A Butterfly Haven

in Your Herb Garden

Did you know that many our common herbs are essential for the successful reproduction of some of the exquisite butterflies that dart and swirl through Houston gardens?  You can easily create a butterfly sanctuary in your own herb garden that will help sustain and prepare butterflies to meet the tremendous challenges to their survival. 


Learn how to select the right combination of herbs to create a butterfly habitat, and then watch the entire life cycle of these amazing creatures unfold in your own garden.  A butterfly garden is an excellent introduction to backyard biology for children and parents. 


A successful butterfly garden offers both “nectar” and “host” plants.  Nectar plants have flowers that provide a sugary liquid for adult butterflies, and host plants provide massive amounts of leafy food for their rapidly growing caterpillars.  Many herbs are outstanding nectar or host plants, and some can be both nectar and host at the same time. Correct selection of host plants is crucial, since the caterpillars of most butterflies are particular, if not completely inflexible, about the food they can eat.  The female butterfly must locate and lay her eggs on the type of plant that her offspring requires, or the caterpillar hatching from that egg will not survive. 

For example, the Monarch is a well-known Houston area butterfly that has evolved to lay its eggs only on milkweed plants.  As they feed, the caterpillars assimilate toxic substances from the milkweed that make themselves unpalatable to birds both as caterpillars and adults.  This process is so essential to their survival that no other host food is possible.  But wild milkweed has become scarce in recent years due to development and agricultural use of pesticides.  Thus, Monarchs depend more and more on gardener-created butterfly habitats in urban landscapes for their survival. 

The graceful Eastern Black Swallowtail is another frequent visitor to Houston gardens.  Its larval life support requirements are for herbs from the Apiaceae family.  These include parsley, dill, fennel, cilantro, and the less-known but lovely herbs chervil and lovage.  


Adult butterflies are much less particular about which flowering plants they use as nectar sources.  They can visit virtually any of the following flowering herbs in your garden for quick, high-energy nectar: almond verbena, basil, bee balm, borage, butterfly weed, calendula, catnip, chives, cilantro, dill, echinacea, fennel, hyssop, lavender, lemon balm, marjoram, mints, oregano, parsley, pinks, rosemary, sage (particularly pineapple sage), savory, thyme, and yarrow.  These are all wonderful choices for a fragrant, varied herbal butterfly garden that will be a haven for you, too, as it attracts and supports one of nature’s most dazzling creations. 


Submitted by Karen Cottingham