Butterflies are cold-blooded insects that require the sun’s warmth to help their bodies work. However, you can grow both host and nectar flowering plants in shaded gardens adjacent to sun-drenched areas like driveways or patios, and still attract winged visitors. In addition to butterflies seeking shelter from wind and rain, woodland butterflies like those in the satyr group may flit amongst your shady offerings. Add a mud puddling area to provide minerals and drinking water, or a small log pile for roosting, and watch your butterfly population grow.
An attractive perennial even when not in bloom, stately astilbes are excellent long-lived nectar providers for part or full shade gardens. Butterflies flock to pink and purple shades, like ‘Amethyst,’ ‘Montgomery,’ or the elegantly draping ‘Ostrich Plume.’
Also called wild aster or starwort, this three-foot perennial is smothered with daisy-like white flowers in late summer and fall. This low maintenance native shrugs off pests, but does appreciate consistent moisture. Gardeners may need to stake plants grown in shady gardens to maintain a tidy appearance.
These bright red tubular flowers are just as attractive to hummingbirds as they are to butterflies, and they make great cut flowers too. Cardinal flowers put up with a full day of shade, but they must never dry out. In fact, these are good candidates for a bog garden, and in their native habitat grow in wetlands or pond margins.
4. False Sunflower
Heliopsis flowers are tough plants that grow in average to heavy clay soils in areas as cold as zone 4. Partial sun is better than full shade for these flowers, but the plants can take over the garden if they like their site. Remove spent blooms to reduce self-seeding volunteers.
Gardeners have a love-hate relationship with honeysuckle vines. The problem lies in the introduction of the non-native and invasive Amur, Morrow, and Tatarian honeysuckle shrubs from Asia that take over woodland habitats. For your shady butterfly habitat, you can still give the green light to native honeysuckles like ‘John Clayton,’ ‘Major Wheeler,’ or ‘Magnifica.’
Impatiens may seem like clichéd bedding plants that pop up at every big box store in the spring, but improved varieties of this annual make it more versatile than ever for the shady butterfly garden. The ‘Xtreme’ series tolerates hot summers and blooms continuously without pinching. The ‘Impreza’ series was bred to spread, covering your bare soil with flowers. All impatiens are easy to grow from seed, if you start them indoors about two months before last frost.
7. Joe Pye Weed
Joe pye weed is a standout specimen in large sunny borders and cottage gardens, but the flowers can tolerate dappled shade or afternoon shade. True to is name, the large plants can spread rampantly in untended spaces, but the smaller stature of ‘Little Joe’ Eupatorium plants make them more manageable in the small shade garden.
The very early yellow flowers of the spicebush have an understated charm, and the foliage of this host plant sounds the dinner bell to the spicebush swallowtail. Give this shrub plenty of room to grow to its mature height of 10 feet in the woodland garden. In the fall, you’ll enjoy the golden foliage and bright red berries of the spicebush.
Fritillary butterflies will feast on the leaves of this shady groundcover. The petite plants are easy to tuck between rocks or at the edges of paths, where you can observe their tiny spring blossoms.
10. Wreath Goldenrod
Many gardeners are familiar with the Solidago wildflower species that flourish in sunny meadows, but some species, like the wreath goldenrod and the zigzag goldenrod, thrive in shade. If you’ve avoided goldenrod flowers in the past for allergy reasons, give this native another chance: its pollen spreads via insect transference, and is not carried by the wind.