Book Review: Gardening for Butterflies

Having just watched the second presidential debate, let me say this: let’s talk about butterflies! I mean, who doesn’t want more butterflies around? They add not just movement and beauty, but really a kind of magic to the garden.


For those who want to attract more butterflies, the Xerces Society has written Gardening for Butterflies, a nicely illustrated blueprint. The Xerces Society is an organization that brings together scientists and engaged citizens to combat the widely documented declines of many butterfly species. While the Xerces Society is an international organization, this book is focused on North America.

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Black Swallowtail sharing nicely with a bumblebee.

Gardening for Butterflies contains an overview of the various butterfly families. As someone whose knowledge of butterfly species is kind of fuzzy, I found this helpful, as was the section on the butterfly life cycle.

The largest section of the book is a discussion of plants that are beneficial for butterfly caterpillars or adults or both. Because the book covers all the different regions of the USA and Canada, the plant list should be considered a starting point – but certainly a good one. More details can be found online on sites like Gardens With Wings.

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Giant Swallowtail

Gardening for Butterflies also discusses the needs of butterflies beyond plants. For example, non-migratory butterflies need plant litter and brush piles to help them overwinter. And butterflies need mud puddles or similar spots for absorbing water and minerals. My own garden is pretty well equipped when it comes to plant litter, but I’m going to have to think about the mud puddle issue.

I was interested to see that the Xerces Society says that overwintering boxes for butterflies are pretty useless, though they note these boxes can be helpful to spiders and various insects.

Painted Lady

There is also a chapter devoted to moths, so that they don’t feel neglected. Which reminds me of how in another book entomologist Eric Grissell is a tiny bit miffed that people want to plant butterfly gardens but not, say, parasitic wasp gardens – though parasitic wasps are essential to the garden ecology. The good news is that what is good for butterflies, especially doing without insecticides, is good for beneficial insects generally.

DSC_0714 Monarch
Monarch on Butterflyweed.

There’s also information on how to design various kinds of butterfly gardens, and a good discussion of projects to promote butterfly populations in public landscapes.

The decline in butterfly species is part of a larger crisis of biodiversity. In the preface, the authors note that public policies are needed that “require a reconciliation between the human environment and a more natural one.” Then they add that “as individuals we cannot simply stand by and do nothing while we wait for those policies. In the case of butterflies, every one of us who gardens has the potential to change the world.”

32 Comments on “Book Review: Gardening for Butterflies”

  1. I just hope that last sentence is true, and that we can make a difference as gardeners. Mud puddles may be a problem here in summer, but there is always some water in various saucers around my garden that I put out for birds and insects. 🙂

  2. This sounds like a good book and certainly a pleasant diversion from late Sunday night! If my central Kentucky location is any indication, there are more pollinator gardens, not only in home gardens, but also public parks.

  3. I have this book too. It’s great for novice and veteran butterfly gardeners. Check out page 265. Recognize anyone? My friend Penny took that photo of me in my garden. Page 64 was also taken at Southern Meadows. Gulf fritillary chrysalis are everywhere here. I really like that they include profiles of native plants that support many pollinators.

  4. Hello Jason, it’s very stressful following the US presidential campaign and I’m in the UK! Butterflies are a much healthier alternative. I need to try harder to grow the plants that the caterpillars like and not just focus solely on the flowers as you can’t have one without the other.

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