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Creating a Butterfly Habitat Garden in Houston

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In Harris County, butterflies (Scientific Order: Lepidoptera) can be seen almost year round. About a hundred different species of butterflies regularly occur in Houston and surrounding Southeast Texas neighborhoods. From swallowtails to monarchs, these butterflies dance about our gardens in a visual symphony that is joyful to watch. The life cycle of a butterfly occurs in four stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and adult (butterfly).

What you may not know is that butterfly larvae (the caterpillars) are tied to specific host plants and they have definite preferences. A host plant is where adult butterflies lay their eggs. When the larvae hatch, they begin eating the leaves of the host plant. This food source enables them to grow, pupate and then become butterflies. Without it, the cycle stops. Adult butterflies need nectar to survive and they get it from a variety of flowers in bloom throughout the year. So if you want to see more butterflies in your neighborhood and garden, your habitat should support the needs of butterflies during all four stages of their life cycle.

Monarch Butterfly on Milkweed

Monarch Butterfly on Milkweed

Adding a butterfly habitat to your garden is easy. Plant flowers that attract butterflies and provide nectar, and provide host plants where the adults can lay their eggs. It is important to point out that you will need host plants (food source for the larva) and nectar plants (food source for the adult butterfly). These plants are not the same. Most caterpillars feed on a select number of host plants, and they are usually within the same genus or species. For example, the Monarch caterpillar feeds on the leaves of the Asclepias spp. (Milkweed).

Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica)

Tropical Milkweed (also known as Bloodflower and Mexican Milkweed) - (Asclepias curassavica)

Butterfly Garden Plant Selection for Houston

Plants to provide nectar for adult butterflies

Gulf Fritillary

Gulf Fritillary on Lantana

When creating a habitat follow these guidelines:

  • Incorporate host plants in your garden plantings. Female butterflies are looking for the right spot to lay eggs. Having host plants available for them encourages them to remain in your garden year round.
  • Provide a diverse selection of flowering plants for nectar with varying heights and bloom periods. Different species of butterflies prefer different nectar sources, so having lots to choose from with attract a variety of butterflies.
  • Water – Provide shallow pools and even mud puddles. Butterflies prefer to drink water mixed with soil and sand. It provides essential minerals, salts and other nutrients.
  • Flat stones – provide a place for butterflies to perch and sunbath. It raises their body temperature so they can fly and remain active.
  • Provide a wind break using shrubs or structures. Butterflies are most active in calm conditions.
  • Do not use insecticides in the garden. All insecticides including Bt (Bacillus thuringeiensis) are toxic to insects and butterflies are insects too! If you must spray your vegetable garden, etc. try to provide a spray free zone for your butterfly garden.
  • After the eggs hatch, the larvae will begin eating the leaves of the host plant. Don’t worry if the host plant is defoliated. It will recover.
  • Butterfly larvae usually prefer native “unimproved” varieties of plants.
Nectar plants (Salvia and Zinnia)

Nectar plants (Salvia and Zinnia)

Monarch Up Close on Gerbera Daisy

Monarch Up Close on Gerbera Daisy

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Azaela Bloom

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Azaela Bloom

Some Host Plants for Butterfly Larvae available at Buchanan’s:

Dill, Parsley, Fennel, Rue, Passion flower vines, Tropical milkweed, Dutchman’s pipe vine, senna, shrimp plant, ruellia… and more.

Some Nectar Plants available at Buchanan’s:

Rudbeckia, Buddleia, cigar plant, purple coneflower, coreopsis, cosmos, lantana, Mexican flame vine, tropical milkweed, hamelia, goldenrod, pentas, phlox, ruellia, salvia, verbena, zinnia… and lot’s more.

Recommended Book:

Butterflies of Houston & Southeast Texas by John & Gloria Tveten – this paperback book is an invaluable resource for identifying and learning about butterflies in our area. Full color photos including photos to help you indentify the caterpillars of the butterflies. We have copies for sale in the Bungalow (Gift Shop).

Also in the Bungalow are Butterfly pavilions which are perfect for raising butterflies. Children enjoy watching these amazing creatures emerge.

Butterfly Pavillion

Butterfly Pavillion

Butterfly Pavilion - Real Butterfly Hatching Kit

Butterfly Pavilion - Real Butterfly Hatching Kit

If you are interested in creating a butterfly habitat in your garden, the staff at Buchanan’s can help. We can help you choose the right plants to attract butterflies and provide a sanctuary for them to thrive in.

Helpful Links:

North American Butterfly Association: Houston Page
Houston Museum of Natural Science: Cockrell Butterfly Center

Resources for this post:

A Guide to Butterfly Gardening in
Harris County (PDF)
Harris County Cooperative Extension

Butterflies of Houston & Southeast Texas by John & Gloria Tveten

10 Dont’s of Butterfly Gardening – BRENDA BEUST SMITH post

Butterfly Garden: Links to get you started – Houston Chronicle

Jacqueline D'Elia is a freelance garden writer, photographer and organic gardener living in Houston. She earned a BS in Horticulture from Texas A&M. She blogs about her garden antics at Southern Post Journal. Follow her on Twitter @JDElia.

14 Responses to “Creating a Butterfly Habitat Garden in Houston”

  • Susanna:

    Thanks Jacqueline(and Buchanan’S :) ! My husband and I have been trying to find plant lists for Houston that really work. Our daughters and we have been wanting to start a butterfly garden…love the cottage garden.

    We’ll see you Sunday to get our plants!

    BTW, thanks for speaking out for crepe myrtles. We never prune ours(despite neighbors comments). Let them grow!

  • Valerie:

    Wonderful article! Great information and plant list and gorgeous pictures! I will be in this weekend to get all I need to make my own!

  • trisha:

    Great article and so informative! Such beautiful pictures, feels like I can reach out and touch them. Looking forward to expanding my garden.

  • Susanna:

    I’m thrilled (as are my children) to say that the butterfly garden we planted with the help of this post and plants from Buchanan’s is thiving!
    We have 10 monarch caterpillars on our milkweed! Ther have been many butterflies and have new eggs that have been laid.
    My daughters check it everyday. They are so excited!

    Thanks Jackie! Thanks Buchanan’s for getting us started!

  • [...] staff to select the right ones for your project. You can also refer to our recent post about creating a butterfly habitat garden. Pentas are butterfly [...]

  • M E Allen:

    Moved to the Heights last April. Discovered three competing vines in bricked and fenced in front patio area but the passion flower vine was most prolific, if not invasive. During the last few weeks noticed many butterflies. Then masses of caterpillars on the p.f. vine and a few chrysalises. Yesterday morning watched as one of them gave birth to a butterfly (not yet identified). Thrilled with this accidental habitat that I moved in to.

  • Sarah:

    Great article! I went garden shopping last weekend and this is ALWAYS my goal. The flowers are pretty, but the butterflies are better! Lantana is the plant I’ve had most success with. It lives all year round if you care for it well. We just moved next door and I was sad to leave my first lantana (which is now a giant bush of a plant), but eager to plant multiple new ones!

  • Roxanne Busby:

    With this crazy warm winter behind us, we’ve had LOTS of Monarch eggs on our Milkweed plants and lots of caterpillars! Last summer with the drought we only had a few eggs and saw only a cpl caterpillars all summer….so we’re thrilled to see So many this year in our butterfly garden! Now we have several different types of butterflies flying around our flowers! It’s wonderful!! We live just outside the Heights near No Shepherd and Pinemont area.

  • Sharon Hughes:

    Think we had too many caterpillars for our milkweed. They’ have nearly cleaned off the leaves in 2-3 days. My 9-year-old is very worried. How long do they need to eat before they form the cocoon?

  • About 3 weeks. Normally the plants will recover. You can always plant a few more milkweed plants. :)

  • Sharon Hughes:

    Yes, I think we will have to try to put out more. Hope at leasy some of them survive another day.

  • Suzanne:

    My caterpillars have striped all my milkweed and I still have about 20 cats running about looking for food. What do I do now? Buy more plants? Or is there something that I can sprinkle for them to eat until new plants / old plants grow?

  • You’ll need more plants or relocate them to other areas where milkweed plants are available.