Plants & Flowers That Attract Butterflies & Hummingbirds

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Butterflies and hummingbirds are boldly colored pollinators in motion. Both are in search of nectar, but because of their physical makeup they tend to prefer different plants and flowers. Planting flowers that appeal to both species and adding water sources will attract these lovely creatures to your garden.

Butterflies and Plants

Butterflies need to land on the flowers so the blossoms should be clustered together or have flat, shallow tops. Butterflies feed using a tube called a proboscis, which is curled up on the bottom of the head. The proboscis uncurls and the flexible tube moves from blossom to blossom as the butterfly shifts its footing. Meanwhile, pollen from other flowers is dispersed, while new pollen is collected. Butterflies prefer red, yellow, pink, purple or orange blossoms.

  • Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is an annual that has a large, flat platform for landing and comes in yellow, red or mahogany with a contrasting brown or purplish center. Some flower petals are bi-colored. Choose from hybrid dwarf varieties maxing out at 3 feet or giant sunflowers that can reach 15 feet tall. Sunflower blooms in July and August.
  • Zinnia (Zinnia elegans), another annual, has wide, flat blooms from June until the first frost. Colors include red, yellow, pink, orange, lavender, green and white. This is another plant that's been hybridized to create dwarfs that top out at 6 inches tall and specimens that can reach 4 feet tall. Zinnia does best in full sun.
  • Bee balm (Monarda didyma), which grows in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 9, is classified as an herb.  It is often used as a border plant or an to accent herb, butterfly and hummingbird gardens. Also called bergamot, it can be used to make an herbal infusion. Bright red in color, it meets the butterflies' needs because the tubular flowers are clustered together on flower heads measuring up to 4 inches across. Humming birds are also attracted by the color and the tube-shaped flowers. Bee balm grows in full sun to partial shade and blooms between July and August.

Hummingbirds and Plants

Hummingbirds are smart and can remember the location of every flower and feeder they've visited. Their brains make up 4.2 percent of their body weight, the highest proportion of all the birds. Hummingbird beaks are long and have an upper and lower portion. The tongue is long, grooved and shaped like a "W." It reaches deep into tubular-shaped flowers as the bird hovers or perches. Pollen usually brushes on the bird's head and front as it feeds. Hummingbirds are most attracted to red, orange and yellow flowers and will also eat tiny bugs, such as aphids and gnats.

  • Trumpet vine (Campsis radicans), which grows in USDA zones 4 through 9, has trumpet-shaped flowers that come in yellowish-orange and red shades and measure up to 3 inches long. It flowers from June through September. The fast-growing plant grows in full sun to partial shade, but blooms best with lots of sun. Trumpet vine is often used to cover fences and arbors. 
  • Honeysuckle (Lonicera × heckrottii), which grows in USDA zones 5 through 9, has rose pink tubular flowers with yellow interiors that bloom mostly between June and August, with a sparser showing into fall. As a vine, use it on trellises and fences, or train it as a shrub. It has fragrant flowers and prefers full sun to partial shade. In warmer climates honeysuckle is semi-evergreen. Some other honeysuckle species are considered invasive, so choose carefully.
  • Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), which grows in USDA zones 3 through 9, comes in scarlet red, white and rose. The plant does best in full sun to partial shade and blooms between July and September. Cardinal flowers are tubular and clustered around vertical stalks on top of the plant. The clustered flowers also attract butterflies. Cardinal flower does well near ponds or streams and is often used to accent woodland or native plant gardens.

Warning

  • Trumpet vine is also called cow-itch because the leaves sometimes cause skin redness and itching on contact. If working with this plant, wear gloves, a long-sleeved shirt, pants, enclosed shoes, hat and safety glasses, especially if you are prone to plant allergies. Because it self-seeds and propagates through underground runners, trumpet vine is considered invasive in some areas.

Making Your Garden More Welcoming

  • Butterflies drink water from puddles, but this is mostly to take in minerals and salts that leach into the water from the soil. Keeping a small muddy patch in your garden usually helps attract butterflies.
  • Shallow birdbaths attract both butterflies and hummingbirds. Fountains are fine as long as the water flows in a gentle trickle.
  • Hummingbird feeders are a magnet for these birds. Once a hummingbird finds a feeder, it will keep coming back as long as you keep it filled. The sugar solution is simple to make with 1 part table sugar and 4 parts boiling water. Don't add food coloring or any other substance. Cool the solution before filling the feeder and store the excess in the fridge. Most feeders are red, or have red flowers to attract the hummingbirds. Don't use feeders with yellow markings or you might attract bees and wasps. Clean the feeders with hot water and refill them at least twice a week.
  • Avoid using any pesticides in your garden because they are harmful to both butterflies and hummingbirds. Butterflies can die upon contact, while the hummingbirds usually ingest these poisons through the nectar and insects they eat. 

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