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Starting a butterfly garden

By CATHY DUNN - Garden Club of Cape Coral | Jul 1, 2021

Who isn’t absolutely enchanted with butterflies? I can’t think of more welcome visitors to my gardens than the many varieties of butterflies that are present here in Southwest Florida – and the best news is that these beautiful creatures are year-round inhabitants of our subtropical paradise! Because they are present throughout the year, we don’t have to wait for the fleeting late spring/summer season to enjoy butterflies here as I did when I lived in more northern climates.

If you enjoy seeing butterflies flitting about, beginning a butterfly garden is simple and just requires some basic planning. Your butterfly garden can range from pots or patio containers to a large area in your yard; the same basic principles apply to every butterfly habitat. The most critical factor in designing your butterfly garden is to recognize that butterfly species have different requirements that change throughout their life cycle. Your goal is to provide plants that will attract butterflies, encourage them to linger and enable them to start a family! You only need four basic components to create a successful butterfly garden:

1. Adult Nectar Sources entice and nourish adult butterflies. Since butterflies are attracted to a wide variety of brightly colored blossoms, your garden will be both beautiful and welcoming to butterflies. Some of my favorite nectar sources include Penta, Lantana, Jatropha, Salvia and Porterweed. If you have room in your landscape, native shrubs such as Firebush and Golden Thryallis bloom virtually year-round in Southwest Florida, are highly attractive to butterflies and are a bright and easily maintained addition to your garden. Many varieties of nectar source plants are readily available in local garden centers.

2. Larval Host Plants attract female butterflies who lay their eggs on the plants which also provide food for butterfly larvae (caterpillars). Host plants are specific to individual butterfly species; three of the more common host plants in Southwest Florida are varieties of Milkweed (Asclepias) which supports Monarch and Queen butterflies; Corky Stemmed Passion Vine (Passiflora suberosa) for Julia, Zebra Longwing and Gulf Fritillary butterflies; and Bahama Cassia (Senna mexicana chapmanii) for Orange Barred Sulphur and Cloudless Sulphur butterflies. Once butterflies are established in your garden, you will see damaged leaves or even fully defoliated plants. Don’t worry – the caterpillars won’t destroy your garden, just these host plants, and the plant will recover and support new caterpillars.

Area garden centers are usually stocked with these host plants, but there are periods where milkweed can be hard to find due to high demand from butterfly gardeners; fortunately, most varieties of milkweed readily self-seed and produce new plants.

3. Shelter from temperature extremes, wind, storms/rain and predators is provided by plants or trees with different heights and growth habits. Host plants will also provide shelter, and many Florida native plants are well suited for this purpose.

4. Water is a critical element for your butterfly garden; while nectar supplies butterflies with necessary moisture, a large plant saucer filled with water and lined with rocks can supply access to water for your butterfly visitors.

The University of Florida has extensive resources for gardeners who are interested in butterflies; this link will take you to the home page for butterfly gardens and provide you with all the information you will need to establish a butterfly garden:


With an understanding of the four basic components of butterfly gardening, you’re now ready to get started on establishing a space in your landscape for these beautiful visitors. You probably have nectar sources already in place in your garden which will attract adult butterflies; adding host plants to feed the larvae will ensure that you continue to have new generations of colorful butterflies. Establishing a sanctuary for butterflies doesn’t require a lot of work or expense – but the return on your investment will provide a beautiful addition to your landscape!

Cathy Dunn is a Lee County Master Gardener Volunteer and Garden Club of Cape Coral member.