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Butterflies are some of the most welcome visitors to any wild yard. So like many gardeners you no doubt want to know what flowers will attract butterflies to your garden. Even flowers you might think of as weeds can sometimes be the ideal host for butterflies. For example, do butterflies like yarrow?
Butterflies love yarrow! It produces a large amount of nectar, and the flat, tightly-clustered flower heads provide places for butterflies to rest and sun themselves.
Why do butterflies like yarrow?
Butterflies’ primary food source is nectar, which they eat through a long tongue-like tube called a proboscis. When seeking their food butterflies choose flowers by factors including color, fragrance, and shape, and as we’ll see, all of these make yarrow an ideal plant for the butterfly.
Like all insects, butterflies perceive the world in a very different way to us humans. They can see millions of color shades – including many that are invisible to humans, and possibly more than any other animal! However, butterflies are short-sighted and can’t see the same visual details that we can. This makes color very important to a foraging butterfly seeking flowers to feed on. They, therefore, prefer bright colors such as orange, red, yellow, pink, and purple.
Because of this, yarrow is an ideal choice for the hungry butterfly. Although the common wild yarrow is creamy white, there are now cultivars in almost every shade including vivid reds, yellows, purples, and pinks – the exact colors that butterflies love! Some varieties, such as the striking “Cerise Queen”, also have contrasting central stamens which may help to attract butterflies to the heart of the flower.
The shape of yarrow also makes it a great choice for butterflies. Individual yarrow flowers are tiny but grow in large, flat umbrella-shaped clusters that each contain dozens of small blossoms. This means that although the blossoms themselves aren’t large, there are so many of them close together that the nectar is abundant.
Because the flowers themselves are very open, yarrow may particularly attract butterfly species with shorter proboscises who find it harder to drink from tube-shaped flowers like lavender. But don’t get the wrong idea – most butterflies love lavender!
There’s another reason why the shape of yarrow flowers makes them attractive to butterflies. The wide, flat surface of yarrow flowerheads provides a comfortable platform for butterflies to land, rest, and get some sunshine while they eat.
Yarrow also has a distinctive spicy scent which some people find similar to that of chrysanthemums. Butterflies certainly seem to like the fragrance, and since yarrow blossoms all the way from March through to September it will attract butterflies for months on end.
All these characteristics of yarrow together make a very winning combination from the butterflies’ point of view!
Is yarrow a butterfly host plant?
Because of their distinctive life cycle, butterflies are drawn to plants for two main reasons. They are drawn to plants as nectar sources to feed on as adults, and as ‘host plants’ – a plant eaten by the caterpillars of a given butterfly species. Many butterflies require specific plant species to nourish their young, and the female butterfly will choose these plants to lay her eggs on.
While moth caterpillars will feed on yarrow leaves, not many North American butterfly larvae will. Here the butterfly that most relies on yarrow as a host plant is the evocatively named painted lady or American lady, a beautiful butterfly famous for migrating in vast numbers.
Although most American butterflies won’t use yarrow as a host plant, many are known to be drawn to it as a nectar plant. These include the American copper, banded or red-banded hairstreaks, the Lorquin admiral, the west coast lady, and, of course, the beautiful and increasingly scarce monarch butterfly.
If you want to support butterflies in all stages of life, it’s a good idea to plant yarrow alongside host plants like milkweed, verbena, parsleys, asters, or sunflowers.
All kinds of pollinators love yarrow, including various species of bees, flies, and wasps. So if you want to attract butterflies but not bees, you might want to look for an alternative.
How do you grow yarrow?
The good news is that yarrow is incredibly hardy and easy to grow. With over a hundred ornamental varieties of yarrow now available you’re sure to find a cultivar of color and height suited to your garden. Adapted to a wide range of environmental conditions, it thrives in USDA Hardiness Zones 3-9. Some gardeners have even had success with it in Zones 2 and 10.
In the garden, yarrow prefers full sun and well-drained soils. In fact, you may find it grows best in poorer soils: when grown in fertile soils it may become leggy and floppy and may be more vulnerable to pests. It tolerates both frost and drought very well, propagates easily from seed, by division, and from tip cuttings, and also self-seeds easily.
Yarrow naturalizes very readily, which can lead to it being a nuisance to the unwary gardener. It’s known for spreading easily and being difficult to permanently remove, and has even been known to invade lawns – so if this is a concern you might choose to grow it in containers or a raised bed to keep it under control.
Yarrow can also produce severe skin rashes in people with an allergy and is toxic to dogs, cats, and horses. This means it’s best to wear gardening gloves when handling it and to keep it away from any pets who might be inclined to chew it.
The good news is that although it can be difficult to contain, yarrow will be hugely beneficial to your garden as a whole. Yarrow’s deep roots help to fix nutrients in the soil, making your garden more fertile. Those roots also help prevent soil erosion, keeping valuable topsoil in place. Yarrow also attracts helpful insects like ladybugs and lacewings and deters pests.
Does yarrow attract bees and butterflies?
Yarrow is a fantastic plant for butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. It can also be of great benefit as a companion plant and soil enricher. So long as you’re prepared for its tendency to wander out of flower beds, you can all but plant and forget about it. If you want a more natural, low-maintenance bee and butterfly garden, yarrow is the way to go!