anne’s lace
Painted Lady and American Painted Lady – thistle
Pearly Crescentspot – native asters
Mourning Cloak – willows, elms
Gray Hairstreak – beans, clover
Olive Hairstreak – red cedar
Henry’s Elfin – blueberry

Nectar Plants

The second thing is to have lots of “nectar plants.” These are plants with flowers that adult butterflies can feed on. The best nectar plants have a large flower head or cluster of flowers that the butterfly can land on and hold to as it goes from individual flower to flower. A gust of wind could blow them off course and it would take a lot of time and energy to get back to feeding, so they like to stay put and feed. Here are some favorite nectar plants that adult butterflies like: ironweed, butterfly weed (also a good host plant), joe-pye weed, summer phlox, thrift, buttonbush, abelia, lilac, liatris, native asters, goldenrod, sunflower, lantana, Tithonia (Mexican sunflower), purple coneflower and zinnias. Buddleia or butterfly bush is an excellent nectar source.


Smart Phone APPS

  • Audubon Butterflies – A Field Guide to North American Butterflies
  • Life of a Monarch Butterfly






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