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How to get the butterflies to come back

Butterflies are vibrant and elusive, often vanishing as quickly as they appear—making each unexpected visit all the more memorable.

There are more than 100 butterfly species that have been observed in Virginia, according to

But Mary Free, a Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener serving Arlington County and the city of Alexandria, has noticed a decline in the number of winged visitors to her garden over the last 17 years.

“Habitat loss is a major factor in the decline of insect and bird populations,” Free explained. “Everyone who creates a butterfly habitat adds a steppingstone to reverse that trend by providing a place where pollinators can safely eat and reproduce, planting trees and shrubs that reduce carbon, and using fewer chemicals.”

While it may seem daunting, creating a thriving butterfly habitat can be as simple as several potted plants or as expansive as acres of flora.

“The key is to provide the plant food butterflies need as both caterpillars and adults,” Free noted.

Location, soil type, light conditions and hardiness zone can help guide plant choices.

Free encourages sticking with native plant species, as they attract native butterflies, provide the quality food they need, adapt to local climates and conditions, and promote biodiversity.

Every butterfly is unique, with some species and their caterpillars feeding on a variety of plants while others only need one host plant.

Some host plants may already be growing in gardens, like parsley, carrots, dill and fennel, which attract Eastern Black swallowtail caterpillars. Some may exist in neighborhoods, like white clover and oak, wild cherry and flowering dogwood trees.

Free suggested finding what native host plants are nearby, and planting something different to maximize results.

Consider incorporating a rock in a sunny spot for butterflies to warm their wings, and a puddling area for male butterflies, as they need soil minerals for reproduction. Planting densely is preferred, she said, as butterflies need refuge from wind and rain.

Don’t buy plants that have been treated with pesticides, as they can be deadly to butterfly larvae, and avoid using chemicals in and around the garden.

It’s also important to avoid clearing away dead flowers or foliage on or near host plants—they may harbor butterfly eggs or feeding caterpillars.

For a complete list of nectar and host plants for mid-Atlantic butterflies and moths, visit


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