Want Butterflies? Plant a Host Plant.

When a caterpillar emerges from an egg, it is minuscule and can’t travel far to find food. To aid her offspring’s survival, the female butterfly (or moth) deposits her eggs on the food source her newborn caterpillars require so they can eat as soon as they emerge. The specific plant (or plants) a particular caterpillar must eat is its “host plant.” By planting a wide variety of host plants (which include trees, shrubs, and grasses as well as flowers), you will establish the foundation of your own butterfly haven. When selecting host plants, choose native plants. Cultivars* of native plants do not always offer the same ecosystem value as the native species (also referred to as “straight species”). You don’t need to wait until spring to get started, fall is a great time to plant native vegetation.

For more information on butterflies, moths, and their host plants, visit butterfliesandmoths.org

A Partial List of Host Plants for Regional Butterflies and Moths

American Lady and Painted Lady: Ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata*), pussytoe species (Antennaria), pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea)

Baltimore Checkerspot: White turtlehead (Chelone glabra)

Newly emerged black swallowtail caterpillars munching on a dill plant. Black swallowtail caterpillars eat plants in the Apiaceae plant family which include Golden Alexanders (such as Zizia aurea or Zizia aptera) as well as parsley, carrot, celery, fennel, and dill.

Black Swallowtail: Golden Alexanders species (such as Zizia aurea or Zizia aptera) as well as the leaves of plants in the parsley, carrot, celery, or dill families.

Common Buckeye: Monkey flower (Mimulus ringens), blue vervain (Verbena hastata), hoary vervain (Verbena stricta)

The red admiral butterfly lays its eggs on plants in the nettle family. Pictured here sipping nectar from a purple cone flower. Photo: Lucy Pilgrim-Rukavina

Coral Hairstreak: Chokecherry shrub (Prunus virginiana)

Delaware Skipper: Big bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii), switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail: numerous native trees including wild cherry (Prunus), basswood (Tilia), birch (Betula), cottonwood (Populus), and willow (Salix)

The great spangled fritillary lays its eggs on native violets. Pictured here sipping nectar from wild bergamot. Photo: Dave Crawford

Fritillaries: Native violet species (Viola)

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth: Northern bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera), chokecherry shrub (Prunus virginiana), white snowberry shrub (Symphoricarpos albus), nannyberry and highbush cranberry shrubs (Viburnum species)

Monarch: Milkweed species (Asclepias)

The American painted lady munching on its host plant, pussytoes. Later in the season, the plant will recover just fine and continue its growth. Photo: Liz Stanley

Mourning Cloak: Numerous native trees including pussy willow (Salix discolor) and weeping willow (Salix babylonica), cottonwood (Populus deltoides), aspen (Populus tremuloides), paper birch (Betula papyrifera), and hackberry (Celtis occidentalis).

Pearl Crescent: Several species of true smooth aster (such as Aster laevis and Aster novae-angliae)

Silvery Checkerspot: Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida)

Spring Azure and Summer Azure: New Jersey tea (Caenothus americanus), redtwig dogwood (Cornus sericea), nannyberry and highbush cranberry shrubs (Viburnum species)

Moths also need host plants on which to lay their eggs. Plant native plum or cherry, hawthorn, honeysuckle, or snowberry to attract a hummingbird clearwing moth visitor to your yard.  Photo: Max Saucedo

Top Three Host Trees for Butterflies and Moths: Quercus species (oaks), Salix species (willows) and Prunus species (e.g., cherry shrubs and trees such as chokecherry, black cherry).

Common buckeye butterfly sipping on an anise hyssop flower. While butterflies sip from a wide range of floral resources, caterpillar offspring are fussy eaters. Photo: Vicki Bonk

*Read plant labels so you know what you are buying. Plant names that include an “x” (such as Coreopsis x ‘Moonbeam’) indicate the plant is not a straight species native, but a hybrid—a plant that is created by crossing two species. A label with a description in single quotation marks (such as Echinacea ‘Pink Double Delight’) indicates the plant is a cultivar—a new plant created through selective breeding. Native plants are indicated by their Latin botanical name. For example, Vernonia fasciculata is the two-part Latin name (its scientific nomenclature), for the straight species of ironweed.


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