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Butterfly Gardening above 7,500′   arrow

How to Create a Butterfly Garden above 7,500′

Leslee T. Alexander, Mountain Master Gardener, Gilpin County, October 2006

Butterfly on Wallflower

Alpine environments above 7,500′ provide a great opportunity to attract butterflies to the garden. A backyard filled with native plants reflects the natural beauty found in most mountain communities. Sites designed for wildlife are attractive and easy to maintain, freeing time to enjoy the blooms and the butterflies.

The design of a butterfly garden is quite simple. A garden with windbreaks, nectar laden flowers, leafy plants and puddles of water draws butterflies in and then continues to satisfy their needs throughout the entire life cycle. Butterflies depend on plants for shelter and food their entire lives, from their nascent stage as an egg to the crawling caterpillar larvae, and then onto the chrysalis or pupa, which in turn metamorphoses into the final stage as the adult butterfly.

The chosen site may have some facets of a wildlife garden already, or it may be an empty space, barren backfill from recent construction (although the soil will probably have to be amended). Look around: take note of the sunny areas. Sun encourages flowers to bloom, and sun-warmed rocks are havens for butterflies, which warm their wings before flying. Determine where water naturally pools. Butterflies like to gather in salty pools. Offer shelter from the sun, wind and rain with decaying logs or even better yet, erect a butterfly house.

Grow organically. Do not use pesticides. The idea is attract the butterflies and encourage them to lay eggs. Caterpillars eat the plants and will die if they eat pesticides. Most caterpillars are specific about the plants they feed on, and female butterflies will only lay their eggs on the caterpillar food plant.

Before planting, amend the soil with two inches of compost, till it in six inches. The plants should be mulched, and it is good to fertilize in the fall and the spring.

There are plants that work great at elevation, and plants that attract butterflies. The goal is to find which combination of these plants works best. Use plants and shrubs that bloom at different times of the season. Arrange the plants in groups; large clusters of flowers are easier for the butterflies to locate. Arrange the plants by color and height. Allow space for annuals, biennials and perennials. Keep track of the garden to determine which plants draw butterflies.

Table 1 is a List of Suggested Butterfly Garden Plants for the Mountains above 7,500′. It is a list of annuals, shrubs and perennials that not only attract butterflies but are also recommended by Mountain Master Gardeners (MMG) as plants that do well in gardens 7,500′ and above. If the table suggests to site a plant in a hot location, your best bet is to place it near a south facing wall of your house. The reflected heat and protection from north winds will help the plant to thrive.

For tips on gardening at elevation, check out some of the other Mountain Master Gardener articles: Making the Most out of Mountain Soils, Mountain Microclimates and Why Go Native. Mountain living demands a new approach to gardening. Our landscapes are rocky. Water is scarce. The season is short. Nonetheless, the beauty of aspen leaves fluttering above boldly-colored wildflowers entices and encourages gardeners and butterflies back each year. We have all had our days trying to keep the critters out, so consider nurturing a space to draw them in.



Table 1. List of Suggested Butterfly Garden Plants for the Mountains Sources: The Butterfly Pavilion and Colorado Master Gardeners

TYPE KEY: N – Nectar H – Host (caterpillar friendly) B – Both


*start indoors or buy flats.

**these herbs may not winter-over and would need to be re-planted each year.

Botanical Name Common Name Type Color Comments
Lobularia maritima Alyssum B White Fragrant
Cosmos bipinnatus Cosmos N Various pink Put in hot location
Gomphrena globosa Globe Amaranth* N Varies Put in hot location
Heliotropium arborescens Heliotrope* N Purple or white Grow in a pot and bring indoors for winter
Lantana spp. Lantana N Multi Put in hot location
Tagetes spp Marigold* N Usually yellow Flowers edible
Nasturtium spp Nasturtium N Varies Put in hot, well drained area with relatively poor soil
Borago officinalis Starflower, Borage* N Blue/pink Flowers edible
Salvia spp. Salvia* N Blue, pink, red Also good to attract hummingbirds
Helianthus annuus Sunflower N Yellow Seeds feed songbirds
Verbena spp. Verbena* N Varies Put in hot location
Viola spp Violet,pansy N Varies Blooms all summer
Zinnia spp Zinnia N Varies Buy as a plant



Botanical Name Common Name Type Color Comments
Achillea lanulosa Yarrow N Various Native. Dry locations. Fern-like foliage. Easy to grow. Full sun. Long blooming. A. millefolium also can work well, but can be aggressive.- various colors.
Allium spp Chive, Wild onion N Pink A. cernuum and A. geyeri are native. Good in rock gardens.
Anaphalis margaritacea Pearly everlasting N White Native. Good dried flower.
Aster spp. Asters N Various Many natives
Cirsium spp. Native thistles N White to pink Native thistles such as C. centaurae and C. undulatum provide nectar for butterflies and seeds for birds.
Coreopsis spp. Tickseed N Yellow, pink Long blooming, xeric, tolerant of poor soils. Needs heat to bloom.
Dianthus barbatus* Sweet William N Pink, red, white Forms low, colorful mats at higher elevations. Biennial.
Dianthus plumarius Cottage Pink N Pink, red, white Blue-green foliage forms dense grass-like mats. Lovely, long blooming and fragrant.
Echinacea purpurea Purple Coneflower N Purple In areas with early fall frost, these might not bloom. Plant in a warm microclimate.
Eriogonum umbellatum Sulphur flower B Yellow Good ground cover
Erigeron spp. Fleabane or daisy N Usually blues Native
Erysimum capitatum Wallflower N Orange-yellow Native. Biennial. Fragrant. Reseeds readily.
Gaillardia spp Blanket Flower N Yellow-red G. aristata is a native. Start seed indoors for flowers first year or buy plant. Easy. Long blooming.
Lavandula** Lavender N Purple Non-native. Lavender needs heat – plant against south wall. ‘Munstead’ seems to be the most hardy.
Linum lewisii Blue Flax H Blue Native. Erect, branchy plant, some bush-like. Avoid European L. perenne, – too much potential to escape into natural areas.
Lupinus argenteus Silver Lupine B Blue Native. Very hardy. Grows on poor soils.
Lychnis chalcedonia Maltese Cross N Scarlet, pink, white Striking when in bloom. Blooms mid-August above 9,000 feet. Also attracts hummingbirds.
Mentha spp. Mint N Green M. arvensis is native, others work well. Can be aggressive – contain with a buried pot.
Mertensia lanceolata Bluebells N Blue Early blooming, is smaller and requires less water than its cousin, M. ciliata. Hard to find.
Monarda spp. Bee Balm N Red, pink, purplish M. fistulosa is native. Others also do well. Loved by hummingbirds. Prefers full sun to part shade, enriched soil and moisture.
Nepeta spp. Catmint N Blue-purple Long blooming, xeric, tolerates poor soils.
Penstemon spp. Beardtongue N Red and blue Natives: P. linaroides, P. pinifolius, P. procumbens, P. strictus, P. virens, P virgatus, loved by hummingbirds as well.
Phlox paniculata Perennial Phlox N Pink, white, purple Flowers mid- to late summer above 9,000 feet. Needs enriched soil.
Phlox subulata Creeping Phlox N Pink, white, purple Great rock garden plant. Likes full sun. Protect from winter winds.
Rudbeckia hirta Black-Eyed Susan N Yellow with black center The native plant is very hardy. Late blooming. Can be short lived, even act as a biennial but reseeds readily. Some cultivars are hardy as well.
Salvia Sage N Various Salvia nemorosa is one of hardiest.
Scabiosa Pincushion Flower N Blue or white Long blooming flowers, very tough and xeric.
Sedum acre Goldmoss Stonecrop N Yellow Forms bright green, low mat of fleshy foliage. Use in rocky areas
Sedum spurium Two-row Stonecrop N Pink Variety “Dragon’s Blood.” Has rose-pink flowers. A good rock-Garden plant. Can overgrow bounds.
Solidago spp. Goldenrod N Yellow Doesn’t cause allergies, as many people think
Thymus** Thyme N Pink, white Mat forming plants.
Veronica Speedwell N Blue, white, pink Often a creeping groundcover. Most species do very well, but check for hardiness zones.
Viguiera multiflora Showy goldeneye, sunspots N Yellow Many small flowers – grows in poor soil, full sun


Botanical Name Common Name Type Color Comments
Ceanothus spp. Mountain lilac N White Small bush
Chrysothamnus nauseousus Rabbitbrush N Yellow Flowers late in fall
Mahonia repens Oregon grape N Yellow Great groundcover – blue berries attract birds
Sorbus scopulina Ash N, H White Orange berries provide food for songbirds
Prunus virginiana Chokecherry N, H White Black berries provide food for songbirds
Rosa woodsii Mountain Rose N Pink Red rose hips provide late-winter food for birds
Rubus ideaus Raspberry N White Needs regular moisture to produce raspberries
Salix spp. Willow H Needs moisture

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