Native Plants for Butterfly Gardening

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Showy milkweed (left) © H. Keirstead and Monarch (right) © T. Koener, USFWS

You have probably read about planting flowers for butterflies, but much of the published information doesn’t help you provide the best habitat for our local butterflies. Nearly all plants that are promoted as butterfly plants focus on attracting adult butterflies to nectar. They don’t help you provide food for the entire life cycle of butterflies and aren’t necessarily suited for our local conditions or our local butterfly species.

Why Garden with Native Plants for Butterflies?

Big Leaf Maple © Seven Oaks Native Nursery and Western Tiger Swallowtail © W. Ciesla
Big Leaf Maple (left) © Seven Oaks Native Nursery and Western Tiger Swallowtail (right) © W. Ciesla

Native butterflies and native plants evolve together over thousands of years or more. A strong relationship develops between many butterfly caterpillars and their host (larval food) plants. Some butterfly species will use only a single native plant species (or closely-related group of species) for a host and won’t use plants brought in from other places. Also, native plants also benefit a variety of native insects and birds, and they are easy to care for because they are well-adapted to our climate. Please be aware that some non-native plants promoted for butterfly gardening can even be harmful to butterflies and the environment. Butterfly Bush (Buddleja davidii), in particular, is a nectar plant that is beginning to escape along our local streams and crowd out native willows — which are choice butterfly host plants! Ouch!!

Some Tips for Butterfly Gardening with Native Plants

Large-leaved lupine (left) © Seven Oaks Native Nursery and Painted Lady on native Pacific Houndstongue (right) © B. Newhouse
Large-leaved lupine (left) © Seven Oaks Native Nursery and Painted Lady on native Pacific Houndstongue (right) © B. Newhouse

1. KNOW YOUR SITE

Match plants to your site conditions. Plants each have their own needs for sun, water and soil type. Evaluate your yard or garden to determine which plants would do best. More information on propagation and requirements of native plants can be found in Bringing Nature Home (D. Tallamy), Real Gardens Grow Natives (E. Stark), Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest (A. R. Kruckeberg), Propagation of Pacific Northwest Native Plants (R. Rose, E. C. Chachulski, and D. L. Haase), and on the Native Plant Society of Oregon website. Be aware that these books cover plants from several ecoregions and do not have the critical *local* orientation for best native plant selection! If you decide to make this garden yours, then make sure you add picnic tables so you can enjoy being outside while watching the butterflies.

Bleeding Heart © Seven Oaks Native Nursery and Clodius Parnassian © W. Siegmund
Bleeding Heart (left) © Seven Oaks Native Nursery and Clodius Parnassian (right) © W. Siegmund

2. THINK LOCAL

Insist on plant stock propagated locally to preserve local genetics. Local variation in a plant species may not be obvious to you, but it might be to local pollinators. Importing plants from out of the local area can affect our local plants in the wild by hybridizing with them and causing loss of local unique colors and other features, and can change the flowering times of our local populations — and that could affect butterflies! Try to get seed or plant stock originating from within 20 miles of your garden site. If not, from farther is OK, but the bottom line should be that the plant’s origins must be from within the Willamette Valley. This is important so that local plants aren’t harmed by hybridizing with plants that evolved in other areas under different conditions, and that may differ genetically.

Oregon White Oak © H. Crosson and Propertius Duskywing © S. Rae
Oregon White Oak (left) © H. Crosson and Propertius Duskywing (right) © S. Rae

3. SHOP LOCAL

Most of the plants listed in this blog are available from Benton SWCD’s annual native plant sale. Some species may be found at local nurseries that carry native plants, but you may have to work a bit harder for others. More people asking for local native plants will give nurseries incentive to stock them. Some species can be found through your local chapter of the Native Plant Society of Oregon. Alternatively, professional botanists, like the Native Seed Network, find and collect seed, and professional growers grow them out.
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Ocean Spray © Seven Oaks Native Nursery and Lorquin's Admiral © K. Schulz
Ocean Spray (left) © Seven Oaks Native Nursery and Lorquin’s Admiral (right) © K. Schulz

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4. PLANT LISTS TO GET YOU STARTED

Linked here are several tables to help you choose Willamette Valley native plants that support native butterflies. The first three tables listed include links and availability at the Benton SWCD Native Plant Sale.

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