Host plants—often weeds, wildflowers, shrubs, or trees native to the area—encourage butterflies to lay eggs. While host plants are generally not as colorful as the bright flowers that feed the butterflies, they are necessary for breeding, to continue the egg-to-butterfly life cycle. "Carrot, dill, milkweed, and parsley are all good plants for a kids' garden that the larvae feed on while they're growing," says Gifford.
There is a wide variety of both nectar and host plants for nearly all climate zones, and it's helpful to choose plants native to your area. "Identify a list of plants you would choose for attracting butterflies and then from there, select plants that are durable," recommends Gifford. "Pick things you would choose for any other kids' garden. You don't want small delicate flowers since kids will tromp through the garden."
Some common nectar plants are aster, black-eyed Susan, butterfly bush, butterfly weed, cosmos, lantana, lavender, liatris, marigold, phlox, purple coneflower, and zinnia. To get information on butterfly plants for your area, the NGA suggests contacting your state's National Wildlife Federation chapter, or a local botanic garden or arboretum.
In addition, gardeners should never use insecticides on plants in a butterfly garden. Chemicals designed to kill pests will also kill caterpillars and beautiful butterflies. It's also important because you don't want to expose children to dangerous insecticides, says Rick Mikula, the expert known as The Butterfly Guy and author of several gardening books including The Family Butterfly Book. "If children are playing with the plants or looking for caterpillars, they will touch the plants and then put their hands in their mouths," says Mikula. The residue can be damaging to little bodies in even small doses. Certain plants such as marigolds, petunias and herbs can naturally repel pests.
Fun for Kids and Educational, Too!
Children are naturally enthralled by the graceful, delicate beauty of butterflies, and love hands-on working and exploring in an outdoor garden. "I think the greatest part is the interaction between plants and critters," says Gifford. "Kids are starting to understand the ecology of our natural world. Plants rely on insects, and bugs rely on plants."