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Butterfly Gardens for Northern Virginia 

It is wonderful to attract adult butterflies to your garden, but it is even more wonderful to provide the food that they need throughout the growing season for themselves and their caterpillars.

For adult butterflies:

Plant a variety of native plants with different bloom times so that something is in flower from early spring to late fall. You will mostly spot butterflies in sunny locations.

For caterpillars:


Common Buckeye on Aster

Somewhere in your yard, be sure to include larval host plants for a variety of caterpillars to feed on. Examples are milkweed species (for the caterpillars of monarch butterflies) and violets (fritillary butterflies). Goldenrods support 115 different species of caterpillars. Native trees are the ultimate caterpillar factories, though, with oaks leading the way with over 500 species. There are non-native plants that attract adult butterflies (butterfly bush is an invasive example), but only native plants are larval host plants. Click here for one list. 

You can use our plant search app to find plants that serve these different functions.

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Swallowtail caterpillar mimics snake tongue


Turk's Cap Lily

liatris spicata and rudbeckia with monar

Monarch on Liatris spicata

Manicured beds, or the English country garden look?

Do you need your plants to stay upright and self-contained?

Here are some neat-and-tidy perennials with high nectar value that will give you a succession of blooms for most of the season (listed in approximate order of bloom time):

  • Eastern Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) Spring bloom, nice foliage the rest of the time. It is short lived but will come up again from seed (although not if you use too much mulch).

  • Virginia Bluebell (Mertensia virginica) Deer-resistant.

  • Creeping phlox (Phlox subulata or Phlox maculata, depending on how many hours of sun).

  • Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) Late spring bloom, makes a nice mound.

  • Carolina Wild-petunia (Ruellia caroliniensis) Long bloom time, but only in the morning!

  • Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) Everyone’s favorite – blooms all summer! Deer-resistant.

  • Turk’s Cap Lily (Lilium superbum) This plant is really tall!

  • Threadleaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata) – Also extremely popular, very prolonged bloom time. Deer resistant.

  • Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa) Deer-resistant.

  • Gayfeather (Liatris spicata) – Fantastic for butterflies. Deer-resistant.

  • Joe-Pye Weed “Little Joe” (Eutrochium dubium) - Amazing butterfly magnet.

  • New York Aster (Symphyotrichum novi-belgii) Beautiful purple flowers in the fall.  Somewhat deer-resistant.

Okay with a slightly wilder look?

Here are some equally popular but more relaxed plants that like to spread and mingle, but that are not overly assertive.

  • Scarlet Beebalm (Monarda didyma) Bright red flowers.

  • Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) - Butterflies love this plant. Because of the powdery mildew issue, it is good to plant it behind something. Deer resistant.

  • Summer Phlox (Phlox paniculata) - Big butterfly magnet. Spreads by seed. Prone to downy mildew (some cultivars such as ‘Jeana’ are resistant).

  • Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) - Hummingbirds like it, too!

  • Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) - Bright red flowers. Short-lived but reseeds.

  • Black eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida) - A nice long bloom time. Somewhat deer resistant.

  • New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) - Striking purple blooms.

  • Bluestem Goldenrod (Solidago caesia) - Less likely than other goldenrods to try to take over your garden.

Phlox paniculata and spicebush butterfly

Swallowtail on Phlox


Skipper on Ironweed


Checkered White on Rudbeckia sp.

Stop the Flop

All gardeners are familiar with the problem of sagging late summer and fall gardens. Three strategies may help prevent that.

  1. Natural staking.   In a meadow, the majority of plants are grasses, which prop up the perennials. In a garden, good candidates recommended by Matt Bright at Earth Sangha for that function are Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Elymus species such as Virginia Wild Rye (Elymus virginicus) and Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix). Being warm season grasses, they do not emerge until June, which means that any grass emerging before then must be a weed. If you are using perennials that spread sideways, native grasses will break up that spread and prevent monotony. Note that Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) may not be the best choice for rich garden soil as it tends to take over.

  2. Keep the soil thin.    If you are planting in a garden bed that had previously had a lot of organic material added, native perennials will grow tall and tend to flop.To avoid this, every two or three years, it helps to rake out the leaf litter and stalks. And never fertilize!

  3. Pinch back. To keep them more compact, many (though not all) tall plants can be pinched back in late spring or early summer. Examples include:​​

  • Beebalm and Wild Bergamot (Monarda didyma and M. fistulosa)

  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

  • Summer Phlox (Phlox paniculata)

  • Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

  • Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

  • Joe-Pye Weed (Various species)

  • Common Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

  • Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana)

  • Woodland Sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus)

  • New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis)

  • Boneset (Eupatorium hyssopifolium and E. perfoliatum)

  • Goldenrod (Various species)

  • Asters (Symphyotricum species)


Plants reaching for more sun may nevertheless need staking!

Meadow Gardens

The ultimate goal of creating a “meadow” is to maximize biodiversity and achieve a natural look. This is surprisingly difficult to do well!  


Click here for an overview.


Most people are best off tackling one small area of their yard at a time.

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Wild Bergamot in meadow at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts

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