The Art of Attraction

Watching butterflies and hummingbirds flit, flutter and fly through the landscape is a beautiful scene. Both of these creatures are a welcomed addition to most any landscape. Fortunately, attracting butterflies and hummingbirds is quite easy — if you provide them with a few basic things.

In addition to installing the right plants to help them complete their lifecycle, butterflies also need the site to be sunny, have a source of water, some rocks for basking on before flight and shelter from the wind and predators. Butterflies may be deterred or killed by insecticides. If you must use an insecticide, select a low-toxicity product and use it with great care. Hummingbirds for the most part, just need the right nectar-producing plants, or a brightly colored feeder filled with sugar water, to be lured into the landscape.


There are approximately 725 butterfly species in the United States and Canada, and 28,000 species worldwide with the majority of them in the tropics. Butterflies have a life cycle that is made up of four stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and adult (butterfly). The caterpillar, which will ultimately turn into a butterfly, often feeds on different plants than the adult butterfly. During the caterpillar stage, the foliage of ‘host plants’ provides the necessary energy for the caterpillar to grow and develop. These host plants can be trees, shrubs, flowers, vegetables and weeds (see Table 1 on page 33). Some kinds of caterpillars are picky eaters and will only feed on one species of plant, the monarch butterfly for example, while others will feed on a number of different species. Hungry caterpillars can consume a surprisingly large amount of foliage in a short amount of time. Because of this, you may need to change your expectation of what that part of the landscape should look like during the feeding frenzy. By planting a large number of these host plants, the amount of feeding damage to any one plant won't be that severe.

Most butterflies feed on nectar from “nectar plants.” By diversifying the landscape to include a range of plant species that will provide a continuous bloom of nectar-producing plants throughout the summer, there should be a steady stream of butterflies visiting the landscape.

Table 2 on page 33 and Table 3 on page 34 include a few of the perennials and annuals that will attract butterflies to the landscape. The tables highlight if they function as host plants, nectar plants or both. Also included is the time of bloom for the various species. Selecting plants that will provide a sequence of blooms throughout the summer will be ideal for the butterflies. A side benefit is there will be color in the landscape all summer long as well.


Hundreds of different hummingbird species live throughout the United States. Unlike butterflies, they don't tend to be picky eaters and most species can be lured to the landscape using the same plants. Hummingbirds are most drawn to tubular flowers in shades of red, pink or fuchsia. And just like butterflies, they are attracted to a combination of trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals and vines (see Table 4 on page 34). Selecting a combination of these plants with varied bloom times will attract hummingbirds to the landscape for the longest timeframe.

The presence of butterflies and hummingbirds in the landscape is a wonderful site. Providing the habitats they need in order to complete their lifecycle and selecting the right plants is important to attracting both of them. By spending a little extra time and attention on plant selection to include both host and nectar plants for butterflies, and nectar plants for hummingbirds, these creatures should be regular visitors to the landscape.

Ann Marie VanDerZanden, Ph. D., is an associate professor of horticulture at Iowa State University (Ames, Iowa). Credits: Thanks to Donald A. Lewis, Extension entomologist, and Richard Jauron, Extension horticulturist, Iowa State University, for providing references and information for this article.

Table 1. This table lists some of the most common butterflies found in the United States and their respective host and nectar plants1
Butterfly Caterpillar Host Plants Adult Nectar Plants2
Black Swallowtail Queen Anne's lace, Dill, Carrot, Celery, Parsley Milkweed, Thistle, Phlox, Clover, Alfalfa
Tiger Swallowtail Cherry, Ash, Birch, Apple, Cottonwood, Willow, Lilac Thistle, Milkweed, Phlox, Clover, Joe Pye Weed, Bee balm, Sunflower
Sulfurs and Whites
Cabbage White Cabbage, Collards, Broccoli, Mustard, Nasturtium Mustard, Red Clover, Aster, Bee Balm, Milkweed, Nasturtium
Clouded (Common) Sulfur Clovers, Vetch, Alfalfa Clovers, Goldenrod, Aster, Milkweed, Phlox, Knapweed
Orange Sulfur (Alfalfa caterpillar) Alfalfa, Clovers, Vetch, Crown Vetch, Wild indigo Alfalfa, Clovers, Thistle, Aster, Goldenrod, Milkweed, Dandelion
Gossamer Wings
Spring Azure Dogwood, Viburnum, Cherry, Sumac, Black snakeroot Milkweed, Dandelion, Violet, Forget-me-not
Eastern Tailed Blue Vetch, Clovers, Alfalfa, Yellow Sweet clover Cinquefoil, Wild strawberry, White clover, Dogbane, Butterflyweed, Asters
Gray Hairstreak Clover, Mallow, Mint, Hibiscus, Corn, Oak Milkweed, Goldenrod, Sweet clover, Sweet pea, Queen Anne's lace
Brush-Footed Butterflies
Monarch Milkweeds Milkweed, Goldenrod, Cosmos, Joe Pye Weed, Thistle, Gayfeather, Lilac, Lantana
Great Spangled Fritillary Violets Thistle, Joe Pye Weed, Black-eyed Susan, Milkweed, Coneflowers, Bee Balm
Mourningcloak Willow, Elm, Poplar, Birch, Hackberry Rotting fruit, Sap, Milkweed, Shasta Daisy
Painted Lady Thistle, Legumes, Knapweed, Burdock, Hollyhock, Common mallow Thistle, Joe Pye Weed, Aster, Bee Balm, Gayfeather, Zinnia, Milkweed, Sweet William
Red Admiral Nettles, False nettles Rotting fruit, Sap, Aster, Thistle, Dandelion, Ageratum, Gayfeather, Goldenrod, Red clover, Shasta daisy, Dahlia
1 Inclusion of plants does not constitute an endorsement that they should be planted. Evaluate your site carefully and all available information before deciding to plant or retain any plants in the landscape.
2 Most butterflies will feed on nectar from a wide variety of plant species. Listed plants are common examples, and not a complete list.

Table 2. Best Bet Perennials to Attract Butterflies
Common Name Botanical Name Host plant Nectar Plant Bloom Time*
Aster Aster spp. x x late summer
Bee Balm Monarda didyma x mid-summer
Black-eyed Susan Rudbeckia spp. x x mid-summer
Butterfly bush Buddleia spp. x mid-summer
Butterfly weed Asclepias tuberosa x late summer
Coreopsis Coreopsis spp. x mid-summer
Daylily Hemerocalis spp. x mid-summer
Goldenrod Solidago spp. x mid-summer
Hollyhock (single flower species) Alcea rosea x x mid-summer
Hibiscus Hibiscus spp. x x mid-summer
Pearly everlasting Anaphalis margaritacea x mid-summer
Phlox Phlox spp. x mid-summer
Stonecrop; Sedum Sedum spp. x x late summer
Sunflower Helianthus spp. x x late summer
Sweet William; Pinks Dianthus spp. x x mid-summer
Yarrow Achillea spp. x mid-summer
*The bloom time listed for these perennials is when they are in peak bloom. This may vary slightly depending on hardiness zone. Most of these plants bloom for three to four weeks, although some may stay in bloom quite a bit longer, even up to the first frost.

Table 3. Best Bet Annuals to Attract Butterflies
Common Name Botanical Name Host plant Nectar Plant Bloom Time*
Borage Borago officinalis x x mid-summer
Cosmos ‘Sensation’ Cosmos bipinnatus x early summer
Dill Anethum graveolens x mid-summer
Lantana Lantana camara x mid-summer
Marigold Tagetes spp. x x mid-summer
Nasturtium Tropaeolum majus x x mid-summer
Parsley Petroselinum crispum x x early summer
Pentas Pentas lanceolata x mid-summer
Sweet slyssum Lobularia maritima x x early summer
Violets Viola spp. x x spring
Zinnia Zinnia elegans x summer-fall
*The bloom time listed for these annuals is when they first come into bloom for the growing season. This may vary slightly depending on hardiness zone. These species generally stay in bloom throughout the growing season until the first hard frost.

Table 4. Best Bet Plants to Attract Hummingbirds
Common Name Botanical Name Bloom Time
Red Buckeye Aesculus pavia spring
Northern Catalpa Catalpa speciosa spring
Bottlebrush buckeye Aesculus parviflora early summer
Lilac Syringa spp. spring
Weigela (red flowered varieties) Weigela florida spring
Beards tongue Penstemon barbatus early summer
Cardinal flower Lobelia cardinalis early summer
Columbine Aquilegia canadensis spring
Coral Bells Heuchera sanguinea spring
Delphinium Delphinium x elatum mid-summer
Gayfeather Liatris spicata early summer
Gladiola Gladiolus x hortulanus mid-summer
Hosta Hosta spp. mid-summer
Lily Lilium spp. mid-summer
Fuchsia Fuchsia x hybrida mid-summer
Impatiens Impatiens wallerana early summer
Morning Glory Ipomoea purpurea early summer
Nicotiana Nicotiana alata mid-summer
Petunia Petunia x hybrida early summer
Pineapple Sage Salvia elegans mid-summer
Red Salvia Salvia splendens mid-summer
Scarlet Runner Bean Phaseolus coccineus late summer
Trumpet Vine Campsis radicans mid-summer

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