SDNHM Monarca: Butterfly Beyond Boundaries

Butterfly Gardening in San Diego County

Blue on penstemon, photo by Bob Parks


Butterflies can give the impression of flying flowers. Planting for butterflies is a beautiful way to enjoy and help conserve these wonderful insects while bringing life and movement to your garden.

A butterfly garden can be as simple or as complicated as you like. It can be as small as a window box or take up as much space in your yard as you allow. The key is to provide host plants for caterpillars to feed on as well as nectar plants for adults. What you plant in your butterfly garden depends on various factors, including which butterfly species are common in your area, what their respective host and nectar plants are, and what your garden habitat is like (coastal, inland, mountain, desert).

If you are interested in butterfly gardening here in San Diego, a good way to start is by checking our Field Guide for a list of common local butterflies. Once you know what kinds of butterflies you'll be able to attract in this area, you can figure out what kinds of host and nectar plants you'll need. Next, think about what kinds of plants will grow in your particular garden habitat.

Here we have focused on host and nectar plants for the San Diego urban/coastal region. These lists are by no means comprehensive, however, and we encourage experimentation.

First, a few general rules of thumb to get help you get started:

Things to think about when planning your butterfly garden

  • Host and Nectar Plants: It is important to provide food for butterflies in their larval stage (caterpillars need particular host plants) as well as flowers (nectar plants) that attract adult butterflies. Providing both of these elements increases the chances that any adult butterflies you attract will linger and lay eggs. (See lists of host plants) and nectar plants.)

  • Seasons. Here in San Diego, we're able to enjoy butterflies year round. The liveliest butterfly gardens incorporate a variety of plants that bloom at different times of the year in order to attract a wider assortment of butterflies.

  • Pesticides: Obviously, pesticides make it very difficult for butterflies to thrive. Fewer pesticides make for a more successful butterfly garden. The ideal butterfly garden is pesticide-free.

  • Go Native. Some local butterflies require specific native plants as hosts for their caterpillars. Flowering native plants provide nectar for adult butterflies while attracting other beneficial insects. Local nurseries can suggest butterfly plants that are native to your area, though some cultivated species are also good nectar sources.

  • Sun. Butterflies are cold-blooded and need heat from sunlight in order to warm up their muscles for flight. Place butterfly plants in the sunniest spots in your garden. The butterflies will benefit, and with adequate water, the plants will flower more.

  • Rocks. Butterflies like to bask in the sun, and a nice rock or two can offer them a place to warm their wings for flight.

  • Wind. If your garden is subject to substantial winds, you may want to consider providing some kind of protection for the butterflies you hope to attract, either in the form of a synthetic windscreen or, better yet, some tall plants to buffer the wind. Your best bet is a sunny, protected spot.

  • Colors. Butterflies don't care what colors their nectar plants are, but as a gardener you may. A butterfly garden is extremely flexible in this respect. Feel free to arrange flower colors any way you like, though groups of nectar plants tend to attract butterflies better than single plants spread throughout a garden. In general, butterflies prefer nectar plants that offer a surface on which to perch while feeding, accessible nectar (i.e. an open cup or a shallow flower), and abundant blooms.

For more on gardening with butterflies, see links to related websites.

Photo by Bob Parks

Monarca | Host Plants | Nectar Plants

Monarca | Exhibits