Attracting Butterflies with Colorado Native Wildflowers, Shrubs, Vines and Trees

| Colorado Native Plants

By Deb Lebow Aal

Monarch butterfly on goldenrod/solidago plant

DID YOU KNOW –  Butterflies taste with their feet, and use their antenna to smell!! Butterflies are fascinating and beautiful creatures that frequent gardens and wildscapes throughout the Spring, Summer, and Fall. They like a wide perch to land on and are attracted to bright colors (Bees can’t see red, but butterflies can!). Despite the frequency on our flowers, butterflies are not great pollinators because pollen doesn’t stick well to their bodies. We love them for many, many other reasons!!!

Pipevine swallowtail butterfly Boulder canyon

You can attract butterflies with lots of different flowers both native and non-native. However, when given the choice, why not plant natives to attract them? When you plant natives, you are getting a much bigger bang for your buck! This is because natives are adapted to the local environment and sustain much greater biodiversity than exotic (non-native) plants. When you look at the many published lists of plants that are good for butterflies, they don’t usually focus on native plants1. Hence, this article.

There are eighty species of butterflies that are commonly seen on the Front Range.  (see As you know, most butterflies 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. Being the good citizens that we are, we all want some butterfly weed or milkweed in our backyards to save the monarchs. Sadly, on Colorado’s Front Range, your milkweed won’t attract many monarch butterflies unless they are lost! Colorado is not on the direct migration path for the monarch, although we occasionally see strays. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plant milkweed or butterfly weed.  They are nice, native plants, and they attract more than monarch butterflies. They just won’t buy you a field full of monarchs. But, there are plenty of other butterflies to attract.

Common milkweed plant for monarch butterflies

Butterflies belong to the insect order of Lepidoptera. There are over 165,000 described species of Lepidoptera, but most are moths. Moths can be just as interesting to look at as butterflies and, maybe surprisingly, they are good pollinators (That’s probably a whole other article, right there.).

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, and adult (butterfly). You need host plants for laying eggs and feeding caterpillars, shelter for the pupal stage, and nectar sources for butterflies. 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. 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.
  • Try growing many different types of flowers blooming at various times from early spring to late fall, and bunch like types of flowers together.

And here’s what you were waiting for – a “partial” list of native plants for Colorado’s Front Range that will attract and support butterflies. You can assume if they’re on this list that they will supply nectar for butterflies. If a plant is also a good host plant for eggs and caterpillars, we will note that with a (H) next to the plant. And, not surprisingly, all of these plants attract other insects as well. We profiled the underappreciated Goldenrod (Solidago) in our February edition of the Front Range Report. 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) – perennial2
Amorpha canescens (Lead plant) – shrub
Antennaria parvifolia (Pussytoes) – groundcover
Asclepias seciosa (Showy milkweed) (H) – perennial
Asclepias tuberosa, (Butterfly weed) – (H) perennial
Callirhoe involucrate (Poppy mallow) – groundcover
Clematis Scottii (?) (native clematis) – vine
Chrysothamnus nauseosus (Rabbit brush) – shrub
Dalea purpurea (Purple prairie clover) – perennial
Ericameria nauseosa (Rubber Rabbitbrush) – shrub
Erigeron speciosis (Aspen daisy) – perennial
Erigeron divergens (Spreading daisy) – groundcover
Eriogonum umbellatum (Sulphur flower) – groundcover
Gaillardia aristata (Blanketflower) – perennial
Helianthus maximiliaria (Maximillian sunflower) (H) – perennial
Liatris punctata (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
Solidage canadensis (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, golden paperflower) – perennial

A note from the Author: When the painted lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) made their way through Denver last summer, my yard was flooded with them – we had thousands! They were attracted to the non-native Blue Mist Spirea in my yard (I understand they love thistle, which I do not have). If you had a native plant they were attracted to, let me know! I’d love to replace my Blue Mist Spirea with a native plant that is equally drought-tolerant (I rarely water it!), beautiful, and attracts these butterflies!

As always, I would love to hear from you if you have a native plant not on this list that has attracted butterflies (or moths!) to your garden. And, conversely, if one of these plants has proven to be a dud for you, let me know that, or any other butterfly info as well. You can contact me through Wild Ones Front Range.

  1. Except for the brochure Low Water Native Plants for Colorado Gardens: Front Range and Foothills. While it does 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. ↩︎
  2. We are using the term perennial to denote plants that die back to their roots each fall/winter, but do come back for multiple years. The other plants noted as groundcovers, shrubs, vines and trees, are also perennial, in that they come back for multiple years, but they, for the most part, do not die back to their roots. ↩︎

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