What Does a Butterfly Flower Look Like?

by Jennifer

Butterfly flowers, also known as butterfly-attracting flowers or butterfly-friendly plants, are a delightful addition to any garden or landscape. These plants not only add beauty and color but also serve as vital resources for butterflies, providing them with nectar, shelter, and breeding grounds. Understanding the characteristics and visual appeal of butterfly flowers is essential for both gardening enthusiasts and conservationists alike.


Characteristics of Butterfly Flowers

Butterfly flowers come in a wide array of shapes, sizes, colors, and fragrances, each uniquely adapted to attract butterflies. While there isn’t a single definitive appearance for a butterfly flower, several common characteristics make them attractive to these winged pollinators.

1. Bright Colors

One of the most prominent features of butterfly flowers is their vibrant and eye-catching colors. Bright hues such as red, orange, yellow, pink, and purple are prevalent among plants that attract butterflies. These colors act as beacons, guiding butterflies to the abundant source of nectar within the flowers. Additionally, many butterfly-pollinated flowers have patterns, spots, or stripes that serve as visual cues for the butterflies, helping them locate the nectar-rich blooms more efficiently.

2. Tubular or Cone-Shaped Flowers

Many butterfly flowers possess tubular or cone-shaped blooms, which are well-suited for the long proboscis (tongue) of butterflies. These specialized flower shapes allow butterflies to easily access the nectar hidden within the petals. Flowers with deep, narrow tubes, such as those found in salvias (Salvia spp.) and trumpet vines (Campsis radicans), are particularly popular among butterfly species with elongated proboscises.

3. Sweet Fragrance

A pleasant fragrance is another characteristic shared by many butterfly flowers. Fragrant compounds released by the flowers serve as olfactory signals, attracting butterflies from a distance. Some butterfly-friendly plants, like lavender (Lavandula spp.) and butterfly bush (Buddleja spp.), emit sweet, aromatic scents that add to the sensory experience of visiting butterflies and humans alike.

4. Abundant Nectar

The primary purpose of butterfly flowers is to provide nectar, the main energy source for adult butterflies. Therefore, butterfly-friendly plants typically produce copious amounts of nectar to sustain these pollinators. Flowers with small, clustered blooms, such as those found in marigolds (Tagetes spp.) and zinnias (Zinnia spp.), offer abundant nectar rewards while providing a visually stunning display in the garden.

5. Long Blooming Period

Butterfly flowers often have extended blooming periods, ensuring a continuous supply of nectar throughout the growing season. By producing flowers from spring to fall, these plants support butterflies at various stages of their life cycle, from mating and egg-laying to feeding and migration. Perennial butterfly flowers like coneflowers (Echinacea spp.) and black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.) are particularly valuable for their prolonged flowering duration.

Examples of Butterfly Flowers

Numerous plant species exhibit the characteristics described above, making them attractive choices for butterfly gardens and landscapes. Here are some popular butterfly flowers categorized by their common characteristics:

Brightly Colored Flowers:

  • Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa): Known for its vibrant orange blooms, butterfly weed is a native milkweed species that serves as a host plant for monarch butterflies.
  • Lantana (Lantana spp.): With its clusters of multicolored flowers, lantana attracts butterflies with its abundant nectar and long blooming season.
  • Blanket flower (Gaillardia spp.): Featuring red, yellow, and orange daisy-like flowers, blanket flowers are irresistible to butterflies and other pollinators.

Tubular or Cone-Shaped Flowers:

  • Trumpet vine (Campsis radicans): This vigorous vine produces tubular, trumpet-shaped flowers in shades of orange or red, attracting hummingbirds and butterflies alike.
  • Penstemon (Penstemon spp.): With its tubular blossoms in various colors, penstemon is a favorite among many butterfly species, including swallowtails and skippers.
  • Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis): Known for its brilliant red flowers, cardinal flower produces tubular blooms that are highly attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies.

Sweetly Fragrant Flowers:

  • Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritima): This low-growing annual emits a delicate, sweet fragrance that entices butterflies and other beneficial insects to the garden.
  • Sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus): With its intensely fragrant flowers in a range of colors, sweet pea is a favorite among butterflies, bees, and gardeners alike.
  • Phlox (Phlox spp.): Many phlox varieties produce fragrant flowers that attract butterflies while adding beauty and charm to the garden landscape.

Abundant Nectar Sources:

  • Coneflower (Echinacea spp.): Coneflowers produce daisy-like blooms with prominent central cones, providing abundant nectar for butterflies and other pollinators.
  • Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.): These cheerful yellow flowers with dark centers are a favorite nectar source for butterflies, bees, and other pollinators.
  • Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium spp.): Tall spikes of pink or purple flowers make Joe Pye weed a standout in the garden, attracting butterflies and other pollinators with its abundant nectar.

Long Blooming Period:

  • Salvia (Salvia spp.): Salvias come in a variety of colors and sizes, offering nectar-rich blooms that attract butterflies throughout the growing season.
  • Zinnia (Zinnia spp.): Zinnias are easy-to-grow annuals with vibrant, daisy-like flowers that bloom continuously from summer to fall, providing a reliable food source for butterflies.
  • Verbena (Verbena spp.): Verbena’s clusters of small flowers in shades of purple, pink, or white bloom prolifically from spring to fall, attracting butterflies and other pollinators.

Creating a Butterfly-Friendly Garden

To attract butterflies to your garden, consider incorporating a variety of butterfly flowers that offer a combination of bright colors, tubular or cone-shaped blooms, sweet fragrances, abundant nectar, and long blooming periods. Here are some tips for creating a butterfly-friendly garden:

1. Choose Native Plants: Select native plant species whenever possible, as they are well-adapted to the local climate and provide essential resources for native butterfly species.

2. Plant in Clusters: Group butterfly flowers together in clusters to create focal points that are easily visible to butterflies. Planting in clusters also makes it easier for butterflies to locate the flowers.

3. Provide Host Plants: In addition to nectar plants, include host plants that caterpillars can feed on. For example, milkweed species serve as host plants for monarch butterflies, while parsley and dill attract swallowtail butterflies.

4. Offer Sun and Shelter: Most butterfly species prefer sunny locations with shelter from strong winds. Provide ample sunlight for your butterfly garden while incorporating elements like shrubs and trees for shelter and resting spots.

5. Avoid Pesticides: Minimize or eliminate the use of pesticides in your garden, as they can harm butterflies and other beneficial insects. Opt for organic gardening methods to maintain a healthy ecosystem.

6. Provide Water Sources: Set up shallow dishes filled with water or create a small butterfly puddling area using sand and mud. Butterflies often gather to drink water and extract essential minerals from damp soil.

7. Maintain a Continuous Bloom: Select a diverse range of butterfly flowers that bloom at different times throughout the growing season to ensure a steady supply of nectar for butterflies.

By incorporating these principles into your garden design, you can create a welcoming habitat that attracts a diverse array of butterfly species while enhancing the beauty and biodiversity of your outdoor space.


Butterfly flowers play a vital role in supporting butterfly populations by providing essential resources such as nectar, shelter, and breeding sites. Understanding the characteristics of butterfly-friendly plants, including their bright colors, tubular blooms, sweet fragrances, abundant nectar, and long blooming periods, is key to creating a successful butterfly garden. By selecting and cultivating a variety of butterfly flowers in your garden, you can attract and support these enchanting pollinators while enjoying a beautiful and vibrant outdoor space.


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