Attracting Butterflies with Colorado Native Plants. Insects are Half of the Show!

Posted & filed under Colorado Native Plants, Ecological Services.

By Deb Lebow Aal. Updated October 2023 by Jen Smith.

Monarch butterfly

This is an update of an article I wrote in our May 2018 newsletter on this same topic. I am revising this particular article because I am certain that butterflies are the prettiest ambassador we could have for the notion that insects are “half the show” and that native plants are superior in attracting butterflies to your landscape. I know we garden for beauty, and that is important. But we should also be thinking about the ecological advantages of the plants we choose. A balance, if you will, of aesthetics and the ecological impacts of our landscapes. If you want to attract butterflies, you will most likely attract other insects as well. And if you attract insects, you most certainly will attract birds and other creatures. I am certain, that if you plant it, they will come.

Asclepias incarnata, swamp milkweed
Asclepias incarnata, swamp milkweed

Evidence of that is from our own Lisa Olsen, former Wild Ones’ Front Range President and current Wild Ones National Chapter Liaison. Last summer, Lisa’s front porch housed three dozen swamp milkweed plants (Asclepias incarnata) grown and donated by Art Clifford, chapter member and dedicated native plant propagator. Come mid-summer, those plants were host to seventeen monarch caterpillars, who chewed constantly and seemed to double in size daily. Lisa was thrilled to witness first-hand the wonder of metamorphosis and a monarch’s first flight.

So, here goes – apologies to those who’ve already read and mastered these butterfly facts and frivolity, but I for one have to hear things multiple times to master them:

Fun facts about butterflies – they taste with their feet! They like a wide perch to land on, have a poor sense of smell (through their antennae), and are attracted to bright colors (butterflies can see red; bees can’t!). 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.

You can attract butterflies with lots of different plants, natives and non-natives, but planting natives has so many other advantages. We recommend planting native plants to attract them so you get a much bigger bang for your buck. As you know, if you’re reading this, natives are adapted to the local environment, and sustain much greater biodiversity than exotic (non-native) plants. Many of the published lists of plants that are good for butterflies don’t focus on native plants1.

Before getting deep into the plants, a few more facts about butterflies. There are eighty species of butterflies that are commonly seen on the Front Range. Most butterflies (and moths – see below) have specific host plants on which they develop. Famously, the monarch butterfly relies on milkweed plants as its host. There, and only there, will it lay its eggs. There are dozens – probably hundreds – of projects and programs dedicated to the monarch butterfly. In fact, the National Wild Ones organization has a butterfly garden certification program.

Milkweed plants are beautiful plants that attract more than monarch butterflies. Colorado is not on the direct migration path for the monarch, but we see our share. We should all have some butterfly weed or other milkweed in our backyards, being the good citizens we are, to support the monarchs.

Butterflies belong to the insect order of Lepidoptera. There are over 165,000 described species of Lepidoptera, but most are moths. We often mistake butterflies for moths, and vice versa. Yes, some moths eat our woolens, but moths come in many different incarnations and can be just as interesting to look at as butterflies. And, in contrast to butterflies, moths are good pollinators. Moths are out at night, and are attracted to white or pale colored flowers, and flowers with a strong smell. I think if you are trying to attract butterflies, you will attract moths as well (but, admittedly, that is a tougher sell. That could be a whole other article).

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.

Here are a few tips 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.
  • A very tidy, clean garden is not usually what they’re looking for (yay!). A neat lawn area is not going to give them food or shelter.
  • Grow many different types of flowers blooming at various times from early spring to late fall, and bunch like-types of flowers together. That way butterflies do not need to expend lots of energy getting from plant to plant.

So here’s a (partial, I’m sure) list of native plants for Colorado’s Front Range that will attract and support butterflies. 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, all of these plants attract other insects as well. I profiled the under appreciated Goldenrod (Solidago) in an earlier article. It 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 speciosus (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 begamot, 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
Solidago (Goldenrod) (H) – perennial
Verbena bipinnatifida (Spreading verain) – perennial
Salix (Willow) (H) – shrub
Symphotrichum laeve (Smooth aster) (H) – perennial
Symphoricarpos occidentalis (Snowberry) – shrub
Zinnia grandiflora (Prairie zinnia) – perennial

And a few grasses that attract butterflies as well: Andropogon gerardii (Big Bluestem), Bouteloua gracilis (Blue Grama), and Schizachyrium scoparium (Little 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). I have since learned that they are also attracted to Chrysothamnus nauseosus (Rabbit brush), Liatris punctata (Spotted gayfeather), and Salvia azurea (Pitcher sage), all late blooming native perennials, so I will be substituting these plants for my non native Blue-Mist Spirea.

As always, I would love to hear from you if you have a plant not on this list that has attracted butterflies or moths to your garden. And, conversely, if one of these has proven to be a dud for you, let me know that, or any other butterfly info as well. You can contact us through our chapter email.

  1. Except for the Low Water Native Plants for Colorado Gardens brochures. While these do not contain a complete plant list and focuses on much more than butterflies, it is an excellent brochure and one of the sources used for this article. Additional sources includes my notes from various lectures and classes as well as my native plant gardening experience. ↩︎

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