Although butterflies appreciate large stands of nectar-rich flowers, a container garden full of annuals can offer all the elements of butterfly-friendly garden design. In particular, butterflies appreciate shelter from the elements, and a group of containers on your balcony or patio may provide a respite from the windswept conditions in open landscapes. Add a clay saucer drinking station, and you may soon be honored with some of the more than 700 species of butterflies that inhabit North America.
Blue ageratum, also known as floss flower, is beloved for its sky blue shade and its tidy growth habit. The flowers look like powder puffs, and also come in pink shades and white. Plant the ‘Blue Danube’ variety in small containers, or try the ‘Blue Horizon’ in larger pots.
2. Bachelor’s Button
The clear blue hue and rich nectar content of cornflowers is highly prized by many butterfly species. Some gardeners grow this as an herb, so consider pairing it with parsley or fennel to provide host food for caterpillars and a nectar source for butterflies in one pot.
Large cosmos varieties are cottage garden staples with their billowing ferny foliage and casual daisy-shaped flowers, but the smaller varieties perform well in large container gardens. ‘Pink Popsicle,’ ‘Cosmic Orange,’ and ‘Sonata Mix’ are three dwarf varieties that won’t exceed two feet in height. Cosmos plants are legendary for their drought tolerance in the garden, but appreciate regular irrigation in containers.
Mid-summer and early fall is an important feeding time for butterflies, and also the primetime for growing dahlias. Skip the dinner plate varieties for your container garden, and instead grow dwarf varieties like the peach ‘Mary Jo,’ pink ‘Park Princess,’ or red and yellow ‘Tahiti Sunrise’. Plant your dahlias in containers at least 12 inches in diameter, and keep the soil evenly moist throughout the growing season.
Early season butterflies appreciate the cool weather blooming season of annual and biennial pinks or sweet William flowers. Dianthus plants appreciate sharply draining soil, which is easier to provide in containers than in the ground. The ‘Parfait’ series offers charming bicolor blooms, or try the ‘Telstar’ series for improved heat tolerance. Dianthus plants perform best without an organic mulch, but you can add a decorative gravel or rock mulch to your container planting.
6. Globe Amaranth
Like the gray hairstreak butterfly in this photo, many butterflies find the compact florets of gomphrena flowers appealing. The ‘Gnome’ and ‘Buddy’ series of plants are especially compact, although globe amaranths generally don’t exceed 18 inches, especially in container culture. Plants started from seed may not bloom until July, so buy transplants if you’re eager for earlier blooms.
The Egyptian star flower is a fast growing annual that blooms prolifically in hot, humid climates. Although the flowers are available in pink, white, lavender, and rose shades, gardeners who choose a red variety are apt to attract hummingbirds in addition to butterflies.
Popular in our grandparent’s gardens, petunias have enjoyed a revival as breeders offer new colors, better branching, and more rainproof blossoms. Look for compact multiflora varieties like the ‘Carpet’ series or ‘Primetime’ series, or fill in blank spots in your containers with milliflora types that produce one-inch flowers on miniature plants, like ‘Fantasy.’
9. Sweet Alyssum
The small clusters of sweet alyssum emit a distinct honey-like fragrance in mild weather flower gardens, attracting early-emerging butterflies hungry for nectar. You can tuck these small plants into the pockets of strawberry pots, place them at the margins of your containers, or allow them to trail over your hanging baskets. The plants respond well to shearing after the exhaustive heat of summer.
Verbena flowers are irresistible to many species of butterflies, like this red admiral, producing just the right shades of purple, pink, salmon, or red blossoms brimming with nectar. If you have a large container, you can grow the airy V. bonariensis pictured here, which tops out at about four feet tall on thin wiry stems. Prostrate varieties suitable for smaller containers or hanging baskets include the ‘Lanai’ series or the trailing ‘Superbena’ series. Extend the bloom time of verbenas by cutting them back and fertilizing them when they start to look lanky.