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The Truth about the Butterfly Bush (And What To Plant Instead!)

May 31 2022 – Kelly LaVaute, Digital Storyteller

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 exampletheir 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

Check your zip to see what ships!

Buy orange butterfly milkweed 3-plant collection 

Buy Monarch Munchables 6-plant collection

Buy Monarch Munchables 12-plant collection


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 


Check your zip to see what ships!

Buy Monarch Munchables 6-plant collection (Southeast)

Buy Monarch Munchables 12-plant collection (Southeast)



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


Check your zip to see what ships!

Buy whorled milkweed 3-plant collection

For even more milkweed variety ideas that will be better options than a butterfly bush, check out Milkweed for Monarchs’ long list.

More resources:

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National Wildlife Federation Native Plant Finder







8 comments

  • Steve Joiner: June 22, 2022
    Author's avatar image

    Not a single item you mentioned is avaliable in my zip code (79764). West Texas was “the” destination for a large areaway of butterflies and bees but no one grows cause no one ships to sparsely populated area. Our portion of the states is larger than many states we just don’t have the population. Tell some one to grow and ship!

  • Noreen Krispin: June 22, 2022
    Author's avatar image

    Thank you NWF, (garden for wildlife,)
    for this educational article. It’s
    disturbing to know how many people
    have butterfly bush & do not believe
    it is not good food for them. After all,
    the butterflies should know what they
    need, right?
    How do we convince the nursery trade to stop selling this shrub-along
    with the invasives that do take over our native land.

  • Jerry: June 22, 2022
    Author's avatar image

    Are these three recommended milkweed varieties (whorled, snowy, and orange) included in the milkweed required by the Monarch Butterfly caterpillar?

  • Sherry Piatt: June 22, 2022
    Author's avatar image

    Very disappointing that you do not offer the plants that will thrive in my area for butterflies. I have planted a few types of milkweed that does make it in my area to help the monarchs. When we bought 26 years ago we saw them all the time. I haven’t seen a single one in four years. But I refuse to give up-am going to plant more!

  • Shari Bray: June 22, 2022
    Author's avatar image

    Do you have alternatives you can recommend for western Washington? I didn’t see any of your alternatives with a native range of WA.

  • Kathleen J. Bradley, NWF Habitat Host: June 22, 2022
    Author's avatar image

    People like Butterfly bush for the same reason they put up bird feeders- to see the butterflies. I try to get people to take them out but it is hard to get them to it even when they know better.

  • Helen: June 22, 2022
    Author's avatar image

    I liked the premise of the article as butterfly bush is on the watch list for invasive in California
    However You butterfly milkweed listed for CA It is not native there See the link below for CA native varieties

    https://calscape.org/loc-California/Milkweed%20(all)?newsearch=1&srchcr=sc62a4f73202d51

  • Debbie: June 22, 2022
    Author's avatar image

    I am looking for the name of a milkweed plant that is light purple and very fragrant. It was grown on a neighbors property and the smell was heavenly. It also was a bees delight along with butterflies.
    I also am fond of Joe pye weed, not sure of the spelling. I have seen this covered with butterflies!!!
    I hope someone can help me with the name of the milkweed plant please:)

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