2017-06-29 / From The Garden

Getting the Butterflies

By Cynthia Gibson


Monarch butterfly population has been on the decline. One of the biggest factors is the increasing scarcity of its only caterpillar host plant: milkweed. Without milkweed, monarchs cannot successfully reproduce. Planting milkweed in your garden helps reverse this problem. 
(Photos by Carmen Rugel) Monarch butterfly population has been on the decline. One of the biggest factors is the increasing scarcity of its only caterpillar host plant: milkweed. Without milkweed, monarchs cannot successfully reproduce. Planting milkweed in your garden helps reverse this problem. (Photos by Carmen Rugel) Who doesn’t like butterflies? They are gentle, fly as well as float, and hover over our gardens, adding a touch of magic. Rhode Island is fortunate to be on the migration route and to serve as a breeding ground for the Monarch butterfly.

How do we encourage the picky Monarch to come to our backyards? Plant milkweed. Monarchs will only lay their eggs on milkweed, and when they are in their caterpillar stage they only eat milkweed leaves. Milkweed is truly a weed, but interesting nonetheless. If the stem is broken, its sap is white, like milk. It is non-invasive and self-seeds. It also attracts other butterflies, such as swallowtails, painted ladies, American ladies, red admirals, fritillaries and hairstreaks. Butterflies find their nectar particularly desirable.

Milkweed has large clumps of fleurets that top tall stems. In the fall, the pods dry out, crack open and explode with hundreds of glorious seed-borne puffs of fluff! As a child, I remember fields of milkweed in Ohio. You would peel back the skin of an immature milkweed pod and find a silver fish-shaped seed pod. Whether or not you are feeding Monarch butterflies, this plant is an excellent weed, with style, and looks terrific in fall arrangements.

Buddleia, which is not a weed and is also known as "butterfly bush," blooms from spring through fall, if dead-headed with regularity. The nectar of the long plume-like blossoms of the Buddleia produce nectar that butterflies of all types cannot resist.

These flowering bushy shrubs are not expensive and can be found in most garden centers and nurseries. The more exotic varieties can be purchased from growers that sell online. The most dramatic-looking Buddleia are the deep blue and purple Black Knight, and the deep ruby Royal Red. For those who want a butterfly garden that is white, plant a white Buddleia named Ice Chip. It is magnificent. There are also bi-color Buddleia that are unique and unusual. The base of the conical blossoms starts out pink yellow and orange, and then melts into pink and ends in lavender!


The snapdragon is an annual that attracts butterflies. The snapdragon is an annual that attracts butterflies. The butterfly bush loves direct sun. Each year it will also produce a great deal of dead wood. Prune back Buddleia hard in March. That will make your blossoms larger. If you don’t have enough room for a Buddleia that is up to six feet high and six feet wide, there are perennial and annual plants that butterflies flock to, such as Hollyhock and Snapdragons. Of the herbs, butterflies love dill.


Cynthia Gibson is a gardener, food writer and painter. She gardens and tends her miniature orchard in Newport. Cynthia Gibson is a gardener, food writer and painter. She gardens and tends her miniature orchard in Newport. So, if you want to see butterflies flutter over your garden this summer, it is not too late to plant those flowers. Get them in the ground as soon as possible, and you will be thrilled by the sight of the Monarchs floating into your yard, terrace or patio. If you can only plant small snapdragons, butterflies will find their way to your flowerbox!

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