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South Central Gardening: Butterfly Basics

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Attract more fluttering butterflies to your yard with these tips from Lowe’s South Central regional contributor.

Tiger Swallowtail butterfly
A Monarch caterpillar nibbles on milkweed.

By Susan Albert

When I first started gardening years ago, it was to bring more butterflies and birds to my yard. I read library books about butterfly gardening, and was surprised to learn that butterfly caterpillars required specific food plants to eat and grow. I also found out which flowers supplied the most nectar for the adult butterflies.

Fortified with my newfound knowledge, I set about locating these “host” plants caterpillars needed. Though the nectar plants were easy enough to find at local garden centers, many of the host plants were natives and harder to find.

The egg-laying female butterflies search for miles to find the right plants for their offspring to consume. For Eastern Black Swallowtails, it’s dill, fennel, parsley, Queen Anne’s lace, rue, and other members of the carrot family. For the Monarch butterfly, it’s milkweed.

Buckeye butterflies

By supplying those host plants, not only will you get the egg-laying females but also the males. They hang around the preferred plants, waiting for the females. After all, time is of the essence─a butterfly’s only purpose in life is to mate and lay eggs. Considering most adult butterflies live one or two weeks, there is some urgency.

Giant Swallowtail butterfly

Also butterflies face loss of habitat due to construction, as well as widespread pesticide use. By providing the host plants and the nectar plants, we can help sustain these important pollinators.

Here are some host plants for common North American butterflies:

Black Swallowtail—dill, fennel, parsley, rue

Buckeye—linaria, snapdragon

Fritillary—passion flower vine, viola

Giant Swallowtail—prickly ash, rue, wafer ash

Monarch and Queen butterflies—milkweed

Painted Lady—mallow, thistle

Pearly Crescent—aster

Pipevine Swallowtail—pipevine

Red Admiral—hops, nettles

Spicebush Swallowtail—sassafras, spicebush

Sulphur—clover, wild senna

Tiger Swallowtail—black cherry, lilac, mock orange, tulip tree

Zebra Swallowtail—pawpaw tree

There are many more, of course, and the National Audubon Society is a good source.

A red Admiral butterfly alights on a button bush.

Once the caterpillar hatches from the egg, it takes about two weeks to consume enough leaves of the host plant to grow and prepare for its next stage—the chrysalis. Butterfly caterpillars remain in the chrysalis stage about one to three weeks. When it’s time to come out, they just flip the hatch and climb out.

Migrating Monarchs flock to native crownbeard.

The adult butterflies siphon nectar from flowers. Their favorites include Brazilian verbena, butterfly bush, flowering weeds, lantana, monarda, pentas, phlox, purple coneflower, sedum, Tithonia, and zinnia. Hands down, in my yard they go to the butterfly bush the most, followed by Brazilian verbena, Tithonia, zinnia and pentas. Fall-migrating Monarchs flock to native crownbeard, which blooms in late summer.

The real serious butterfly gardeners also provide windbreaks and puddling stations─wet areas of earth or sand where butterflies can sip nutrients.

By providing an ample supply of nectar plants from spring to fall, as well as some choice host plants, gardeners should be sitting pretty as they watch the butterflies come to dine.

To see some of the host plants in my yard, check out this video.

See more by this author.

host plants