Many gardeners are attracted to butterfly bush because of its name and signature purple flowers. While this seemingly harmless plant does invite and provide nectar to some butterflies, the truth is that there are better –equally colorful– options for gardeners who want to attract (and help) butterflies.
So why should you avoid the butterfly bush?
Buddleja davidii (butterfly bush) is not native; it is from Asia. In fact, not a single native caterpillar eats butterfly bush. Additionally, the plant can be invasive. Butterfly bush has abundant seeds that easily spread outside of defined garden areas to “natural areas” where it will out crowd native plants, which are essential food sources for caterpillars. This is problematic because without caterpillars, there will be no adult butterflies. And wanting to attract butterflies is often why people purchase butterfly bush in the first place; though the purchase is likely made not knowing that the plant does more harm to native wildlife than good.
Garden for Wildlife™ collaborator, entomologist Dr. Doug Tallamy said, “People rationalize their perceived need for butterfly bush because they think it helps butterflies. What they really want is a pretty plant in their yard.” Unlike host plants (such as milkweed), this shrub doesn't offer anything of value for larvae to stay and grow.
Ultimately, to provide the support butterflies, birds, and other important wildlife need, you’ll want to plant native plants. And there are plenty of native plants that will bring both beauty and butterfly activity to your outdoor space. Some wildlife actually require certain types of plants. Take monarch butterflies for example–their caterpillars can only survive on native milkweed. This means milkweed is critical for the survival of monarchs. Without it, they cannot complete their life cycle and their populations decline.
Depending on where you live and your garden goals, there are easy-to-grow and BEAUTIFUL native plant options that will better support butterflies and other wildlife.
Butterfly bush alternatives we recommend:
OPTION #1 Asclepias tuberosa
AKA orange milkweed
This perennial has large, flat-topped clusters of yellow-orange or bright-orange flowers. Needs sunlight, drought tolerant, dry or moist soil. Orange milkweed grows in compact, small “bush-like” plants and can be clustered for maximum impact.
Native Range: AL, AR, AZ, CA, CO, CT, DC, DE, FL, GA, IA, IL, IN, KS, KY, LA, MA, MD, ME, MI, MN, MO, MS, NC, NE, NH, NJ, NM, NY, OH, OK, PA, RI, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, VA, VT, WI, WV
OPTION #2 Asclepias perennis
AKA snowy milkweed, aquatic milkweed
Returning year after year, you’ll love their pink tipped flowers, and it’s a great option for areas with soils that are continuously wet.
Native Range: AL, AR, FL, GA, IL, IN, KY, LA, MO, MS, SC, TN, TX
OPTION #3 Asclepias verticillata
AKA whorled milkweed
This pale green-white milkweed is a host plant for monarch caterpillars and ideal for dry, sunny and part shade areas.
Native Range: AL, AR, AZ, CT, DC, DE, FL, GA, IA, IL, IN, KS, KY, LA, MA, MD, MI, MN, MO, MS, MT, NC, ND, NE, NJ, NM, NY, OH, OK, PA, RI, SC, SD, TN, TX, VA, VT, WI, WV, WY
For even more milkweed variety ideas that will be better options than a butterfly bush, check out Milkweed for Monarchs’ long list.