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. Great post Jason; spreading the word about biodiversity for all wildlife is so important. Seeing the new intensive agriculture which now surrounds us I am even more determined to try and keep the garden a wildlife friendly space.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

    • Wow! Very impressed. And lucky you to have those Gulf Fritillaries around. I’ve never seen any Fritillaries in the garden, including the ones that are supposed to be found in this area.

  5. Oh, yes! Much better than the debates. What a season! Very good post. That book will go on my TBR pile.

  6. Butterflies and biodiversity – things that actually make the world a better place (unlike presidential debates). It’s heartening to think that gardeners can make a difference. I hope it is true.

  7. Some lovely butterflies you have shown us here. The issues around their survival is complex but one simple fact is that we can all do our bit to try to help them in our own gardens. Keep spreading the word.

    • I can see why you feel that way, but I hope your wrong. Voluntary actions can be important, but I don’t think these problems can be effectively addressed without change in public policies as well.

  8. Yes, focusing on butterflies is much more rewarding than focusing on politics any day, but especially now. I need to get a copy of this book. Another great source of info about butterflies is It includes identification tools and it lists host plants and preferred nectar sources for North American butterflies. You are certainly doing your part for the butterflies. 🙂

  9. A butterfly respite from this political season is most welcome. I’m looking forward this winter to plotting out some garden spaces with butterflies, bees, and birds in mind as much as color, fragrance, and texture.

  10. I love that last sentence, each of us has to try to make a difference.You have me pondering on mud puddles too! A marvelous

  11. I miss butterflies, as a child I remember seeing so many of them….here in NY they are a rarity. Going to look into this book – I have a garden but right now going into winter…maybe next spring….good blog

  12. 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.

  13. Sounds like a book I could benefit from — and my public library owns it. Thanks for letting me know about it; it’s now on my “to-read” list.

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