Food for butterflies, moths, and skippers
Butterflies have chewing mouth parts when they're caterpillars, but sucking mouth parts when they're butterflies. We provide food for both these phases of a butterfly's life.
Even more important, though, we're planting lots of food for the caterpillars that will later become the adult butterflies. These are the larval host plants, sometimes called caterpillar food plants. Every species has specific plants they use in this stage of their lives.
Chickadee feeding a caterpillar to its babies
No host plants for the caterpillar stage, no butterflies, no moths, nor skippers!
(AND a lot fewer birds as well, since caterpillars are a critically important food for birds to feed their young!)
Bed of native nectar plants mixed together
You may find that different plants appeal to the butterflies in your yard, and if you live anywhere other than in Central New York, I encourage you to use plants native to your own eco-region, since that's what is best for your native wildlife.
I like to mix my plants and plant them close together. Here's an assortment of native nectar plants that butterflies (and other insects) in this area like.
Buddleia aka butterfly bush
Buddleia is found on most all lists of butterfly garden plants.
It certainly does attract butterflies to observe, BUT what is fun for humans isn't necessarily good for butterflies or for healthy ecosystems.
Our monarch conservation page lists the many reasons why.
We USED to have about a dozen buddleia plants, but we dug these out many years ago.
There are lots of beautiful alternatives to buddleia (listed in the sidebar) that are much healthier for the planet and for the butterflies themselves.
Native nectar plants
This monarch demonstrated to me that native plants are best even for nectar.
This bed of salvia was the last year we planted the typical salvia bedding plant—just "eye candy" for people—and the first year we planted the native Salvia coccinea. (This is actually native farther south from here, and is a cultivar called 'Lady in Red.' )
As I watched the monarch visiting this patch of hybrid and native salvias mixed all together in one bed, it visited ONLY the native salvias. He knew that's where the nectar was!
Butterfly food that's not from flowers
Like most people, at first we just thought about providing nectar-rich flowers as food for butterflies. Of course, this is a good thing to do, but we since learned that some butterflies also use other sources of food or even prefer other sources.
This question mark butterfly (note the question mark on his wing), for example, is drinking sap from our apple tree.
As incongruous as it may seem, some beautiful butterflies eat rotting fruit or even dung!
I'm not sure what this mourning cloak is eating in the vegetable garden, but possibly it's getting minerals dissolved in the soil.
(The white object next to the butterfly is a plastic plant marker.)