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Jacqui Knight

9 October 2023

I am often asked for a list of plants to provide nectar for our butterflies. This is a difficult question to answer because so much depends on your area (region), your landscape, soil, aspect, site and what you want. There are trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, vines, ground covers that can provide nectar for our butterflies, moths and pollinators.


This subject is covered in much more detail in our Online Course.

Here’s a quick answer: If you have a specific species of butterfly or moth you would like to attract, my suggestion is to go for a walk around your neighbourhood to see what that species is nectaring on, and if you like the plant, identify it and ask for it at your garden centre or among gardening friends. You can usually be confident the soil nearby will be similar to yours and certainly the climate should be similar.

While some people like to plant only perennials or along a colour theme, other gardeners might want natives. Bear in mind that butterflies fly during the day and prefer colourful flowers. Many NZ plant species have small, white flowers to attract pollinators and many of NZ’s pollinators fly at night. Others have flowers which smell like rotting meat to attract pollinators that eat carrion.

80% of our native trees, ferns and flowering plants are endemic. Over 90% of our Lepidoptera species are endemic!

Butterflies need to be able to land on something to nectar: they don’t hover like some pollinators. Daisy shapes are favoured because the butterflies have a landing pad of the petals. Another consideration is that the butterfly needs to be able to get its proboscis into the nectary. It wants to feed on nectar to sustain itself – picking up pollen and pollinating the flower is a happy accident. So double or complex arrangements of petals are no use.

And another important point to remember is that as plant propagators have improved flowering plants (to please people) in many cases the nectar quality has been lost, so choosing simple, traditional or unmodified plants is usually beneficial. Cineraria is a good example: the basic cineraria plant which you can see in cottage gardens is usually more favourable than one purchased from a garden centre.

Vanessa gonerilla red admiral on blue cineraria Jacqui Knight

Here is a list of native plants for a native garden. Some of these are host plants and others will provide nectar or in some cases structure. Plant a flax or cabbage tree near your milkweed and the leaves will be jewelled with pupae as the plant offers fresh air and sunlight while it provides protection from the rain.

Here is a very basic list of nectar-producing flowering plants. This list is not exhaustive but I have selected a few flowering plants, including trees and shrubs, which are reasonably easy to find and will grow in most parts of NZ.

Just as many people ask me “what is a good plant for nectar” many other people tell me that the butterflies prefer a plant that I don’t have. There is much more information in our Create Butterfly Habitat Course online – and of course we welcome comments about other great nectar sources in the section below.

One comment on “Nectar:
Jacqui Knight”

  1. I had a visit from Zenobia Southcombe who lives in Palmerston, Otago and I mentioned that kōwhai trees are not used by butterflies looking for nectar. She disagreed, and when she returned home sent me photos she took of a yellow admiral (kahukōwhai) nectaring on her kōwhai tree! I'm always learning. See the photos here:

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