Butterfly House Collections Pair Plants with Pollinators

The Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House is known as a pollinators’ paradise, but it is also an extension of the Missouri Botanical Garden’s focus on innovative horticulture and beautiful displays.

Two types of butterfly gardens were created over the course of the Butterfly House’s existence, the Conservatory and the Native Butterfly Garden, with the aim of showcasing both tropical and native displays.


The Conservatory houses 2,000 butterflies in free flight, representing approximately 80 different species.  Horticulturist Lisa Williams is in charge of selecting, cultivating, and maintaining the plants housed there with the help of volunteers and interns.

Kept at 85° F and around 65% humidity, the enclosure is similar to the Garden’s Climatron® conservatory in terms of environment, but differs greatly in terms of its purpose.  While the Climatron displays a wide variety of tropical plants, the Conservatory’s collection is selected based on the amount of nectar supplied by each plant.

A Great Eggfly rests on a leaf.                        (Photo by Nora Thiemann)

The color range displayed is largely decided by butterflies because they are particularly attracted to purple, red, and yellow flowers, but are rarely attracted to white flowers. In some cases, different color varieties of the exact same plant can have widely different amounts of nectar.

“Porterweed is a big butterfly attractor, so we propagate it year after year from the same plant in-house,” says Williams.

While the Conservatory aims to showcase a myriad of tropical butterflies, regulations prohibit allowing butterflies to reproduce inside the enclosure.

“Banana plants would be able to thrive in the Conservatory’s environmental conditions, but they are host plants for Owl Butterflies, which we have,” explains Williams, “In addition, butterflies can adopt otherwise peripheral host plants as main host plants when in captivity, so we have to consistently check plants for caterpillars and chrysalises.”

Another challenge for the Conservatory is controlling pest populations without the use of pesticides, as that would endanger the butterflies that call it home.

“We bring in beneficial insects about every six weeks to help control pest populations,” says Williams, “It’s a constant balancing act between what level of pests is tolerable and what amount necessitates beneficial insects.”

Another method of pest control is carnivorous plants, in this case the pitcher plant.  It was introduced October of 2016 and has been well-received by visitors ever since.

Pitcher plant
Pitcher plants hang from a basket suspended from a tree. (Photo by Tom Incrocci)

“Kids are fascinated with pitchers plants,” Williams adds, “It sort of flips the accepted plant and bug connection on its head in a really cool way.”

Native Butterfly Garden

The Native Butterfly Garden was created to be a backyard demonstration garden that could provide habitats for Faust Park animals, host plants for caterpillars and nectar sources for caterpillars.  Horticulturist Len Boever is in charge of this part of the Butterfly House.

The water feature provides for aquatic insects such as dragonflies, while other pollinators are drawn in by surrounding foliage. (Photo by Nora Thiemann)

The general layout of the outdoor beds is to intermix more cultivated beds with areas that are permitted to grow more wild.  This is due to the twofold purposes of showing how native plants can be used in gardens to provide for pollinators, while also providing a venue that can be rented out for weddings and events.

One of the central goals of the Native Butterfly Garden is to attract butterflies and allow them to reproduce, so host plants and nectar sources are intermixed.

“In the front bed, we have species of milkweed mixed in with other plants that flower at different times, so we are able to feed adult monarchs during both seasonal migrations and provide plants where they can reproduce,” says Williams.

A monarch butterfly clutches the underside of a leaf. (Photo by Sundos Schneider)

Though the name of the Native Butterfly Garden might imply that only native plants are found there, in reality native and non-native plants are both present, with their value to pollinators the unifying characteristic between the two types.

“Parsley plants occupy the pots in the back garden because they are host plants for Black Swallowtails, which makes the plant an excellent source of education for school groups that frequently visit,” Boever explains.

Butterflies are far from the only creatures attracted to the Native Butterfly Garden.

“One way we attract birds and other wildlife is by leaving seed heads on plants longer than most other gardeners would, as they’re a food source,” say Boever., “A lot of the birds that show up here are somewhat random, as we’ve seen green herons, cedar waxwings and mallards, but we do have some plants that attract goldfinches in particular, such as prairie dock and the cup plant.”

Gardeners who aim to attract wildlife must understand that there will be some plants eaten by that wildlife.  It is an accepted side effect of gardening with native plants.

“Butterfly milkweed has been difficult to consistently grow in the back garden because it seems to either die out or is mowed down by rabbits,” saya Boever, “Also, turtles who came to the pond nip buds off of the water lilies, bringing the bloom numbers from around twelve down to four.”

Water lily leaves float in the water feature in the rear garden.       (Photo by Nora Theimann)

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