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UBI Quick Guide to Butterfly Gardens

On this page, you will find butterfly gardening tips as well as some plants we recommend for home landscapes that support butterflies and other pollinators in and around Central Illinois. Most of these plants are tough, native species that grow well in our area, but a few non-natives are listed as well. Note that some of these plants – especially the flowers such as purple coneflower – are often available as horticultural cultivars from garden centers. These cultivars have usually been bred for appearance rather than usefulness for butterflies, so planting the “wild” varieties from nature centers and native plant outlets is best for the environment (see our list of potential sources). Plants from large nurseries often have also been treated with systemic insecticides that are incorporated into the plants and may harm the very animals you are trying to help!

Landscaping Tips

  • Patches with all tall plants may look more ‘wild’ than you or your neighbors desire, so in locations where this may be an issue, use plants that are 3 feet tall or less for most of your butterfly landscape.

  • Having a border of some type – a path, line of rocks or timbers, etc. – can help make your butterfly area look ‘intentional.’ Beware of turf grass around the edges of your planted area. Most turf grass is extremely aggressive and will quickly invade your native planting, making the landscape look more “weedy,” competing with the natives and increasing maintenance.

  • Using seeds is much more economical than plants. But plants grown from seed will sometimes take a year or two (or sometimes longer) to get mature enough to bloom. Most native seeds also need to overwinter in the ground (or in damp sand in the refrigerator for 1-3 months) to break dormancy. Prairie Moon Nursery is a great online resource for individual plant needs, site preparation, and planting technique.

  • Try to plant some of the caterpillar host plants as well – without food for their caterpillars, there will be no beautiful adults! These plants also draw in adult female butterflies looking for a place to lay their eggs.

  • Bare ground means more unwanted “weeds” and more maintenance. Include native grasses in your design to fill space between flowering plants. The best butterfly garden designs consist of integrated plant communities, not isolated plants separated by mulch. If you’re interested in reading more about this design concept, check out the books: Garden Revolution (L. Weaner & T. Christopher), Planting: a New Perspective (P. Oudolf & B. Kingsbury), and Planting in a Post-Wild World (T. Rainer & C. West).

  • Most of the flowers and grasses listed do best with at least 6 hours of direct sun per day.

Recommended Butterfly Plants for Central Illinois and the surrounding areas

Click on a plant name for more info!

       = provides a nectar source for butterflies

       = host plant for specific butterfly caterpillars

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Trees & vines

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Eastern rebud (30') (Cercis canadensis)

Henry's elfin host plant

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Flowering dogwood (15') (Cornus florida)

Spring Azure host plant

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Hackberry (50') (Celtis occidentalis)

Host plant for American Snout, Hackberry Emperor, Question Mark, Tawny Emperor

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Pawpaw (15') (Asimina triloba)

Zebra Swallowtail host plant

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Tulip tree (60-90') (Liriodendron tulipifera)

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail host plant

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