Attract winged wonders into your yard


Butterflies hold special meaning to me.  A few years back my family gathered together as my 100-year-old beloved grandfather peacefully passed away in his home. Shortly afterward, my grandmother and sister went to collect some clothes for his burial.  As Gram slid open his closet door, most surprisingly, a beautiful butterfly fluttered out.  The improbability, timing and symbolism was not lost on us.  This incredible sight lifted our spirits and has become our family’s emblem of hope.  We cherish butterflies that explore our gardens and linger for a while.  How can anyone resist the delight of a colorful butterfly weaving around a patch of flowers?  Plus these lovely cross pollinators help your garden grow.  If you’re looking to invite more butterflies into your North Shore yard, here are some tips adapted from the Morton Arboretum and Forest Preserve District of Cook County:



Butterfly Garden Basics:

Red spotted purple

Red Spotted Purples prefer nectar from white blossom shrubs including Spirea and Viburnum, and lay their eggs on Birch, Linden, Oak and Serviceberry trees.  Photo by Bob Moul from

Around 100 species of butterflies can be found in Cook County. You can design a gorgeous garden that also meets the habitat needs of local butterflies throughout their entire lifecycle.   Their lifecycle includes an egg, larvae (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult stage.  Ideally a butterfly garden offers both nectar plants to feed adult butterflies and host plants to provide a place for them to lay their eggs and to supply food for caterpillars.  Since needs vary from species to species, the more diverse your landscape is of beneficial annuals, herbs, perennials, shrubs and trees, the more butterflies you will attract.  Here are a few garden basics to attract winged wonders:


  •  Select appropriate host plantings native to the Midwest.  Butterflies will only lay their eggs on specific plant species, as their caterpillars depend solely on certain foliage for food.  The relationship between native plants and local butterflies has co-evolved over many years, and they depend on each other for reproduction and survival.  While North Shore landscapes tend to feature plantings introduced from Asia and Europe, many lovely native Midwestern flowers, shrubs and trees have been gaining popularity over the past few years.  And don’t worry, leaf damage from hungry caterpillars is usually short-lived and non-threatening to the plant.  See listing of host plants below.
  • Include a variety of nectar sources, plants are often labeled “butterfly friendly”.  Adult butterflies need fuel for their high-energy activities of mating, reproducing, and seeking out food and shelter.  While nectar plants can be native and introduced to our region, only natives can serve as both host and nectar sources. See listing of nectar source plants below.
  • Situate your garden in the sun to support both plants and butterflies.  At least six hours of direct sunlight per day is ideal.  Butterflies are cold-blooded insects that often start their day by warming their wings for flight.  A large rock in a sunny spot may be an inviting perch.

    Mourning cloak

    Mourning Cloaks actually prefer to eat sap and decaying fruit over nectar and live up to nine months, similar to the Monarch’s life span.  Photo from

  • Grow plants in masses by color, which are easier to find than single plants. Adult butterflies are attracted to bright, fragrant drifts of colorful blooms.
  • Sequence a range of plantings for continuous bloom.  Active butterflies need nectar from April to October.
  • Provide shelter.  Trees and shrubs can provide protection from wind, rain and predators. Shaded areas also provide a place for butterflies to roost at night and cool-down in hot weather.
  • Offer shallow watering areas.  Butterflies drink from moist soil, wet sand or puddles, and like to flock in puddle groups.
  • Avoid herbicides and pesticides.  These products can kill fragile butterflies, caterpillars and other beneficial insects. Try nontoxic pest control methods, such as companion planting, pest eating insects, garlic oil and organic horticultural sprays (for more on this, also see Grow Edibles in Your Yard and Nurturing Our Land).
  • Be sure to plan a cozy spot for your family to observe and enjoy your fly by visitors, such as a well placed garden bench or window view.


kitchen window

Right past our kitchen window, we strategically planted Aruncus, Purple Dome Aster, Baptisia, Bee Balm, Black-eyed Susan, Butterfly Bush, Coreopsis, Daisies, Liatris, Milkweed, Phlox, Purple Coneflower and Turtlehead.  Inside and out we can see butterflies from spring to fall!




Plantings recommended in our neighborhood:


Nectar Sources (*native species):


Tiger Swallowtail on blazing star (Liatris aspera)

The giant Tiger Swallowtail, shown here feeding on Liatris, is an amazing sight. They seem to like the Bottlebrush Buckeye shrubs in my backyard. Photo courtesy of the Morton Arboretum,

Annuals & Herbs:  Alyssum, Basil, Cosmos, Garlic Chives, Lantana, Marigold, Nicotiana, Oregano, Petunia, Queen Anne’s Lace, Sage, Salvia, Sunflower, Verbena, Zinnia


Perennials: Alium, *Aster, *Baptisia, *Bee Balm/Bergamot, *Black-eyed Susan, *Boneset, *Butterfly Weed/Milkweed, Catmint, *Clover, *Coreopsis, Daisy/Chryanthemum, *Goldenrod, *Goatsbeard/Aruncus, *Joe-Pye Weed, Lavendar, *Liatris, Lily, Mint, *Phlox, *Purple Coneflower, *Scabiosa, Sedum, *Turtlehead, Veronica, Yarrow


Shrubs:  Azaela, Blackberry, Butterfly Bush, *Clethra, *Dogwood, Hydrangea, Lilac, Raspberry, *Serviceberry, *Viburnum



Baltimore checkerspot.

Black-eyed Susans are both a host plant to the Baltimore Checkerspot and a nectar plant visited by a host of local butterflies. Photo courtesy of




Host Plants (*native species):


Spicebush swallowtail

Spicebush Swallowtails lay their eggs on native Spicebushes. Photo courtesy of

Annuals & Herbs: Carrots, Cleome, Dill, Dogwood, Hollyhock, Nasturtiums, Parsley, Snapdragons, Sunflower


Perrenials: *Aster, *Baptisia, *Black-eyed Susan,  *Butterfly Weed, *Columbine, *Coreopsis, *Goldenrod,  *Purple Coneflower, *Thistles, *Violet


Shrubs & Trees: Apple, Ash, *Birch, *Black Chokeberry, Cherry, *Cottonwood, *Dogwood, Elm, *Hackberry, *Hawthorn, *Hornbeam, *Linden, *Locust, *Oak, *Quaking Aspen, Plum, Poplar, *Redbud, *Serviceberry, *Spicebush, Tulip, *Viburnum, *Willow, *Witch Hazel




monarch caterpillar

The Illinois State Insect is the Monarch Butterfly.  The sole host plant for it’s caterpillars is Asclepias or Milkweed, without it the Monarchs could not survive.  Orange flowered Butterfly Milkweed, or pink flowered Swamp Milkweed is a must for Illinois butterfly gardens! Photo by Andrew Williams from



If you’re lucky, maybe you will spot a tiny ruby throated hummingbird quickly hovering around red flowers in your yard. Photo courtesy of Dr. Joe Turner from




Another fun pollinator to watch is the hummingbird. Similar to the butterfly, it enjoys the nectar from many native plants including *Bee Balm/Bergamot, *Butterfly Weed, *Cardinal Flower (Lobelia), *Liatris, *Phlox, *Orange Jewelweed, *Red Columbine, *Trumpet Creeper Vine, *Trumpet Honeysuckle, *Turtlehead and *Turks Cap Lily. Native plantings also support a variety of songbirds, bees beneficial insects and wildlife.



To learn more about local butterflies and native gardens…

Nectar seeking butterfly

Recently, my daughters loved seeing zillions of butterflies up close at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Butterfly and Blooms exhibit (right next to the new Children’s Learning Center) .



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Written by Amanda Hanley in June 2012 and revised in May 2013.  Dedicated to William Ruddy, the ultimate grandfather, 1907-2007.