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Butterflies and hummingbirds: Attract them to your garden

May 2nd, 2012 | Category: Growing

by Chuck McClung

Butterflies and hummingbirds are one of the most popular and welcome attractions in the backyard garden. Their brilliant colors and characteristic movements dazzle our senses. So how do we attract butterflies and hummingbirds to our gardens?
With all gardening endeavors, I always say, “know your plant.” And to know your plant is to know it in two ways. First, understand its growth habit, or what the plant does over the course of one year. And second, understand its  native habitat, or where the plant is found, out there in nature. When we put these two ideas together, we realize that the goal for any type of gardening is to reproduce the native habitat of the plant to get the desired growth habit, while having lots of fun. The same principles apply when attracting butterflies and hummingbirds to our landscape.

Plant flowers that provide a nectar source for butterflies. FILE PHOTO


Butterflies are famous for their unique lifestyle in which an adult butterfly produces an egg which become a larva, or caterpillar. The caterpillar pupates, or forms a cocoon from which the mature adult butterfly emerges.

To attract butterflies, we must provide plants that serve as (1) nectar (food) sources for adult butterflies, and (2) host plants as food for caterpillars. Some butterflies do not eat nectar sources, while others may eat sap, fruit, or even be attracted to dung.

Many different plants attract many different butterflies. Providing several different types of nectar plants, blooming at various stages during the year is a great way to attract butterflies. Try to have lots of plants as nectar sources in late summer and fall, when butterflies are most numerous.

Some of the more popular plants that provide nectar sources for adult butterflies include perennials like Dianthus, Jupiter’s Beard, Columbine, Astilbe, Wallflowers, Candytuft, Scabiosa, and Penstemon as well as annuals like Marigolds, Alyssum, Dame’s Rocket, Tithonia, Cosmos, Verbena, and Snapdragons. (There are numerous lists one can find to attract specific butterfly species.)

Many perennials in the aster family attract adult butterflies like Echinacea, Blanket flowers, Coreopsis, Aster, Yarrow, Black-Eyed Susan, and Joe Pye Weed, Cupid’s Dart, and Shasta Daisy.

Garden herbs provide nectar sources too, such as  Borage, Bee Balm, Oregano, Marjoram, Lavender, Rosemary, and Sage.
Common shrubs that attract adult butterflies include Caryopteris, Lilac, Summersweet, Escallonia, Hebe, Mock Orange, Potentilla, and Spiraea. A few of the common trees that also attract them are Maple, Apple, and Willow.

Butterflies will also hang around in your garden if they have plants to lay eggs on for their caterpillars to feed on. Caterpillars will eat their host plant and remain until they form cocoons, which stay on the plant until the adult emerges. Caterpillars eat quite a lot and can leave a plant looking pretty haggard. This is a necessary part of attracting all life cycles of butterflies – one person’s garden pest is another person’s garden treat.

Perennials like Mallow, Hollyhock, Yarrow, Bleeding Heart, Penstemon, Common Rue, and Veronica, as well as annuals such as Snapdragon, Sunflower, Alyssum, and Nasturtium, serve as host plants for caterpillars.  Milkweeds (Asclepias), some annual and some perennial, act as both a host for some caterpillars, especially Monarchs, and nectar sources to other adult butterflies.  Fennel and dill specifically attract swallowtails.

Shrubs as well serve as host plants like Spiraea, Rose of Sharon, and Viburnum along with native shrubs including Flowering Currants and Ocean Spray.

Common trees that act as host plants for some butterflies include Birch, Dogwood, Flowering Crabapple, Pine, Poplar, Paw Paw, and Willow.

Sunny meadow-like areas protected from lots of wind will attract many butterflies. Leaf-litter, rock crevices, brush, and damp places in general provide conditions most appealing.

A butterfly house is basically a box like a bat house but with narrower slits to allow in butterflies but exclude birds and bats. They provide protection from predators and cold and windy weather.  They are easily constructed and many creatively decorated butterfly houses can be purchased.

Puddling is when butterflies, often males, hang around on the wet edge of sandy spots or mud puddles. They receive many nutrients and salts from the water on the edges of wet areas. You can create a puddling area by filling a bowl or shallow saucer with sand; keep the sand constantly wet.  Decorate your puddling dish with colorful rocks or beach glass.

An excellent reference for the butterfly gardener is This is a thoroughly informative website packed full of information on all aspects of butterfly gardening. You can also find many books on attracting butterflies including the tried and true Sunset Western Garden Book.

Hummingbirds have a somewhat simpler life cycle than butterflies. Like all animals, they need food, water and shelter.
Flowers are one of the most important components of attracting hummingbirds, as they provide nectar as food.  Hummingbirds ingest half their weight in one day, so they move around a lot looking for nutrition. We need to provide a plentiful source of flowers blooming at various times in Spring, Summer, and Fall.

Hummingbirds typically return to the Pacific Northwest in early Spring when native food sources like Flowering Currants are blooming. Anna’s Hummingbird is the only native hummingbird that may last throughout the winter in the less cold areas of our region.  Anna’s hummingbird is also the only hummer in which males have a ruby-red head.

Many flowering perennials provide a nectar source for hummingbirds like Bee Balm, Cardinal Flower, Columbine, Red-flowering Heuchera, Penstemon, Pineapple Sage, Anise Hyssop, Lavender, Foxglove, Phlox, Delphinium, Red Hot Poker, and Lupine. Annuals that attract hummingbirds include Flowering Tobacco, Fuchsia, Petunia, Impatiens, and Geraniums. Vines such as Honeysuckle, Trumpet Creeper (Campsis), Scarlet Runner Bean also work well.

Lots of flowering shrubs provide excellent nectar sources for hummingbirds.  Hardy Fuchsia, Abelia, Strawberry Tree, Cotoneaster, Rose of Sharon, Beauty Bush, Lilac, Weigela. Also try natives shrubs like Flowering Currant, Salmonberry, and Elderberry.  With just these shrubs listed here, you will have flowers to attract hummingbirds from early Spring through mid-Fall.

Water is just as important to hummingbirds as for any other animals. However, unlike larger birds, hummingbirds seldom take advantage of bird baths or large water features in the landscape. In nature, hummingbirds often receive their water from cool mist in the air. Try a garden hose with a misting attachment or a misting water feature.

Hummingbirds need tall spaces to perch and nest in your garden. Provide taller shrubs like some of those listed above which will provide shelter from predators and places to nest and perch.

Whether you are planting a new tree or gathering together a few annuals for containers, have some fun and choose plants that attract butterflies and hummingbirds. The addition of flowers as nectar sources will surely add more color to your landscape.

Chuck has been gardening for over 30 years, has a Master’s Degree in Botany, and helps others solve their gardening dilemmas. He can be reached at

Published in the May 2012 issue of Grow Northwest magazine.

One Comment to “Butterflies and hummingbirds: Attract them to your garden”

  1. Pamela Miller says:

    Me thinks you should mention what attracts BEEZZZ. I leave my kale and arugula in over winter and for the past month have seen hundreds of bees all over the flowers it has generated. I’m told I have a “kale forest” in my garden … and I do. Yes, it drops a lot of seeds and I get lots of baby plants but I give them away and start my new crops with them.

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