It takes more than nectar to entice butterflies to take up residence in your garden. While nectar-rich flowers attract passersby to stop and feed, host plants send an invitation to stay a while. Larval host plants are the secret to successful butterfly gardening; they are plants required by a caterpillar for growth and development.
By planting host plants in your garden, you offer a promise of food for the next generation and will attract more butterflies than you thought possible.
Drawing a Crowd with Host Plants
Female butterflies are lured to host plants by a combination of chemical cues released from the plant. Once they locate a host, they begin laying eggs. Males are also attracted to host plants, where they can surely find females for mating.
All this business of searching out mates and host plants is tiring. The adult butterflies will need energy to keep busy. Providing a balance of nectar-rich flowers to fuel butterflies and host plants to nurture young ensures a garden bustling with activity.
But which plants are best? Different species of butterfly rely on different host plants to rear their young and vary in their preferences for nectar sources, so each species has a unique set of ideal plants. Gardeners can take several approaches to designing a butterfly garden. You might focus on a few desirable butterfly species you wish to attract and select host and nectar plants accordingly.
Another option is to go local. Plants native to your region host butterflies native to your region. Try planting a variety of your favorite native plants and enjoy the surprise of discovering which butterflies show up.
Attracting Specific Butterfly Species with Host Plants
If you’re looking to attract your favorite butterfly species to the garden, start by making a list of larval host plants and nectar favorites specific to the target species. Look around your garden. You might already have many of the nectar plants in your landscape. If so, simply tuck a few host plants in among the flowers and you’ll be ready to go. If not, you’ll want to plant a mixture of nectar-rich flowers and host plants in a sunny location.
Here are plant lists for some of the most popular butterflies to get you started.
There are many of species of swallowtail throughout the country. Two of the most common are the eastern swallowtail (Papilo polyxenes) and tiger swallowtail (Pterourus glaucus), each a vivid mix of yellow, black and blue. Tiger swallowtails use trees as larval host plants, but can be drawn to gardens with nectar resources. Eastern swallowtail caterpillars are often found in the vegetable garden feeding on herbs in the carrot family. Plant extras so you have plenty for cooking and caterpillars, or try planting ornamental bronze fennel.
In decline due to loss of habitat, both in summer and wintering habitats, monarchs (Danaus plexippus) are the poster child of butterfly gardening. Monarch larvae are dependent upon plants in the milkweed family for survival. Gardeners across the country are doing their part to protect monarchs by planting local milkweed species.
Larval Host Plants:
milkweed (Asclepias spp.), (milkweed seeds), such as common milkweed (A. syriaca), swamp milkweed (A. incarnate), and butterfly weed (A. tuberosa)
On intricately-patterned wings, painted ladies (Vanessa cardui) grace the garden with delicate beauty. Ranging across North America, painted ladies were once called thistle butterflies after their preferred wild host plant. In the garden, a variety of plants make suitable hosts. Adults prefer taller nectar plants such as those listed here.
Gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanilla) and its larval host plant passionflower (Passiflora spp.) make for a stunning duo in the garden. Ranging throughout the southern states, the vibrant orange butterfly is a regular in urban gardens and a favorite for outdoor classrooms.
Diversify Your Offerings to Attract More Butterflies
Not all butterflies gather energy from feeding on nectar. Some species find nourishment in rotting fruit, dung, and even carrion. While you’re not likely to put a steaming pile of manure or rotting carcass in the yard, you may try offering a fruit-feeding station. Simply place over-ripe fruits on a flat rock or wooden platform and enjoy the feeding frenzy.
Fruit-feeding butterflies include mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), monarch (Danaus plexippus), red-spotted purple (Basilarchia astyanax) and question mark (Polygonia interragationis).
With a mixture of larval host plants, nectar resources and alternative foods like fruit, you are sure to welcome a diversity of winged life into the garden. Add a shallow dish of water and a sheltered place to escape the wind to complete your butterfly oasis.
Plant your support for the disappearing pollinator population in your own backyard with our Northeast Pollinator Mix. This easy-to-grow blend is designed to provide food and habitat to northeastern pollinators throughout the length of the growing season. Annual and perennial wildflowers like New England Aster, Black Eyed Susan, Milkweed, Coreopsis and Cosmos provide pollen, nectar and shelter for hundreds of important species, including Monarch butterflies and native bees. Contains only 100% pure, non-GMO and neonicotinoid-free seeds, best for planting in CT, DE, ME, MD, MA, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VT, WV, QC and the Eastern Townships. Guaranteed to grow.
Restore native habitat to the landscape by planting the Native Northeast Wildflower Mix. Containing 18 native wildflowers found throughout New England and the mid-Atlantic, including Spotted Joe Pye Weed, Butterfly Weed, Red Columbine and Wild Lupine, this colorful mix is incredibly easy to care for. Best for planting in: CT, DE, MD, MA, ME, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VT, WV, QC and the Eastern Provinces. All of the seed we offer at American Meadows is non-GMO, neonicotinoid-free and guaranteed to grow.
A field of Lupine is an amazing sight, with spiky blooms of saturated indigo-blue that last from late spring to summer. Combine them with later-blooming flowers (like Shasta Daisy and Rudbeckia) for an extended season of color. Growing to be about 12-36” tall, Lupine is a great choice for the front of the meadow or garden bed. Extremely easy to grow and deer resistant, this perennial flower blooms year after year. Seeds are 100% pure, non-GMO, neonicotinoid-free and guaranteed to grow.
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