Attracting Butterflies with Colorado Native Plants

| Colorado Native Plants, Ecological Services

Primary Author: Deb Lebow Aal

Monarch butterfly
Asclepias incarnata, swamp milkweed
Asclepias incarnata, swamp milkweed

If you want to attract butterflies (and who doesn’t?), you will need to plant the right native plants to attract them. The challenge is to support all life stages of the butterfly, from the egg, through the larval and pupal stages, and then the adult. Many plants labeled as butterfly friendly only support the adult butterfly, as you will see below. You will also want to do some extra things beyond plantings. And of course you most likely will attract other insects as well. And if you attract other insects, you most certainly will attract birds and other creatures. I am certain that if you successfully plant  these plants, they will come.

So, first, here are some fun facts about butterflies: they taste with their feet; they like a wide perch to land on: have a poor sense of smell (it is through their antennae); and are attracted to bright colors (butterflies can see red; bees can’t!). Eighty species of butterflies are commonly seen on the Front Range (click here for more information). Most butterflies (and moths – see below) have specific host plants on which they depend as larvae. Famously, the monarch butterfly relies on milkweed plants as its host. There, and only there, can it successfully develop from caterpillar to pupae and adult. There are dozens – probably hundreds – of projects and programs dedicated to the monarch butterfly. In fact, the National Wild Ones organization has a Wild for Monarchs program focused on educating and conserving monarch butterflies. Butterflies are not great pollinators because not much pollen sticks to their bodies, but we love them for many, many other reasons. And we do love them.

Butterflies belong to the insect order Lepidoptera. There are over 165,000 described species of Lepidoptera, but most are moths (10 times as many moth species as butterfly species). We often mistake butterflies for moths, and vice versa. Yes, some (very few) moths eat our woolens, but moths come in many different incarnations and can be just as interesting to look at as butterflies.  Most moths are out at night, and are attracted to white or pale colored flowers, and flowers with a strong smell. And, in contrast to butterflies, many moths are good pollinators. Miller moths, for example, are important pollinators (and bird food!) here on the Front Range. I think if you are trying to attract butterflies, you will attract moths as well, which is a good thing!

You can attract butterflies and moths with lots of different plants, natives and non-natives, but planting natives has so many other advantages. Many non-native pollinator friendly plants may offer nectar forage for adult butterfly species but may not support the other crucial life stages of a butterfly. If you really want to support and attract butterflies, it is essential to plant larval host plants and provide shelter for other than the adult stages.

Important note:  in almost all urban and suburban areas of Colorado, European Paper Wasps, an introduced predator of caterpillars, thrive.  They can be considered beneficial, as they swiftly eliminate lepidopteran garden/landscape pests like cabbage worms, tomato hornworms, and sawflies. They are relentless and efficient killers of caterpillars! Any effort to induce butterflies to lay eggs in your landscape  must be undertaken with a program to control European Paper Wasps on your property, destroying their open-comb nests where- and whenever found.

We of course recommend planting plants native to this ecosystem to support all stages of a butterfly’s life. As you probably know, natives are adapted to the local environment, to weather our heat and cold, hail and other weather-related issues, and our nutrient-poor soils, so they are hardier here. They are better integrated into the local food web than exotic (non-native) plants. Native plants that grow without much help from gardeners can withstand long droughts and sequester lots of carbon to improve climate resilience. When you look at the many published lists of plants that are good for butterflies, they don’t usually focus on native plants.1 We do.

The challenge for you as a backyard habitat provider is to provide food and shelter for the four stages in the life-cycle of a butterfly – egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult (butterfly). You need host plants for laying eggs and feeding caterpillars, shelter for the pupal stage, and nectar sources for adults. The adult butterflies are not just looking for food while visiting your garden. They are also looking for a place to lay their eggs.

So, a few tips before we get to which plants to plant to keep butterflies happy and perhaps keep them longer in your view. Plant your nectar sources in the sun. Butterflies like to bask in the sun. They are also attracted to damp sand and wet gravel. They “puddle” in the sand and gravel to collect minerals. A shallow bowl of water with a few stones in the middle attracts them. And a very tidy, clean garden is not what they’re looking for. A neat lawn area does not give them any food or shelter (unless you are trying to support webworms or cutworms!). If you want lots of butterflies, grow many different types of flowers blooming at various times from early spring to late fall, and bunch similar flowers together. That way, butterflies do not expend lots of energy getting from plant to plant. If you are trying to attract a particular kind of butterfly (like Monarchs), be sure to plant the host plants prominently; butterflies find them by sight.

So here’s a (partial) list of native plants for Colorado’s Front Range that will attract and support butterflies. These were selected because they are relatively easy to find commercially and easy to grow. You can assume they all supply nectar for butterflies. If a plant is also a good host plant for eggs and caterpillars, it is noted with an (H) next to the plant. And, not surprisingly, as alluded to earlier, all of these plants attract other insects as well. I profiled the under-appreciated Goldenrod (Solidago) in an earlier articleIt is a spectacularly good host plant for caterpillars! 

Plants Native to Colorado’s Front Range that Attract and Support Butterflies

Achillea millefolium (Yarrow) (H) – perennial
Amorpha canescens (Lead plant) – shrub
Antennaria parvifolia (Pussytoes) – groundcover
Asclepias incarnata (Swamp milkweed) (H) – perennial
Asclepias speciosa (Showy milkweed) (H) – perennial
Asclepias tuberosa (Butterfly weed) (H) – perennial
Callirhoe involucrata (Poppy mallow) – groundcover
Chrysothamnus nauseosus (Rabbit brush) – shrub
Dalea purpurea (Purple prairie clover) – perennial
Erigeron speciosa (Aspen daisy) – perennial
Erigeron divergens (Spreading daisy) – groundcover
Eriogonum umbellatum (Sulphur flower) (H) – groundcover
Gaillardia aristata (Blanketflower) – perennial
Helianthus maximiliana (Maximillian sunflower) (H) – perennial
Liatris punctata (Spotted gayfeather) – perennial
Linum lewisii (Blue flax) – perennial
Lupinus argenteus (Silver lupine) – perennial
Monarda fistulosa (Wild bergamot, Bee balm) – perennial
Penstemon eatonii (Eaton’s firecracker) – perennial
Penstemon strictus (Rocky mountain penstemon) – perennial
Penstemeon virens (Blue mist penstemon) – perennial
Populus tremuloides (Quaking Aspen) (H) – tree
Prunus virginiana (Chokecherry) (H) – shrub/tree
Ratibida columnifera (Prairie coneflower) – perennial
Salvia azurea (Pitcher sage) – perennial
Solidage (Goldenrod) (H) – perennial
Verbena bipinnatifida (Spreading vervain) – perennial
Salix (Willow) (H) – shrub
Symphotrichum laeve (Smooth aster) (H) – perennial
Symphoricarpos occidentalis (Snowberry) – shrub
Zinnia grandiflora (Prairie zinnia, Golden paperflower) – perennial

A few native grasses that attract butterflies as well – blue grama, little bluestem, and big bluestem.

And one final note. When the painted lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) made their way through Denver a few summers ago, my yard was flooded with them – we had thousands! But, they were attracted to the non-native Blue Mist Spirea in my yard (I understand they love thistle, which I do not have in my yard). I have since learned that they are attracted to rabbitbrush, Liatris punctata, and Salvia azurea, all late blooming native perennials, so I will be substituting these plants for my non-native blue-mist spirea. 


  1. One that does focus on only native plants is the booklet “Low Water Native Plants for Colorado Gardens: Front Range & Foothills.” It does not contain a complete list, and it is focused on much more than butterflies, but it is an excellent brochure, which I used as one of my sources. Find the booklet here.
    Another excellent resource is the Xerces Society’s Native Plants for Pollinators & Beneficial Insects. This two-pager has a longer list of plants that support both caterpillars and other insects. ↩︎