Butterfly Garden Rendering

Image Credit: Marian Keith

Bright, beautiful, effortless and eco-friendly – that about sums up this spectacular, late season native flower garden. Although it’s designed to particularly shine from midsummer to late fall, it remains pretty year-round, employing a suite of complementary, low-maintenance, North American perennials that are as attractive to foraging butterflies and birds as they are to gardeners.

Butterfly Garden Rendering

A monarch caterpillar will appreciate the butterfly weed banquet you offer.

Photo Credit: Jessie Keith

Deftly placed clumps of soft-textured native grasses and bright, nectar-rich flowers create an appealing contrast of tones and textures in this “picture border” designed to be planted against a backdrop (like a hedgerow, fence or wall). Though most of its flowers appear in summer and fall, this garden is texturally beautiful in spring and early summer. The bunch grasses add a fine, airy look that contrasts nicely with the arching stems and green leaves of the flowering plants. Early and late season spring bulbs, like camassia, tulips or daffodils, could be planted between the summer perennials if earlier color is desired.

Most people don’t realize the huge advantages of growing native garden plants. Regional natives are better adapted to our gardens, so they’re easier to grow and require less water and fertilizer than most non-natives. They’re also a better fit for endemic wildlife.

A good bird and butterfly garden contains lots of daisies, like asters, sunflowers and coneflowers. The fresh flowers feed butterflies of all kinds, and seed-eating birds, like finches, buntings, sparrows and grackles, feast on the seeds.

No butterfly garden would be complete without butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). Milkweed leaves are the solitary food source of monarch butterfly caterpillars, and the flowers provide nectar to adult butterflies. Larvae and adults that have consumed milkweed become unpalatable to predators, so it’s essential for their survival.

Grasses are tough, sustainable and another key component of a good bird garden. They’re remarkably heat- and drought-tolerant once established and continue to look great into winter. Ground-feeding song and game birds feed on the seeds and use the blades for nest material. And in winter, the dried grasses offer them needed cover from predators.

The following native species and their cultivated varieties are well-adapted to many North American landscapes. Each lends a different essential elient to the garden, both visually and ecologically. Just match the following plants to the corresponding letters in the garden layout.

Native Butterfly Garden Key

Native Butterfly Garden Key

Although this particular garden planting is designed for a 16 x 10-foot plot, it can be easily altered to fit different spaces. Match the letters in the drawing to the letters in the article to see where and how many of each plant to use.

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Image Credit: Marian Keith

  1. Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed). Brilliant orange flower clusters bloom in summer, and long, plump seedpods appear in fall. These split open to release many parachute-like seeds topped with silky threads that catch the wind and float away. Watch the monarchs rabble!
Monarch Butterfly

Butterflies are beautiful pollinators that keep life growing! Create a space for them in your garden and encourage environmentally sound beauty.

Photo Credit: David Walker

  1. Aster laevis ‘Bluebird’ (smooth aster). Abundant clusters of lavender-blue flowers bloom in mid-fall atop tall, strong stems lined with smooth, disease-resistant foliage. Butterflies flock to the flowers, and birds eat the seeds in winter. Cut the plants back by half in late spring to encourage bushier growth and heavier flowering.
  2. Aster oblongifolius ‘October Skies’ (aromatic aster). Among the last flowers to bloom in fall, this drought-resistant aster forms a broad mound of vivid lavender-blue daisies, evoking the rich hues of a clear autumn sky. The last butterflies of the season rely on these for food.
  3. Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam’ (thread-leaved tickseed). Low mounds of feathery, fine-textured foliage are covered with many soft yellow, summer blossoms that complient both warm and cool garden colors. Though the plant’s flowers are sterile, butterflies still feed on their nectar. Plants should be sheared back by ¼ in late summer to extend flowering into fall.
  4. Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower). This is a bird and butterfly powerhouse! Dramatic purple flowers with spiny orange centers bloom over a long period in summer on robust, 3- to 4-foot plants. Goldfinches relish the seeds of this popular prairie wildflower.
  5. Eupatorium purpureum (sweet Joe-Pye weed). Big domes of lavender-purple flowers top strong, 4- to 6-foot stems in late summer, attracting butterflies and adding architectural appeal to the garden. This species is more tolerant of dry conditions than Eupatorium maculatum, which it closely resembles.
Red Spotted Purple Butterfly

Flower clusters with flat platform shapes give winged visitors a place to rest as they enjoy the nectar.

Photo Credit: Amy Dee Stephens

  1. Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ (perennial sunflower). Multitudes of pale primrose yellow daisies bloom on healthy, 6- to 8-foot-tall plants over a long period in late summer. It’s a naturally occurring hybrid between the North American species Helianthus pauciflorus var. subrhomboideus and Helianthus tuberosus. Its many seed heads should be left for bird forage.
  2. Liatris ligulistylis (Rocky Mountain blazing star). Spires of bright rosy-purple, tufted flower clusters accent the garden from midsummer to early autumn. The colorful flowers are exceptionally attractive to butterflies, and birds feed on the long spires of seeds in winter. The flowers may require staking.
  3. Panicum virgatum ‘Prairie Sky’ (switchgrass). Large, airy seed heads float atop tall clumps of slender, blue-green blades in late summer, providing an appealing contrast to plants with bolder flowers and foliage.
  4. Schizachyrium scoparium ‘The Blues’ (little bluestem). The cool, powdery blue foliage of this upright, modest-sized grass turns to warm orange in late autumn, and the delicate seed heads are lovely when backlit by the sun. Colorful drifts of little bluestem are a common sight along Midwestern roadsides in winter.
  5. Sporobolus heterolepis (prairie dropseed). Airy, sweetly scented flower panicles hover in late summer above knee-high fountains of fine, threadlike foliage that turns enticing shades of copper and bronze in fall. This beautiful shortgrass prairie native takes a few years to become sizeable, but it’s well-worth the wait.

Looking to bring a little eco-friendly beauty into your landscape? Give this native border a try for some late season color and interest. (The birds, butterflies and environment will thank you for it!)