Butterfly Thumb

Butterflies fluttering and gliding around the garden are a cheerful sight (unless they’re heading for your cabbages). Regardless, having plenty of butterflies around is a great opportunity for kids to watch the life cycle unfold, as caterpillar turns into butterfly.

Here's our quick guide to NZ butterflies, plus how to look after them. Read on for tips on how to grow swan plants, for the full Monarch experience!

We're proud to support the work of the Moths and Butterflies of New Zealand Trust Pūrerehua Aotearoa. The Trust's mission is to ensure our biodiversity promotes a thriving moth and butterfly population. You can find out more about their projects here.

There are at least 25 butterfly species found in New Zealand. Their caterpillars will usually prefer to eat a very specific host plant, but adult butterflies will feed from a wide range of flowers.

The Admiral (Nymphalinae) butterfly family includes the crowd favourite Red Admiral butterfly, a NZ native. The attractive Yellow Admiral also has a permanent home in NZ. Other members of the Admiral family are often blown here by wind, across the Tasman Sea. Admiral caterpillars prefer a diet of ongaonga or nettles, but the butterflies absolutely adore lacebark, hebe or heliotrope flowers.

The Blue (Lycanidae) family are small, steely blue or grey in colour and fly in a jittery path, close to the ground. Their caterpillars feed on gorse, broom, lucerne and white clover. The related Copper butterfly family have an iridescent coppery colour and also stick close to the ground in flight. Copper caterpillars prefer to eat various types of pōhuehue.

Milkweed (Danainae) butterflies are mostly represented here by the well-loved Monarch Butterfly. Monarchs established themselves here over a century ago and are now well settled. Caterpillars feed on swan plants or asclepias, so lots of people grow these plants as butterfly fodder to attract them into the garden. Overseas, Monarchs migrate long distances, but they don’t seem to travel as far in NZ.

The Ringlet (Satyrinae) family are small dark-orange butterflies, with little ‘eye’ shaped markings on their wings. Caterpillars mostly feed on tussocks and grasses.

The White (Pieridae) butterfly family is represented in NZ by the notorious Cabbage White (Pieris rapae), scourge of brassicas everywhere. They were introduced in the 1930s and since then they’ve been at the top of the vegie gardeners ‘least-favourite’ list. It’s important to note that this is the only proper pest butterfly species in NZ. The other types of pest caterpillars that damage vegies all belong to moths. The rest of the butterflies mentioned above are very welcome visitors in the garden!

Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus

Adult butterflies love visiting flowers that are rich in sugary nectar and are particularly fond of brightly coloured yellow, orange, red and purple flowers. Because butterflies can see ultraviolet light, colourful flowers look like fluorescent bullseyes and really stand out to them, making it easier to spot where they can get a sweet drink.

Butterflies have a curled-up straw-like ‘proboscis’ that they unroll and poke into flowers to suck up nectar. While they’re drinking, they brush up against flower pollen, which then gets brushed off at the next flower they visit. This makes butterflies valuable pollinators for flowers, certain vegetables and fruit and nut trees. It’s just as well they’re fantastic garden helpers, as it makes up for some of the damage hungry caterpillars do in the garden!

Red Admiral butterfly, Vanessa gonerilla gonerilla

Female butterflies will search out just the right host plant to lay their eggs on, so her caterpillar larvae can hatch out and start scoffing immediately. Believe it or not, butterflies do this by tasting the plant leaves – with their feet. Yes, it’s a butterfly superpower; they have taste receptors in the soles of their feet! They can also smell, touch and hear through their sensitive antennae. Oddly, Ringlet butterflies even have actual ears on their wings, to listen out for the flapping wings of hungry birds.

The antennae are one of the easiest ways to tell the difference between a butterfly (pepe) and a moth (pūrerehua). Butterflies have straight antennae with a bump on the end, moth antennae are feathery with a pointed tip. Plus, you’ll see butterflies during the day, but moths are generally night-fliers.

It’s ideal to grow plants in your garden that flower at different times of the year, to help butterflies get through the seasons. If you include a wide range of flowering plants, you’ll attract a wider variety of butterflies. Butterflies will do their part in return, to help pollinate your flowers.

Butterfly-attracting plants can be grown in a sunny garden bed and also in pots, on balconies and patios. Both the flowers and the butterflies will put a smile on your face! Here are our top tips for creating a successful butterfly garden.  

Common Blue butterfly, Zizina labradus labradus

How to Attract Butterflies to Your Garden

Plants that Attract Butterflies

Some of the best nectar plants that will attract adult butterflies into your garden include:

Flowering Annuals

Yellow Admiral butterfly, Vanessa itea

Flowering Perennials, Trees & Shrubs

  • Achillea – also known as yarrow, this hardy perennial comes in a range of pretty colours. We have Achillea ‘The Pearl’, in glorious white.
  • Anchusa – masses of intense cobalt-coloured flowers, with a spreading habit.
  • Asters – both annual and perennial asters are gorgeous additions to any garden.
  • Buddleja – also known as butterfly bush, Red Admiral butterflies especially love buddleja’s fragrant flowers.
  • Echinacea – also called coneflowers, echinacea are butterfly-attracting perennials that you can grow from seed.
  • Heliotrope – Admiral butterflies really like the fragrant purple flowers of our Heliotrope ‘Deep Marine’.
  • Lavender – butterflies will be competing with the bees for the nectar! Try our Lavender ‘Hidcote’.
  • Monarda – Bergamot bee balm isn’t just for the bees!
  • Rudbeckia – our Rudbeckia ‘Cherry Brandy’ is a winner for attracting butterflies.
  • Salvias – from cool blues, pretty pinks to vibrant reds, salvias have nectar rich flowers. You can grow Salvias from seed, including Salvia ‘Blue Bedder’ or Salvia ‘Evolution Deep Violet’.
  • Sedum – ‘Autumn Joy’ is a hardy pastel-flowered succulent that flowers from late summer, into autumn.

Common Copper butterfly, Lycaena salustius

Plants that Provide Food for Caterpillars

If there aren’t caterpillars in your garden, you won’t have any butterflies, so it's also important to include caterpillar host plants in your garden. Some of the best food plants for NZ caterpillars include:

Swan plant – the main host plant for the Monarch Butterfly, swan plants are a traditional favourite for kids, to observe the butterfly life cycle.

Asclepias – (AKA tropical milkweed) is also a favourite food of Monarch caterpillars. The adult butterflies will also feed on the flowers.

Sweet Peas – Longtailed Blue caterpillars will happily eat sweet pea flowers (also garden peas and broad beans, if you don’t mind sharing).

Pōhuehue – all of the Muehlenbeckia species are a favourite habitat for Copper caterpillars.

Pureora – AKA scrub nettle (Urtica incisa). Admiral butterflies will flock to this plant. Watch out though, pureora has a nasty sting, so be wary and choose the planting spot carefully so it’s out of harm’s way. Red Admirals seem to prefer ongaonga (tree nettle, Urtica ferox) but having a ferocious 5m stinging monster in the garden is a big ask! Pureora only grows to about 1m in height, so it’s much easier to live with.

Provide a Water Source for Butterflies

Butterflies need access to water, so providing it to them will encourage them to stay in your garden. You may see butterflies drinking from a muddy puddle. The technical name for this group is a ‘puddle club’, which sounds like a good question for a pub quiz! Butterflies use puddles for hydration, but they’re also after the minerals found in the water.

You can reproduce the sort of puddle butterflies like by adding some soil, beach sand and flat stones to a shallow dish of water. A pot plant saucer is perfect; the result is known as a ‘Butterfly Puddler’. Soil and sand add minerals; the stones provide a place for the butterflies to land. Place your butterfly puddler in a quiet, sunny spot in your garden that has shelter from wind.

Monarch caterpillar, Danaus plexippus

How to Sow Swan Plants from Seed

One of the best ways to make sure you have enough swan plants on hand to feed all those hungry munching Monarch caterpillars is to do a little planning ahead, to grow your own seeds. Plus, swan plant seedlings can be hard to find later in the growing season, particularly if the Monarchs have a bumper year and eat up large!

We've pulled together some top tips on planting swan plant seeds:

  1. You can sow Yates Swan Plant Seeds directly where they are to grow during late spring through to autumn in the North Island, or from late spring to early autumn in the South Island (and colder areas of the North).
  2. Alternatively, sow seeds earlier in the season in a glasshouse, or indoors on a warm windowsill, into seedling trays, or any container with some holes for drainage.
  3. Use a good quality seed raising mix that’s fine and free draining. You could try either Yates Black Magic Seed Raising Mix or Yates Nature’s Way Organic Seed Raising Mix.
  4. Scatter the seed thinly, cover it with seed raising mix (you are aiming for the seeds to be around 5mm deep), firm down and water gently.
  5. Seeds will germinate in 14-21 days.
  6. When you take them outside and transplant into the garden, we recommend soaking the seedling in Yates Thrive Natural Seaweed tonic (diluted 1-2 caps per bucket). This helps the roots re-establish quickly and prevents transplant shock, plus helps with improving plant resistance for protection against pests, drought and frosts.
  7. Space your plants around 1m apart in the garden.
  8. Plants will grow to around 1.5m in height.
  9. Plants will flower in 14-16 weeks (if they get a chance – many swan plants get eaten up well before they get to flowering).
  10. During spring and summer remember that plants need food too, just like people. Try a plant food like Yates Thrive Fish Blood & Bone, which has high levels of NPK nutrients for leafy plant growth.

Tussock Ringlet butterfly, Argyrophenga antipodum

Jérôme Albre, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A Handy Hint...

If you’re looking to encourage both caterpillars and butterflies into your garden, then Yates Butterfly Field Seed Mix is perfect. You can sprinkle it directly onto your garden bed – it has 33 different varieties of vibrant colourful plants that have nectar flowers to provide food for butterflies and feed and habitat for the caterpillars. It includes plants like Swan Plant, Asclepias, Cosmos, Marigolds, Zinnia, Californian Poppy and many more.

Every pack of Yates Swan Plant and Yates Butterfly Field Mix seeds we sell helps support the Moths and Butterflies of New Zealand Trust with their great work helping to locate, protect, enhance and create overwintering sites for butterflies in NZ.

Related products

Swan Plant

Widely grown as the main host plant for the Monarch Butterfly, Swan Plants are a traditional favourite for kids, to watch the butterfly life cycle unfold.


Large daisy flowers with raised centres make attractive features in garden beds or pots.

Echium 'Cottage Charm'

Beautiful spikes of bloom in a pretty mix of blue, violet, pink or white shades. An irresistable magnet to attract bees to your garden.

More project guides & articles

Grow A Butterfly Garden

Here's our quick guide to NZ butterflies, plus how to look after them. Read on for tips on how to grow swan plants, for the full Monarch experience!

How to Propagate Plants, by Layering

‘Layering’ is a type of plant propagation where new stems remain attached to the parent plant, while they develop their own roots. Here's how to do it and get free plants!

Get an early start for your heat-lover vegies

A challenge with growing heat-loving vegies is getting started early enough to give them a long enough growing season. In cooler areas it can be a nail-biting race against winter when you’re waiting for your harvest, so get ahead of the game!