8 Butterfly Host Plants That Are Beautiful And Low-Maintenance

Discover the most attractive butterfly host plants to include in your garden and nurture local wildlife. As an added benefit, they are also easy to look after.

Monarch butterfly on aster flowers
(Image credit: Alamy)

Attracting butterflies to the garden is such a rewarding way to nurture wildlife and enhance biodiversity.

Not only do butterflies depend on a variety of nectar-rich plants to feed on, but they also require host plants to sustain their larvae. Once the eggs have hatched, the caterpillars feed on the plant before forming a chrysalis.

There are specific plants that butterflies lay their eggs on – some offer other benefits in emitting aromas that deter pests, and many are low-maintenance to ensure a consistent habitat.

Consider planting a variety of beautiful host plants to support different native butterfly species throughout the growing season. This encourages a healthy ecosystem and contributes to the diversity of your garden design.

1. False Indigo

Purple flowers of false indigo – or baptisia

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Featuring vibrant blue flowers, false indigo (Baptisia australis) – or wild indigo – makes a beautiful addition to the garden and hosts several butterfly species, most notably the wild indigo duskywing (Erynnis baptisiae). There are also varieties with yellow or white flowers.

Native to the prairies of southern North America, false indigo grows well in almost any well-drained soil in USDA hardiness zones 5 to 9.

It is a low-maintenance perennial plant that produces maximum results with minimal effort. No pruning is necessary, though the plants benefit from a yearly dose of fertilizer.

False indigo is not susceptible to pests or diseases and produces alkaloids that are toxic to many insects – but not to precious caterpillars.

2. Passionflower

Passionflowers on vine

(Image credit: Future Content Hub)

Add a tropical touch and support butterflies by adding a passionflower (Passiflora spp.) vine to your garden.

The vines will quickly cover a trellis or fence with their exotic-looking flowers over summer but will die back in winter, preventing the plant from taking over.

Passionflower serves as a host plant to several butterflies, in particular the gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) and zebra longwings (Heliconius charithonia), which inhabit Florida and Texas.

Most passionflower varieties will grow in USDA hardiness zones 7-10, though some will survive up to zone 5 with a good mulching.

Passionflowers need to be planted in well-drained soil in a spot that receives full sun. All you need to do to care for them is fertilize plants once in early spring and again in midsummer.

3. Milkweed

Monarch butterfly feeding on swamp milkweed

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Unfortunately, many gardeners view milkweed (Asclepias spp.) as an unwanted weed, due to its toxic milky substance and readiness to self-seed. However, species like common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) are attractive and beneficial. Make sure you choose the best type of milkweed to grow in your region.

An essential host plant for monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus), milkweed also provides nectar for hummingbirds.

The plants have an upright growth habit, reaching 2 to 6 feet (0.5-2m). Flowers are pink to purple to orange and bloom all summer long.

It’s easier to start with plants than seed, and while milkweed is tolerant of a variety of growing conditions, it’s best to choose well-draining soil in full sun to part shade.

A hardy perennial, milkweed can be grown in USDA zones 3-10. Remove seed pods to prevent plants from spreading.

4. Aster

Sea of purple aster flowers

(Image credit: Alamy)

Asters (Asteraceae family) are heroes of the late-summer and fall garden, adding cottage charm with their daisy-like flowers.

The plants are used by a variety of butterflies as host plants – including pearl crescents (Phyciodes tharos), silvery checkerspots (Chlosyne nycteis), and American painted ladies (Vanessa virginiensis) – and also provide vital nectar later in the season.

Available as either perennials or annuals, asters can grow as tall as 6 feet (1.8m) with flower colors ranging from purple to blue, pink, and white.

They tolerate a variety of climates – suitable for USDA zones 4 to 8 – and are adaptable to most soil conditions, though they require a certain amount of drainage.

Fertilize in spring and summer, and water regularly until the plant is established.

5. Spicebush

Yellow flowers on spicebush

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Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is one of the most attractive, aromatic shrubs that attract butterflies, serving a host plant for several species, including the spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus)

The deciduous shrub features emerald green leaves, and attractive yellow flowers, which give way to stunning red berries in the fall – as long as female plants have a male pollinator. Its foliage gives off an inviting spicy aroma when crushed.

Spicebush is a fairly large shrub, growing up to 6 to 12 feet (2-4m) in height and spread. It’s hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9, and thrives in moist, well-drained soil in full sunlight or partial shade.

6. Snapdragon Vine

Purple flowers of snapdragon vine

(Image credit: Alamy)

A host plant for the common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia), the charming snapdragon vine (Maurandya antirrhiniflora) is brimming with nectar-rich flowers and attractive foliage.

It’s a non-aggressive climbing vine, so perfect for growing in small spaces against walls and trellises, or looks beautiful covering an archway.

Growing climbing snapdragon vines is easy from seed, and the plants are adaptable to a range of soil types in full sun to partial shade.

Suited to warmer climates, the snapdragon vine thrives in USDA zones 9 and 10.

7. Tulip Tree

Flowers of tulip tree

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) possess the most stunning fragrant spring blooms that resemble the flowers. As a member of the magnolia family, the tulip tree has an elegant form but isn’t suitable for every landscape, as it can exceed 120 feet (37m) in height.

A host to the caterpillars of the eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus), the tulip tree is also the exclusive host of the larvae of giant silkmoths (Callosamia angulifera) and attractive to many beneficial insects and birds.

Hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9, tulip trees thrive in full sun with rich, moist soil that drains well. If those requirements are met, they are easy to care for – although annual pruning is essential due to the fast growth rate.

8. Dill And Fennel Herbs

Dill flowers growing in the garden

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The benefits of growing dill and fennel herbs in the garden are threefold. Not only are the plants hosts for the black swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes), but they also offer culinary value while enhancing the beauty of flower beds with their feathery fronds.

Both herbs are easily grown from seed and thrive in a sunny spot in well-draining soil. However, while they are from the same family and have a similar appearance, these herbs should not be grown together as cross-pollination affects their flavor.

Once planted, they require little care besides occasional fertilizing and watering in dry periods.

Dill is winter hardy in USDA zones 9 to 11 – otherwise, it should be grown as an annual. Fennel is hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9.

Melanie Griffiths
Senior Editor

Melanie has worked in homes and gardens media for two decades. Having previously served as Editor on Period Living magazine, and worked on Homes & Gardens, Gardening Etc, Real Homes, and Homebuilding & Renovating, she is now focusing on her passion for gardening as a Senior Editor at Gardening Know How.

Melanie has spent the last few years transforming her own garden, and is also a keen home grower, having experimented with pretty much every type of vegetable at some point.

In her spare time, she loves to explore inspiring gardens and historic properties.