Butterflies and hummingbirds enrich gardens through more than beauty, color and movement. As these entertaining visitors seek out nectar, they transfer pollen from bloom to bloom. Their help in pollination can boost your garden's quantity and quality of vegetables, fruits, flowers and seeds. Butterflies and hummingbirds share some affinities, but they also have distinct preferences. Invite these precious pollinators to your garden with flowers that meet their needs.
Bright, colorful flowers in red, orange, yellow, pink and purple lure butterflies to your garden, but color isn't the only attraction. Flower shape and fragrance matter, too. Butterflies frequent flowers with sturdy platforms for landing and sipping nectar. Flat, open-faced flowers with large petals, fresh scents, short flower tubes and generous nectar are preferred.
Vivid annual sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), showy cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) and vibrant common zinnias (Zinnia elegans) exemplify the types of flowers butterflies seek. Aromatic, nectar-rich perennials such as scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma), hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 9, draw them, too.
Butterflies prefer warm, sunny gardens sheltered from wind. Peak feeding occurs during mid-day hours with sunshine at its peak. Full sun promotes abundant nectar production, which encourages more visits. As butterflies flutter from flower to flower, pollen sticks to their legs and travels to nearby blooms.
Like butterflies, hummingbirds relish nectar-rich flowers in red, orange and yellow, and bright-blue. Armed with long beaks and tongues to match, these tiny beauties find nectar in long, tubular blooms where other pollinators can't reach. Fragrance holds little attraction for hummingbirds.
Prolific flowering vines, such as gold flame honeysuckle (Lonicera × heckrottii, USDA zones 5 through 9) and trumpet vine (Campsis radicans, USDA zones 4 through 9), provide hummingbird buffets. Tubular blooms on cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis, USDA zones 3 through 9) and great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica, USDA zones 4 through 9) earn similar praise.
Many birds pollinate flowers, but hummingbirds excel in effective, exuberant pollination. Pollen covers their heads and feathers as they dive deep into neighboring blossoms. Tiny garden pests, such as gnats, aphids and mosquitoes, add protein to hummingbird diets.
Native plants and native pollinators adapted alongside each other over time. Some butterflies depend exclusively on a single native plant species to survive from generation to generation. Without the plant, the pollinator perishes; without the pollinator, the plant does the same. Life cycles in flowers and butterflies follow mutually beneficial schedules.
Locally native plants draw and support native butterflies and hummingbirds. Widespread natives such as black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta, USDA zones 3 through 7) and purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea, USDA zones 3 through 8) are butterfly favorites and bearded penstemon (Penstemon barbatus, USDA zones 4 through 8) delight hummingbirds.
Native plants for butterflies and hummingbirds vary with locale. In Texas, the pink-purple blooms of wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa, USDA 3 through 9) attract butterflies and hummingbirds. In Florida, its close relative dotted bee balm (Monarda punctata, USDA zones 3 through 8), also known as Eastern horsemint, does the same.
Successful butterfly gardens require more than colorful, nectar-filled blossoms. Unlike hummingbirds, butterflies don't nurture their young. They lay eggs on specific host plants, where their self-supporting offspring must feed. Gardens must feed adults and their larvae, and diets differ between life stages.
As native habitats decline, so do butterfly populations. Monarchs illustrate the dependence between pollinators and plants. Adult monarchs gather nectar from many different flowers, but their caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweeds (Ascelpias spp., USDA zones 3 through 11). Often eradicated as weedy pests, milkweeds sustain three to five monarch generations born each year.
Milkweeds draw adult monarchs to your garden and provide critical caterpillar food. Vivid, orange-red butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa, USDA 3 through 9), dusty-rose swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata, USDA zones 3 through 6) and purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens, USDA zones 3 through 8) are among the many choices.
Along with alluring flowers, other factors make your garden a favored destination for butterflies and hummingbirds. Continuous, overlapping blooms from trees, shrubs, flowers and vegetables provide nectar from spring until frost, supporting every generation and life stage. Large masses of color draw pollinators in and simplify nectar gathering.
Butterflies lounge on flat, sun-warmed stones and warm themselves for flight. Mud puddles or wet sand -- and even rotten fruit -- provide them with added minerals and nutrients. Hummingbirds need regular baths to clean sticky nectar from their bodies and beaks. They prefer shallow, moving water and mist-type water features.
To keep your garden pollinator-friendly, limit all pesticides. Even organic treatments considered safe for adult butterflies may prove fatal for larvae. Pesticides don't distinguish between harmful, leaf-damaging worms and leaf-hungry butterfly caterpillars.
- National Wildlife Federation: How to Attract Butterflies to your Garden
- Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center: Butterfly Gardening
- The Hummingbird Society: Hummingbird Flowers -- The Best 18 Plant Families for Natural Nectar
- University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources: How to Attract and Maintain Pollinators in Your Garden
- Pollinator Partnership and North American Pollinator Protection Campaign: Selecting Plants for Pollinators -- A Regional Guide for Farmers, Land Managers and Gardeners In the Prairie Parkland (Subtropical) Province
- Pollinator Partnership and North American Pollinator Protection Campaign: Selecting Plants for Pollinators -- A Regional Guide for Farmers, Land Managers and Gardeners In the Outer Coastal Plain Mixed Province
- National Wildflife Federation: Monarch Butterfly
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Plant Finder