Monarch butterflies could soon be protected under the Endangered Species Act. Monarch populations have plummeted in the last two decades, dropping an estimated 90 percent from numbers in the 1990s. Scientists agree that the leading culprit in the monarch butterfly decline is genetically modified foods (GMOs).

Designed to resist applications of the popular glyphosate-based herbicide, best known as Monsanto’s Roundup, many of the GMO crops grown in the U.S. thrive in regions alongside milkweed—the monarch butterfly’s sole food source. Roundup targets milkweed, which farmers of GMO crops including corn and soy, now consider a pest plant. Its numbers have declined by 80 percent in the past 20 years. GMO crops are now being grown on more than 150 million acres of land in the U.S. and the spread of those crops over the last several decades parallel the monarch’s decline.

Advertisement

Monarchs eat in the U.S. as they make their way down to Mexico for the winter. But the number of monarchs completing the journey is now staggeringly low. Last year, the World Wildlife Fund reported that butterflies were only found in 1.7 acres across 11 sanctuaries in Mexico, “down from a high of 45 acres in 1996.”

One of the most important steps consumers can take to help monarchs is to avoid genetically modified foods. Look for Non-GMO Project verified foods and certified organic foods, and avoid overly processed foods.

You can also do monarchs and other butterflies some good with a strategically planted garden designed to attract these important pollinators. Every little bit helps!

waitscm/Flickr
Advertisement

Contents

How to Attract Butterflies to Your Garden

  1. Ditch the pesticides. This doesn’t mean you can’t do pest control in your garden, but certain pesticides, particularly malathion, Sevin, and diazinon, will kill butterflies. If you’re active with a neighborhood council or community garden, mention this to the members as well. And why not take it a step further to help educate your community on safe pest control methods? Here’s a great resource.
  2. Grow native plants. Growing native plants in your garden is akin to supporting your local farmers markets. It’s better for the planet, provides you with the easiest to care for crops, and it will support pollinators like butterflies and other local fauna that have evolved with the local flora.
  3. Keep the sun in mind. Even if you have just a small patch of land or a balcony, if it gets good sun, you could help support butterflies. There’s a reason we often associate butterflies with gorgeous sunny days; they typically only feed in full sun.
  4. Plant the right colors. Butterflies like bright colors. Think red, yellow, orange, pink and purple. And make sure the blossoms are flat-topped or have short flowering tubes.
  5. Plant the right milkweed. Monarchs only eat from the milkweed plant. But did you know that there are many types of milkweed? If you plant the wrong one for your region, it might not do monarchs any good. Check out this handy guide for finding the right milkweed for your local butterflies.
  6. Create butterfly spas. Okay, so you don’t need to invest in a hot tub or sauna (but if you want me to visit, you should), but butterflies do require a little R&R, so why not invite them to do it in your yard? They prefer to rest in full sun, so nice flat rocks, tables or chairs for them to sun in will bring these gorgeous creatures to your yard. They also love puddling, which is basically hanging out in damp sand or mud where they drink a little water and mineralize. You can create specific puddling spots for the butterflies by filling shallow dishes or pans with sand and a bit of water and placing them in sunny spots in your yard.
  7. The National Wildlife Federation recommends the following plants for common butterflies:

  • Acmon Blue – buckwheat, lupines, milkvetch
  • American Painted Lady – cudweed, everlast
  • Baird’s Swallowtail – dragon sagebrush
  • Black Swallowtail – parsley, dill, fennel, common rue
  • Coral Hairstreak – wild black cherry, American and chickasaw plum, black chokeberry
  • Dun Skipper – sedges, grasses including purpletop
  • Eastern Tiger Swallowtail – wild black cherry, ash, tulip tree, willow, sweetbay, basswood
  • Giant Swallowtail – prickly ash, citrus, common rue, hoptree, gas plant, torchwood
  • Gray Comma – gooseberry, azalea, elm
  • Great Purple Hairstreak – mistletoe
  • Gulf Fritillary – maypops, other passion vines
  • Henry’s Elfin – redbud, dahoon and yaupon hollies, maple-leaved viburnum, blueberries
  • Monarch – milkweeds
  • Painted Lady (Cosmopolite) – thistles, mallows, nievitas, yellow fiddleneck
  • Pygmy Blue – saltbush, lamb’s quarters, pigweed
  • Red Admiral/White Admiral – wild cherries, black oaks, aspens, yellow and black birch
  • Silver-Spotted Skipper – locusts, wisteria, other legumes
  • Spicebush Swallowtail – sassafras, spicebush
  • Sulphurs – clover, peas, vetch, alfalfa, asters
  • Variegated Fritillary – passion flower, maypop, violets, stonecrop, purslane
  • Viceroy – willows, cottonwood, aspen
  • Western Tailed Blue – vetches, milkvetches
  • Western Tiger Swallowtail – willow, plum, alder, sycamore, hoptree, ash
  • Woodland Skipper – grasses
  • Zebra Swallowtail – pawpaw

Lead image source: Me in ME

Advertisement Advertisement

How to attract butterflies to your garden

Attract butterflies with a ‘puddling pool’

Some butterflies like to gather on muddy patches of ground or puddles to drink and to feed on nutrients from the earth. Mix some soil with water in a shallow pan and put it in a shady area near your flower patch. Be sure to keep it wet.

They also need somewhere to rest and soak up the sun’s rays, so place a large flat stone in a sunny spot. It’ll give you a chance to inspect them too!

Leave out food for butterflies

As well as planting for butterflies and their caterpillars, you can also help them by leaving out a few sweet snacks to give them an energy boost.

Add a ¼ cup of sugar to 2 cups of water and heat it up in a saucepan until all the sugar has dissolved. Leave it to cool for at least 30 minutes. Soak a brightly-coloured kitchen sponge in the sugary water and put the soggy sponge on a plate near to some flowers.

Butterfly spotting

Now it’s time to sit back and wait for the butterflies to flock! How many different types will you spot? Use our butterfly swatch book to keep track of who you’ve seen.

You can also keep an eye out for caterpillars and day-flying moths.

10% Off Coupon

Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly
visiting Zinnia

The number one step to attract butterflies is simply providing the food they like – which is generally plants. The adult butterflies are attracted to nectar plants from which they sip nectar and are also attracted to their host plants which are the specific plants where the females lay their eggs.

This article will suggest specific butterfly garden plants and items that are attractive to butterflies. Please visit the companion article, Butterfly Garden Tips, for plant placement and more.

Best Garden Plants to Attract Butterflies

Having only nectar plants in your garden will certainly attract adult butterflies to feed (drink) as they flutter by and the more plants you have, the more butterflies you will see. But if you really want to attract butterflies in large numbers you may want to consider adding some host plants so the entire butterfly life cycle can take place in your backyard. That’s when things get fun!

Cloudless Sulphur Butterfly visiting Tithonia

The plants most likely to attract butterflies in your area will often be native to your area which also means they will tend to grow vigorously in your butterfly garden with low maintenance. However, butterflies are not near as picky about their nectar plants as they are with their host plants.

One important thing to keep in mind with nectar plants is to try to use the varieties that are old-timey and/or natives. Sometimes the newer cultivars (double petalled, larger flowers, different flower shapes, exotic colors, etc) end up with little to no nectar and/or are difficult for the butterflies to land on and extract nectar.

Here are some great nectar plants to consider that are well known for attracting a variety of butterflies:

  • Asters – Asters native to your area will probably perform best
  • Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii – purple, blue and pink may attract more butterflies than yellow and white)
  • Cosmos sulphureus
  • Joe-Pye Weed
  • Lantana camara – Most all colors are attractive to butterflies. I have seen ‘Miss Huff’ mentioned frequently as an excellent butterfly magnet and I have had great success with ‘Red Spread’.
  • Milkweed (also doubles as a host plant for Monarchs but MANY butterfly species like to nectar at the flowers)
  • Pentas lanceolata
  • Phlox – Especially Phlox paniculata
  • Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
  • Tithonia
  • Verbena bonariensis
  • Zinnia elegans – Cut and Come Again is a huge butterfly magnet in my yard.

Buckeye Butterfly
attracted to Lantana

The plants mentioned above are just some that are popular and well known for being top butterfly attractors but there are many more butterfly garden plants that are attractive to various species of butterflies such as Coreopsis, Blanket Flower (Gaillardia), Bee balm (Monarda spp.), Blazing Stars (Liatris spp.), Goldenrods (Solidago spp.), Ironweeds (Vernonia spp.), Stokes aster (Stokesia laevis) and many more.

Visit What Butterflies Eat for a list of favorite nectar plants separated out by butterfly species. You can use this information to get started in attracting a specific kind of butterfly you would like to see in your yard (assuming the butterfly is native in your region).

If you are unsure if the butterfly species is native in your area then just click on the butterfly name and page down to see a map showing where the butterfly can be found. Of course you can Google your state (i.e. Alabama) or region (i.e. Southeast) along with “butterflies” and will most likely find information about which butterflies are popular where you live.

Female Giant Swallowtail butterfly laying an egg on Ruta graveolens

Host plants are also important for exploding the butterfly population in your yard. In the case of host plants, butterflies can be extremely specific about which plants they will lay their eggs on. Please visit What Do Caterpillars Eat to get some ideas for host plants. Some easy ones to get started with include Milkweed for Monarchs and some of the herbs like Parsley, Dill or Fennel for Black Swallowtails (or Anise Swallowtails in the Western states). Rue is a great perennial host plant for Black Swallowtails and Giant Swallowtails.

Butterfly fruit Feeders are Attractive to Butterflies

Don’t throw out your over-ripe fruit! While most butterflies prefer nectar from flowers, there are some butterflies that prefer nectaring from rotting fruit. These butterflies include the Red Spotted Purple, Question Mark, Mourning Cloak, Green Comma, Malachite, Red Admiral, Hackberry and Tawny Emperors, and the Viceroy.

Pretty Birdbath that would make
a great Butterfly Fruit Feeder!

There are many ways that you can serve up the fruit to butterflies. Some people use a bird suet feeder to hold over-ripe rotting fruit hanging from a tree branch. Others have taken a plant saucer or flat bird feeder and used a plant hanger to hang the saucer/feeder from a tree branch.

You could also place an old dish or flat bird feeder out on a deck railing or table with some old fruit cut or lightly smashed in it. If you are looking for something fancier in your garden you could always use a decorative bird bath or a flat bird feeder.

I usually put my fruit in the sunshine but my compost pile is in the shade and butterflies have frequented both. Other people have reported having success with providing fruit both in the sunshine and in the shade. You may want to experiment to see which works best for attracting butterflies in your yard.

Attract Butterflies with a Fruit Feeder

One thing to keep in mind is that you will attract others besides the butterflies such as bees and wasps as well as some flies and ants. At night you may want to put your fruit in a sealed bucket outdoors (especially if using a flat feeder) unless you don’t mind providing a raccoon, possum or other critter with a yummy snack.

While the butterflies don’t care about the other daytime visitors, hanging the feeder will help discourage the ants. Another clever idea I read about was making a “moat” by filling a plant saucer with water then placing an inverted plant pot in the saucer. Next, just set your fruit plate on top of the inverted pot and the water in the saucer provides a moat that blocks the ants from getting to the plate.

Keep in mind is that the fruit must stay moist. Occasionally you may need to break the dry film that forms on some fruit (such as citrus), or add a little water, Gatorade, or fruit juice to a plate of fruit. You should not form a lake, just a moist fruit mush. Experiment!

Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies
“Puddling”

Many Butterflies Love Mud Puddles

Moist mud puddles attract butterflies, especially the males, where they will often congregate to find minerals and salts that supposedly increase their fertility (this is called “puddling”). I have not tried mud puddles yet but it is on my list of things to try! I often have seen butterflies probing around on moist ground and I’m sure they would appreciate it if I would create one so they have it during the many dry spells of summer!

From my research, creating a butterfly mud puddle really just amounts to filling a water tight saucer or container with sand, rocks and water. It should not be a “lake” of water but rather a moist muddy type spot. Adding some compost (or a little bit of manure) can help attract butterflies.

The biggest challenge is keeping it moist during the hot summer. A deeper container may help. Several people mention burying the container in the ground up to the lip of the container. I also read that the larger the diameter of the puddle, the more likely it is to attract butterflies in large groups.

Red Spotted Purple Butterfly Basking on a Cool Spring Morning

Try some Basking Stones for Attracting Butterflies

Butterflies need heat to fly and they use the sun to warm themselves. If you see a butterfly just “resting” with its wings open toward the sun, it is almost certainly basking in the warmth. You could place basking stones in your garden for the butterflies but I have to say that in my experience, this is pretty low on garden items that attract butterflies.

I have a good sized rock right in the middle of my main butterfly garden and I have never seen a butterfly basking upon it. I have often seen butterflies basking on plants on cool mornings but not on my great big rock.

Now, maybe my rock is not in the right place or the right “kind” of rock/stone. Certainly others have had luck with basking stones or it wouldn’t frequently be mentioned as a butterfly attractor! So, try it if you like – if nothing else, it may add visual interest and fullness to your butterfly garden.

Final Note about Attracting Butterflies

You may have heard of butterfly houses used for overwintering butterflies or providing protection. Although they can be quite beautiful, they are rarely used. Butterflies prefer to use trees, shrubs, logs, wood piles and other natural settings for winter and storm protection. Do not be discouraged from adding a butterfly house since they can be a thing of beauty in a garden, but be aware that it may never be used.

Thanks for visiting and please visit our Butterfly Garden article (or our other Butterfly Information articles) for more info.

Caterpillars and their food plants

When it comes time for butterflies to lay their eggs, it is all about location, location, location. Even though the butterflies will be long gone when their eggs hatch, the location of the eggs is essential. The eggs must be on or near a food plant, also called a host plant, that will be eaten by the small, emerging caterpillars.

Food plants for Great Spangled Fritillary caterpillar are violets.

Food plants for Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillar are pipevines (Aristolochia)

The relationship between caterpillars and their food sources has developed over thousands of years. Not only have caterpillars evolved to require specific plants as food, they require large portions as well. Over the caterpillar’s life, it will increase in weight many thousands times.
The first food caterpillars eat upon hatching are their egg cases. After that, they start eating their food plant in order to bulk up as fast as they can.

Food plants for Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars include black cherry (Prunus serotina), tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera), and sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana).

Some food plants for the Red-spotted Purple caterpillar are black cherry , willows, serviceberry (Amelanchier), and deerberry (Vaccinium stamineum).

One of the main food plants for the Tawny Emperor caterpillar is American hackberry (Celtis occidentalis).

To make your butterfly garden a success, include native caterpillar food plants. Once you have selected a food plant for your garden, be sure to plant a few. You will have more success in attracting egg laying butterflies if there is a group of plants rather than just one. And remember, not only will you attract egg laying butterflies, you will be providing for the next generation of butterflies.

As an Amazon Associate, GrowJourney earns from qualifying purchases. Read more: terms of service.

Foreword by Aaron von Frank, cofounder of GrowJourney: The writer of this article, Dr. April Gordon, is better known to me as “mom,” and has been a lifelong inspiration to everyone fortunate enough to know her. A voracious reader, scholar, world traveller, and social scientist, she introduced me to organic gardening before I was even old enough to form memories.

The inspiration for me learning to walk was likely due to my desire to more effectively raid her organic veggie and berry patches. Mom was introduced to organic gardening by her father, my Grandpa George, who in turn was inspired by the writings of the “father of organic agriculture” in the United States, J.I. Rodale, for whom the Rodale Institute is named.

It’s fascinating to reflect on the fact that the seeds for my passion were sown long before I was born. I connect most deeply to the world through my garden, and through gardening I also connect deeply with the people who formed me, in ways known and unknown. To them I am eternally grateful.

How to Have Your Butterfly Garden and Eat It Too, by Dr. April Gordon

I’ve been a vegetable and landscape gardener for decades, but am now a dedicated butterfly gardener as well.

I arrived at this point in stages. Initially I saw my flower and other landscape plants as mostly separate from my edible plants. Consequently, I would find myself plotting how much of my yard would be devoted to landscaping and how much would be set aside for my veggies, herbs, and fruit plants.

The first breakthrough change in my thinking came when I began reading about edible landscaping. Previously, I’d never considered growing edible plants in my landscape beds.

Biodiverse Multifunctional Landscapes

I soon discovered how pretty, multi-colored chards and kales look among my pansies, snapdragons, and begonias. Colored peppers, okra (in the hibiscus family with comparably beautiful flowers), and some eggplant varieties are also quite decorative mixed with ornamental grasses, flowers, and shrubs.

Okra is in the hibiscus family, which you might be able to tell from this beautiful okra flower.

Cascading tomatoes look wonderful flowing over the edge of my containers on the patio by themselves or interplanted with grasses and edible flowers. My cherry trees and blueberry bushes are interplanted with daylilies, sunflowers, hydrangeas, and irises.

Herbs such as lavender and fennel are showy evergreens used as specimen or border plants. And strawberries make a pretty evergreen ground cover around my fig tree along with garlic chives and evening primrose.

A red-banded hairstreak butterfly foraging garlic chive flowers.

These are but a few examples of infinite numbers of plant combinations that serve to provide food for both gardeners and pollinators alike.

Another revelation has been how many flowering landscape plants I have that are edible, such as violas, pansies, calendulas, roses, bachelors buttons, and nasturtiums. The more I read, the more I realize I can have my cake, so to speak, and eat it too!

Taking Action: The Launch of a Community Butterfly Garden

Yet another shift occurred several years ago as a result of years teaching a university course on the environment. I became aware of the growing threats to bees and butterflies (especially the Monarch butterfly) that pollinate many of our food crops—both commercial and garden—due to habitat loss, climate change, and the use of pesticides.

Both bees and butterflies are being killed directly by toxic chemicals or indirectly as a result of the destruction of their habitat or the replacement of the plants they depend upon for survival.

This image shows the 15 day transition between 3 stages: larva/caterpillar > pupa/chrysalis > adult/butterfly. Without Pipevine plants, these butterflies can not survive. The caterpillar in this image fed on Dutchman’s pipevine.

In 2015, this concern for butterflies and my love of gardening led to my developing a community butterfly garden with two of my gardening neighbors. A group of dedicated volunteers has joined us in maintaining the garden and promoting awareness of the need to protect our Lepidoptera environmental allies.

Spring 2017 begins our third season, and so far the garden has been a great success for butterflies, bees, and other creatures including human visitors of all ages.

Picture from the I’On community butterfly garden in Mt. Pleasant, SC, on top of what was formerly a patch of turf grass.

You may be wondering how a butterfly garden and edible gardening are related. So did I at first. Along with changing my landscape and gardening choices to combine edible and landscape plants, I began assessing how I could simultaneously garden for butterflies.

One important step is to garden organically.

Butterflies are very sensitive to toxic chemicals, so I do not use any non-organic pesticides or herbicides. Even organic products must be used carefully to avoid inadvertently harming butterfly eggs and larvae. The next issue was to further refine my plant selection to combine the functions of beauty, edibility, and attractiveness to butterflies.

More research followed…

A bumble bee forages a monarda flower. Monarda is a wonderful herb in the mint family.

Why Native Plants Are Essential

I discovered that because of the various stages of a butterfly’s life cycle — from egg, to caterpillar (larva), to pupa (chrysalis), and adult butterfly — it’s important to grow more native plants that have co-evolved with butterflies in their local environments.

I was surprised by how many of my landscape plants (and those of most people) are not native plants. What this means is that these alien plants, because they did not evolve here but in Asia or elsewhere, are usually harder to grow and much less likely to provide food or habitat for butterflies or their larvae.

Although adult butterflies will sip nectar from many flowers—both native and non-native—their larvae often depend on the leaves of native plants for their food.

Milkweed (specifically Asclepius tuberosa) flowers on the left and seed pod/seeds on the right. This beautiful flowering plant is critical to the survival of Monarch butterflies – it’s their larval host plant. Monarchs are projected to go extinct in the next two decades if current population decline trends continue.

A case in point is the Monarch butterfly that can feed on nectar from many flowers. However, Monarch caterpillars only eat the leaves of milkweed plants. The loss of native milkweed across the United States due to habitat destruction and toxic agricultural chemicals is a major reason for the Monarch butterfly population crash in recent years.

The beautiful roses, hydrangeas, and gardenias sprinkled around my yard are as lonely as the Maytag repairman as far as butterflies are concerned. Their flowers do not provide nectar for butterflies or leaves for their eggs or larvae.

So the first change I made was to add more native plants to my yard such as bee balm (monarda), coreopsis, milkweed, coneflowers (echinacea), Mexican sunflower, Joe Pye weed, coral honeysuckle, and passionfruit vine, among others.

Gulf fritillary butterflies (left) only lay eggs on our native passion fruit vines (Passiflora incarnata), even though the adult butterflies feed on many different species of flowers. Various native pollinators adore passion fruit flowers, as you can see from the bumblebees gorging on the nectar in the center image. As a reward for growing this plant, gardeners get to enjoy piles of delicious sweet and tangy passion fruit in late summer (right).

The More You Learn, The More You Realize You Don’t Know

I continue to be confronted with how little I know about my plants. For one thing, the neat division between edible and non-edible plants or parts of plants may not in fact exist.

For example, more of us now realize that many flowers grown for their beauty can be consumed as food or in drinks. Nasturtiums, roses, pansies, and calendula are good examples. And if you haven’t tried sparkling elderflower cordial, yum!

This is a beautiful Question Mark butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis), recently emerged on an elderberry plant, which provides delicious edible/medicinal flowers and fruit for people.

Leaves of edible plants commonly thrown away can also be eaten. For example, I used to discard the leaves of my beets; now I eat them along with the beet root. Pea shoots and tendrils are delicious cooked or in salads. Many leaves or flowers from butterfly plants such as bee balm, lemon balm, and New Jersey tea make tasty teas and often have medicinal value as well.

I still have much to learn about how extensive and interrelated the world of landscape/decorative and edible plants is. Also ongoing is my search for which vegetables and herbs I can grow along with flowers that are beneficial to butterflies.

Butterfly food (nectar and pollen) plants versus host plants

As a preface let me draw an important distinction between nectar and host plants for butterflies. For illustration, if you see a black swallowtail butterfly on your sunflowers, it is probably dining on the flower’s nectar, which meets its need for food. If you notice swallowtail butterfly caterpillars devouring the leaves of your fennel plant, the fennel serves as a host plant.

Some plants, like milkweed, are both a nectar plant for Monarch butterflies (their flowers) and a host plant (their leaves) for their caterpillars.

These zinnias make a wonderful food/nectar source for Monarch butterflies, but they are not a host plant for their larvae. Zinnia flowers are also edible to humans.

Attracting butterflies can have less appeal when our vegetables are involved. In my garden, among my favorite vegetables are leafy greens such as kale, cabbage, mustard, and broccoli (Brassica family) and beans and pea (Fabaceae family).

Brassicas are not only healthy and delicious food but in many cases very decorative as well. They also are a host plant for one of our worst “pests,” the green cabbage worm, which is the larva of the beautiful cabbage white butterfly, a non-native accidentally introduced from Europe in the 1800s. (Another caterpillar I find fattening on my brassicas is the less well known cross striped cabbage worm, the offspring of a cabbage moth, of which there are several varieties.)

These caterpillars can cause a lot of damage to the leaves of your brassicas once spring arrives so you need to decide if you want to cover your plants, harvest them before butterflies begin laying eggs, or remove the eggs and caterpillars before they do damage.

(Read how to organically control caterpillars and other brassica pests here.)

A beautiful long-tailed skipper (Urbanus proteus). Skippers are sort of a half-way cross between moths and butterflies, but they’re technically grouped under butterflies in their own family, Hesperiidae. Long-tailed skipper caterpillars eat plants in the legume/bean family. If you’ve ever seen a bean leaf folded over on itself with a large-eyed caterpillar munching away inside its self-made bean leaf sleeping bag, you’ve seen a long-tailed skipper in larval stage.

Beans and peas are host plants primarily during the summer for the lovely long-tailed skipper. If you see the leaves of your beans shredded on the edges and folded over, you will typically find a caterpillar hiding inside.

In most cases these caterpillars do no major damage to my bean crop, so I leave them alone. I enjoy peeking inside the folded leaves and watching the caterpillars grow knowing they will become a beautiful skipper butterfly.

Luckily, most of your garden veggies are not host plants for butterfly caterpillars, but their flowers may be used for nectar, which helps in pollination.

A black swallowtail just emerging from its chrysalis (the yellow papery object just to the left of its body) on a fennel plant.

Herbs as butterfly plants

Many of the herbs we grow are also nectar and/or host plants for butterflies. I first discovered this when I found my bronze fennel plant (a very attractive landscape plant I use widely around my yard) covered with colorful white, black, and yellow striped caterpillars.

I had no idea what they were and began picking them off my fennel to “save” the plant from being devoured by this hungry horde. Only later did I find to my great remorse that I had probably destroyed numerous black swallowtail butterflies through my ignorant action. I have learned that the caterpillar does no longterm damage to the fennel, which quickly grows new fronds.

In addition to fennel, black swallowtail caterpillars can also be found on dill, carrots, celery, parsnips and parsley (all related to fennel in the Apiaceae family). One of my most exciting experiences was seeing a black swallowtail butterfly on my fennel emerge from its chrysalis (the case which the caterpillar makes around its body before it transforms into a butterfly) and then fly away.

A day later it was sipping nectar from a nearby red pentas flower. I now look forward to seeing the black swallowtails arrive to lay their eggs and watching the caterpillars grow into pupae.

Other common herbs are mostly used by butterflies as nectar plants. These include borage, mint, oregano, sage(salvia), chives, lavender, bee balm, catnip and catmint.

A green bee (Agapostemon splendens) foraging bachelor buttons. Bachelor buttons are also an excellent edible flower for people.

I still have a lot to learn about gardening for landscaping, consumption by people, and food for butterflies. What I have shared with you is only an introduction to this topic based on my continuing research and gardening experience.

Observing the ever-fascinating lives of the flora and fauna that interact in my garden and my community butterfly garden gives me enormous joy and connects me to the natural world of which I am a part. I learn from other gardeners too and hope to hear from some of you about your experiences gardening for butterflies!

Additional Recommended Reading Resources:

  • Edible landscaping by Eliza Holcombe
  • How to work with insects to grow an amazing garden (GrowJourney article)
  • Herbs for a butterfly garden
  • Gardening for Butterflies: How You Can Attract and Protect Beautiful, Beneficial Insects by The Xerces Society

Sometimes our articles will contain Amazon affiliate product links. These products have been carefully curated by our team. We use them, trust them, and know they work (or in the case of books, know that the information is extremely helpful). GrowJourney may earn a small commission on any sales that are generated via these affiliate links (without any additional cost to you).

How To Make Butterfly Gardens

University of Kentucky College of Agriculture

Nectar Preferences

Different species of butterflies have different preferences of nectar, in both colors and tastes. A wide variety of food plants will give the greatest diversity of visitors. Try staggering wild and cultivated plants, as well as blooming times of the day and year. Groups of the same plants will be easier for butterflies to see than singly planted flowers.

Some varieties of flowers which are easy to find and grow in Kentucky, and will be attractive to many species of butterflies include:

L-R: Aster, Black-Eyed Susan, Butterfly Weed, and Daylilies
L-R: Lilac, Coreopsis, Lavender, and Butterfly Bush
L-R: Goldenrod, Marigold, Oxeye Daisies, and Hibiscus
L-R: Purple Coneflower, Redbud, Rosemary, and Verbena

Other Attractants

Another way to attract adult butterflies to your yard is to offer places (food plants) for females to lay their eggs. Some females are pickier about which host to lay their eggs on than others. A few specific examples of butterflies and their host plants are listed at the end of this fact sheet.

The larvae can also be very noteworthy. Some caterpillars have hairs or forked spines, which may be or may not sting (often the hairs are just for show). It’s better to be safe than sorry, so wear gloves when handling these larvae. Certain swallowtail caterpillars imitate snakes or bird droppings. Other caterpillars, like sulphers, are camouflaged, or blend into their surroundings very well. If caterpillars are eating excessive foliage from a prominent or desirable part of a plant, try moving them (with gloves on if they’re hairy) to the backside or another less noticeable portion of the plant.

All insects are cold-blooded and cannot internally regulate their body temperature. Butterflies will readily bask in the sun when it is warm out, but few are seen on cloudy days. It is a good idea to leave open areas in a yard for butterflies to sun themselves, as well as partly shady areas like trees or shrubs, so they can hide when it’s cloudy or cool off if it is very hot.

Butterflies also like puddles. Males of several species congregate at small rain pools, forming puddle clubs. Permanent puddles are very easy to make by burying a bucket to the rim, filling it with gravel or sand, and then pouring in liquids such as stale beer, sweet drinks or water. Overripe fruit, allowed to sit for a few days is a very attractive substance (to them!) as well.

Butterfly Anatomy

Adult butterflies and moths have mouth parts shaped into a long, coiled tube. Forcing blood into the tube straightens it out,allowing butterflies to feed on liquids. Butterflies get all their food from this tube, which limits them to nectar and standing water. Larvae, on the other hand, have chewing mouth parts which they use to skeletonize or totally defoliate leaves. Butterflies have large, rounded compound eyes which allows them to see in all directions without turning their head. Like most insects, butterflies are very nearsighted, and are more attracted to large stands of a particular flower than those planted singly. They do not see “red” as well as we do, but they can see polarized light (which tells the direction the sun is pointing) as well as ultraviolet light, which is present on many flowers and guides them to nectar sources. Butterflies also have a very well-developed sense of smell from their antennae. All butterflies’ antennae are club-shaped, as opposed to moths, which can be many shapes but often are feathery.

Detail of Butterfly Mouthparts

Butterflies begin their life as an egg, laid either singly or in clusters depending on the species. A very tiny caterpillar emerges and, after consuming its egg shell, begins feeding on its host plant. Caterpillars must crawl out of their skin or molt, usually around five times, before changing into a pupa. Finally, an adult butterfly emerges, spreads its wings and flies away. This type of development is complete metamorphosis.

Butterfly gardens are a great source for your own enjoyment, photo opportunities, or an outlet for artistic talent. These gardens can also be extended to interest youth in nature, by providing a small window of native inhabitants of the local environment. On a final note, it’s important to conserve butterflies when possible since their habitat is constantly diminishing due to the increasing needs and consequent development of roads and housing.

Additional Information

Tekulsky, M. The Butterfly Garden, Harvard Common Press, Boston, 1985. 144 pp. Xerces Society/Smithsonian Institution. Butterfly Gardening: Creating Summer Magic in Your Garden. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco and the National Wildlife Federation, Washington, D. C. 1990.

Butterfly Nectar Preferences and Larval Food Plants

Buckeye Butterfly

  • Larval food plant:snapdragon
  • Nectar: aster, milkweed chickory, coreopsis

Comma

  • Larval food plant: nettle, elm
  • Nectar: rotting fruit & sap, butterfly bush, dandelion

Great Swallowtail

  • Larval food plant: citrus trees, prickly ash
  • Nectar: lantana, Japanese honeysuckle, milkweed, lilac, goldenrod, azalea

Great Spangled Fritillary

  • Larval food plant: violet
  • Nectar: ironweed, milkweed, black-eyed susan, verbena

Monarch

  • Larval food plant: milkweed
  • Nectar: milkweed, butterfly bush, goldenrod, thistle, ironweed, mints

Mourning Cloak

Painted Lady

  • Larval food plant: daisy, hollyhock
  • Nectar: goldenrod, aster, zinnia, butterfly bush, milkweed

Red Admiral

  • Larval food plant: nettle
  • Nectar: rotting fruit and sap, daisy, aster, goldenrod, butterfly bush,
  • milkweed

Tiger Swallowtail

Viceroy

  • Larval food plant: willow, poplar, apple
  • Nectar: rotting fruit, sap, aster, goldenrod, milkweed

Revised: 1/94

CAUTION! Pesticide recommendations in this publication are registered for use in Kentucky, USA ONLY! The use of some products may not be legal in your state or country. Please check with your local county agent or regulatory official before using any pesticide mentioned in this publication.

Of course, ALWAYS READ AND FOLLOW LABEL DIRECTIONS FOR SAFE USE OF ANY PESTICIDE!

Butterfly Images: University of Kentucky Entomology & Corel Photo CD
Flower images: Dr. M. Witt, University of Kentucky, Department of Horticulture

Share this please….

  • Pinterest
  • Twitter
  • Linkedin

This post How to Grow Your Own Butterflies contains affiliate links. To learn more visit my About Me page.

There is so much that children can learn from butterflies. They are a creature that really shows children how insects can morph into something amazing. They are well designed critters that pollinate our planet, make our yards look gorgeous, and are just fascinating to watch.

I use to raise butterflies with my second grade students, and raising butterflies is something I still do with my own kids each summer. If you think this is something that you could get the hang of, here is how to grow your own butterflies!

The easiest thing to do is order a butterfly growing kit which includes everything you need to grow your own butterflies. The kit we use each year is the Live Butterfly Garden by Insect Lore. You can find this set here for less than $30. The kit we order comes with the container of live caterpillars. If you DON’T want to get started right away, opt for the other kit which includes a voucher to send for your caterpillars once you are ready!


I love the simplicity of this kit because it has everything we need plus tons of literature for success. It is designed for kids, family friendly, and the perfect hands on science project. When the kit arrives, you will get the cup of caterpillars that looks like this:

Don’t worry about feeding the caterpillars. The food they need to grow big will be right in the cup. After a few days, your teenie tiny caterpillars will get big and fat. Kids will love watching the process through the clear cup. Soon, the caterpillars will make their way to the top of the cup where they will attach to the lid and create a “J” shape.

Once all of the caterpillars are in their J, remove the lid and slide it into the holder. Easy right? You know have gorgeous chrysalises to look at.


Kids will have to keep a watchful eye on the cocoons. Now is a great time to put them into the pop up container that offers them a safe place to snooze.

In less than a week, you will see the cocoons start to shake and your butterflies will emerge. Fill their little flower shape feeder with sugar water and place it in the container for them to eat. Kids will love seeing their straw like tongues look for the sponge and sip away. You can also add some butterfly friendly plants and flowers for them to enjoy while their wings dry out and they prepare to fly.

You can also try making your own butterfly feeder. Here is a tutorial for making your own butterfly feeder, perfect for kids to try.

We like to have a little butterfly release party once our butterflies are ready to go. We take them outside and they will crawl right on our fingers. We put them up in the air and in a few seconds they take off. For the next few days the kids will see them floating around the yard going from flower to flower.

Want some more nature related fun? Check out this simple flower letter activity for kids.

Try to grow your own butterflies and see what a wonderful experience it can be for kids. It is the perfect way to bring science into your home in a way that is hands on and fun. Remember you can snag you own kit here just like we used, which comes with a guarantee for success.

Want to enjoy some more hands on, science fun with your kids? Here are some other projects we have been working on:
How to Make Your Own Hummingbird Nectar
Felt Garden Craft for Kids
How to Make a Mini Compost Bin
How to Attract Bumble Bees to Your Yard
DIY Fairy Garden Craft for Kids

Experience a Live Butterfly Kit

This page contains affiliate links that pay us a small commission on sales and helps us bring this free resource to the butterfly-loving community. We appreciate your support!

You really can’t match the learning experience of raising your own butterflies with a live butterfly kit. It gives kids and adults an opportunity for an up-close and personal look at butterfly metamorphosis and provides a whole new appreciation for insects and nature in general. If you buy one at the right time of year, you can even make it a special event when you release your butterflies into the wild.

Live Butterfly Kit Options

There are two main companies who produce painted lady butterfly kits – Insect Lore and Nature Gift Store. There are several different versions of the kits, which can be a bit confusing. Most importantly, you can choose to order the kit with a voucher for caterpillars so you can the manufacturer know exactly when you want to receive your caterpillars, but you aren’t ready for them right away, or you can buy a kit that comes with live caterpillars. If you buy a kit with a voucher, you will have to pay an additional fee to have the caterpillars shipped. Insect Lore, as of this article’s publishing, charges between $5 – $7.95 to redeem a voucher. Nature Gift Store does not charge anything to redeem the voucher but the cost of a kit with a voucher is a couple dollars more than the kit with live caterpillars. In general, Nature Gift Store is less expensive than Insect Lore.

Below are the options for buying kits with links to purchase them from Insect Lore (on Amazon) or from Nature Gift Store.

KITS WITH VOUCHERS

Live Butterfly Kit with Voucher for 10 caterpillars (Insect Lore not pre-paid, Nature Gift Store IS pre-paid)
(Insect Lore’s comes with a 2-foot high cage versus 1-foot in their kits with 5 caterpillars. Requires an additional $5 fee to ship caterpillars.)
(Nature Gift Store’s comes with a choice of an 18″ pop-up cage or a 3′ hanging cage. No extra charge to ship caterpillars.)
Insect Lore | Nature Gift Store
Live Butterfly Kit with Voucher for 5 caterpillars
Insect Lore | Nature Gift Store
Live Butterfly Kit with Voucher (pre-paid) for 10 caterpillars
Nature Gift Store

KITS WITH LIVE CATERPILLARS

Live Butterfly Kit shipped with 5 caterpillars
Insect Lore | Nature Gift Store
Live Butterfly Kit shipped with 10 caterpillars
Insect Lore | Nature Gift Store

CLASSROOM BUTTERFLY KITS

Both companies offer kits for the classroom. Insect Lore’s comes with 33 live caterpillars. Nature Gift Store offers 30 caterpillars shipped now or later.
Insect Lore | Nature Gift Store

CATERPILLARS ONLY

Both companies offer purchases of just the caterpillars (shipped upon order). You can buy 5, 10 or 30-33.
Nature Gift Store Caterpillars
Insect Lore – 5 | 10 | 33

TIMING

Once you receive your caterpillars, it takes 7-10 days for them to go into their chrysalids, and then another 7-10 days for them to emerge as adults. You should give them a couple of days to let their wings dry before you release them. This should help you figure out when you want to receive your caterpillars. If you’re giving this to someone as a gift, buy the kit with the voucher and they can decide when they want to receive the caterpillers. It’s important to note that these caterpillars can only be shipped if temperatures are no higher than 85 degrees in your area or they can die in the excessive shipping heat. Make sure to keep this in mind when ordering.

TIPS

Most kits come with a mesh pop-up tent to house the caterpillars and butterflies. This is an awesome cage! We have used it for many other things, including lightning bugs and other cool insects we want to spend a little time with. SUGGESTION – before you use it, place a paper plate in the bottom of it to help it stay clean. Those cute little caterpillers poop A LOT and so do the butterflies. More importantly, when the butterflies first emerge from their chrysalis, their wings drip a red liquid called meconium. It is the leftover metabolic waste from the caterpillar and can stain the mesh housing.

Nature Gift Store sells three different cage sizes if you would like additional butterfly cages. They come in very handy!

WARNING: BUTTERFLIES WILL MATE!

If you don’t want a ton of tiny caterpillars to take care of after your butterflies emerge, make sure you release the butterflies within a week of hatching. After that, the adults will start mating and laying eggs in the cage. If this happens, you can place the eggs outdoors on plant life (preferable one that Painted Ladies eat (). If you keep them even longer, you will end up with a lot of baby caterpillars. If you decide you want to raise these caterpillars, you will need to provide food. Painted Lady caterpillars love to eat thistle, hollyhock, fiddleneck, and malva. Be sure the leaves are pesticide-free and place them near your caterpillars in your habitat. Alternately, you can purchase Painted Lady Caterpillar Food on Amazon or from Nature Gift Store.

ACCESSORIES

Here are some accessories to make your butterfly rearing experience even richer!

Top ten butterflies from the Big Butterfly Count in 2015

Over 50,000 of us braved the dismal weather over much of the UK this summer to take part in Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count, spotting almost 600,000 of the enchanting insects. The annual event is the largest insect citizen science survey in the world and assesses the health of the nation’s butterflies and moths in their environment.

Results were better than expected, with the gatekeeper and large white butterflies topping this summer’s survey. Despite the wet weather, more butterflies were recorded for over half the butterfly species being monitored compared with results in 2014. But total numbers were not so positive, with the average number of butterflies counted per person fewer than last year. This may have been due to the summer weather, as butterflies prefer warm, sunny days.

It has been an especially good year for a number of species, including the gatekeeper, which saw a 17% increase in numbers counted; the large white which saw a 46% rise, and the holly blue with a massive 151% increase since 2014.

However, losers include the peacock and small tortoiseshell, which both decreased by 50%, and the red admiral and speckled wood, whose numbers saw decreases of 25%.

Here are the top ten most counted butterflies in descending order.

1. Gatekeeper (106,995 seen)

2. Large white (83,042)

3. Meadow brown (76,713)

4. Small white (72,483)

5. Peacock (42,754)

6. Small tortoiseshell (31,322)

7. Ringlet (27,604)

8. Red admiral (21,027)

9. Comma (18,765)

10. Common blue (17,932)

See the Butterfly Conservation website for a full list of the 2015 Big Butterfly Count results, where you can also find the results by country.

Follow Jeremy Coles and BBC Earth on Twitter.

Like BBC Earth on Facebook and follow us on Instagram.

Created: 7/7/2016 Updated: 7/29/2016

Subscribe to the Nature Museum blog and never miss a post!

If you’ve wandered through our Nature Trails or the Woody Wickham Butterfly Garden lately, you’ve probably seen a variety of pollinators and other insects. In addition to the bees that call our rooftop beehives home, you’ve probably seen a number of butterflies fluttering around. If you have your own pollinator garden, you’ve probably seen some of them there, too. But what are they? Here are six common species of butterflies you’re likely to find around the Nature Museum and in your neck of the woods.

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

Red admiral butterflies are very common and very easy to spot, thanks to their striking black forewings which featured red bars and white spots. Red Admirals are often seen in residential neighborhoods of large cities like Chicago and Milwaukee. They are frequent visitors to parks and gardens, but just as much at home in a prairie preserve. The range of the Red Admiral extends from Guatemala up into Northern Canada. While they fly year-round in Guatemala and Mexico, in the northern areas of their range they hibernate or overwinter as chrysalides. Red Admiral caterpillars eat plants of the Nettle family (Urticacea) such as Pellitory. Red Admirals can be found in most sunny places including moist fields, prairies or marshes. In urban areas, look for them in parks or along tree lined residential streets.

Viceroy (Limenitis archippus)

Viceroy butterflies closely resemble Monarchs, but their behavior is very different. Viceroys prefer wet habitats and are territorial – they will chase away other butterflies that come too close. Viceroys also fly by flapping their wings quickly, while Monarchs usually glide between wing strokes. You can also tell the difference between the two by examining their wings. A black line crosses through the veins in the Viceroy’s postmedian hindwing, but Monarch wings do not have this line. Viceroys range from the mountain states east to the Atlantic and from Texas north into the Canadian plains. They over-winter in the larva stage. Viceroy caterpillars feed on Willows, Aspens and Cottonwoods. Viceroys are usually found in wetlands and prairies with willows. They are also found in human-disturbed wet areas, like suburban lake edges.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus)

One of the most familiar North American butterflies, the Monarch is distinctive for its striking colors and as a study in butterfly biology. The caterpillars accumulate toxins from the steady milkweed diet which makes this animal poisonous to predators especially birds. Birds apparently learn to avoid eating monarchs and other butterflies, like Viceroys, that look like Monarchs. Monarchs range across North America – coast to coast – and up into southern Canada during the summer. Every autumn, millions of Monarchs migrate south and west to central California and central Mexico. Monarchs are also found year-round in Central America. Monarch Caterpillars eat Milkweed it is therefore referred to as the Monarch’s Host Plant. Monarchs will inhabit almost any sunny place with flowers, including parks, gardens or prairies.

Courtesy of Shelley Abbott (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)

Painted Ladies are found year-round in the deserts of the southwest. They migrate into the Midwest and northeastern states each spring and return to the southwest before winter. In some years – 1992 was one example – they may multiply rapidly across the entire continent in a population explosion. They are found on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. In North America, they live year-round in Mexico, but migrate north each year across the continent, all the way to the Arctic Circle. Painted Lady Caterpillars eat Thistle, Mallow, Hollyhock and related plants. These plants are referred to as the Painted Lady’s Host Plants. Painted Ladies are found just about anywhere that thistles grow

Courtesy of Vera Buhl (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Cabbage White (Pieris rapae)

Cabbage Whites are imports from Europe. They first appeared in Canada in 1860 and have since spread as far as south Texas. They can be seen just about anywhere from March to November. Several generations are produced each year. The Cabbage White ranges from central Canada as far as Texas and northwest Mexico. Individuals over-winter in the chrysalis stage. Cabbage White caterpillars eat Cabbage, Radish, Mustard, Peppergrass, and related plants. The caterpillar is often considered an agricultural pest. Cabbage Whites are found in weedy habitats like vacant lots, power line right of ways and roadsides as well as in marches and gardens where its food plants grow.

Courtesy of Andrew C (CC BY 2.0)

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)

In the Chicago area, these large swallowtails are first seen in April and early May. A second generation begins emerging from chrysalides in mid-June and a third generation may emerge in August or September. Black Swallowtails are attracted to butterfly gardens with fennel or dill plants. Their range extends from southern Canada to northern Mexico. They are found in Arizona, New Mexico, and the eastern half of the United States. Black Swallowtails over-winter in the chrysalis stage. Black Swallowtail Caterpillars eat Parsnips, Wild Carrots, Celery, Parsley and Dill. Black Swallowtails like sunny places with weeds and flowers, and can be found in gardens, vacant lots, old fields, pastures and marshes. They thrive in cities and suburbs due to the abundance of Queen Anne’s Lace.

Thanks to Rose Pest Solutions for sponsoring this post.

Subscribe to the Nature Museum blog and never miss a post!

Colorado State University

Print this fact sheet

by P.A. Opler and W.S. Cranshaw* (6/13)

Quick Facts…

  • Many kinds of butterflies can be found in Colorado. Encourage butterflies by planning a butterfly garden.
  • Butterflies seek out areas with food plants for the caterpillar stage. Adult butterflies also feed on fluids such as nectar from flowers.
  • Butterfly visits increase when environmental needs are met.
  • Gardening practices to attract and retain butterflies often differ from regular gardening practices.

Dozens of butterfly species are commonly found along the Front Range and Eastern Colorado and are a welcome garden addition for many people. Butterflies often appear to be just passing through, occasionally stopping for a drink of nectar. You can prolong the stay of these colorful insects and draw in others by providing the food and shelter they need.

Planning the Butterfly Garden

Make a yard more attractive to butterflies by providing the proper environment, which can be food plants used by the immature stages (various caterpillars), food sources used by the adult butterflies, and physical environment.

Most butterflies prefer some shelter from the high winds common along the Front Range. At the same time, they like open, sunny areas. Windbreak plantings or other means of sheltering the butterfly garden can help provide a suitable physical environment.

Certain kinds of butterflies (mostly males) often can be seen on moist sand or mud collecting around puddles of water where they feed. The function of these “mud-puddle clubs” is not fully understood, but it is thought that the water contains dissolved minerals needed by the insects. Maintaining a damp, slightly salty area in the yard may attract groups of these butterflies.

Adult female butterflies spend time searching for food plants required by the immature caterpillar stage. Most butterflies have specific host plants on which they develop. For example, caterpillars of the monarch butterfly develop only on milkweed, while the black swallowtail feeds only on parsley, dill and closely related plants. When females find the proper host plant, they may lay eggs on it.

Providing the necessary food plants for the developing caterpillars also allows production of a “native” population that can be observed in all stages of development. Most species, however, fly away as adult butterflies.

Food for adult butterflies usually consists of sweet liquids, such as nectar from flowers, that provide energy. Some flowers contain more nectar, and are more attractive to butterflies. Often, specific types of flowers and flower colors also are more attractive. Some species feed on honeydew (produced by aphids), plant sap, rotting fruit, and even bird dung.

When planning a garden, create a large patch of a flower species to attract and retain butterflies. Consider flowers that bloom in sequence. This is particularly important during summer when flower visiting by butterflies is most frequent. Flowers and flowering shrubs that might be good choices for an Eastern Colorado butterfly garden are included in Table 1.

Table 1: Some nectar-bearing plants commonly visited by butterflies.
Asters (Aster spp.)
Bee balm (Monarda)
Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii)Butterfly plant (Asclepias tuberosa)
Bush cinquefolia (Potentilla fruticosa)
Cosmos (Cosmos spp.)
Gaillardia (Gaillardia spp.)
Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)
Marigold (Tagetes spp.)
Ornamental thistlesRabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus)
Sunflower (Helianthus spp.)

Sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus)
Verbena (Verbena spp.)
Zinnias (Zinnia spp.)

Common butterflies in Eastern Colorado and the foods they prefer are shown in Table 2. Include these food sources to encourage a steady flow of butterfly visitors.

Common Conflicts

Many of the most attractive nectar plants are commonly considered as “weeds” in other settings. Good examples are various thistles and dandelion, all highly attractive to several common butterflies. The well-manicured and tended garden discourages some butterfly species that develop on wild types of plants. (Note: Canada thistle is considered a noxious weed. Areas that have formed weed districts prohibit by law the culture of Canada thistle.)

A few butterflies also develop on certain garden crops and may be pests if the vegetable is considered more desirable than the insects. The European cabbage butterfly (on broccoli, cabbage and other mustards) and the black swallowtail (on parsley and dill) are common garden inhabitants in Colorado.

Use insecticides sparingly because most are not compatible with attracting and increasing the number of butterflies in a yard. Most garden insecticides can kill the caterpillar stages of the insects. Adult butterflies also can be killed by resting on insecticide-treated surfaces.

Table 2: Food used by common Eastern Colorado butterflies and skippers.
Butterfly Flight period Caterpillar food Common nectar plants, adult food
Black swallowtail
(Papilio polyxenes)
April-September Dill, parsley, fennel, carrot Butterfly weed, alfalfa, thistle
Checkered skipper
(Pyrgus communis)
April-October Mallow, hollyhock Verbena, dandelion, Canada
thistle, aster
Checkered white
(Pontia protodice)
April-November Tumble mustard Alfafa, mustards, bee balm
Clouded sulfur
(Colias philodice)
April-November Alfalfa, clover Alfalfa, phlox, rabbitbrush, aster, marigold
Edwards fritillary
(Speyeria edwardsii)
June-September Nuttall’s violet Rabbitbrush, gaillardia, bee balm
European cabbage butterfly
(Pieris rapae)
April-October Broccoli, cabbage (mustard family) Many
Gorgone checkerspot
(Charidryas gorgone)
May-September Sunflowers White clover, dandelion, Canada thistle
Gray hairstreak
(Strymon melinus)
May-October Many Many
Hackberry butterfly
(Asterocampa celtis)
May-September Hackberry Rotting fruit, sap flows
Melissa blue
(Lycaeides melissa)
April-October Wild licorice, alfalfa, etc. Bee balm, sweet clover
Monarch
(Danaus plexippus)
June-October Milkweed Cosmos, Canada thistle, rabbitbrush, etc.
Mourning cloak
(Nymphalis antiopa)
February-November Willow, aspen, cottonwood, elm Rabbitbrush, milkweed, sap
Orange sulfur
(Colias eurytheme)
April-October Alfalfa, vetch, pea Alfalfa, marigold, zinnia
Painted Lady
(Vanessa cardui)
April-October Thistle, hollyhock, sunflower Grape hyacinth, cosmos, zinnia, alfalfa, many flowers
Silver-spotted skipper
(Epargyreus clarus)
May-July Wild licorice, locust, etc. Lilac, dogbane, zinnia, sweet pea, Canada thistle
Two-tailed swallowtail
(Papilio multicaudatus)
April-August Green ash, chokecherry Geranium, thistle, milkweed
Variegated fritillary
(Euptoieta claudia)
April-October Various, including pansy Rabbitbrush, Canada thistle
Weidemeyer’s admiral
(Limentitis weidemeyerii)
June-September Willow, aspen, cottonwood Sap flows, snowberry, dung
Western tiger swallowtail(Papilio rutulus) May-July Willow, cottonwood, chokecherry Zinnia, lilac, butterflybush, thistle, milkweed
Wood nymph
(Cercyonis pegala)
June-August Grasses Rabbitbrush, clematis, Canada thistle

Some Common Colorado Butterflies

Figure 1: Black swallowtail.
Figure 2: Black swallowtail larvae. Early instar (left), later instar (right).
Figure 3: Two-tailed swallowtail.
Figure 4: Two-tailed swallowtail larvae. Early instar (left), later instar (right).
Figure 5: Monarch.
Figure 6: Monarch larva.
Figure 7: Mourning cloak.
Figure 8: Mourning cloak larva.
Figure 9: Common sulphur.
Figure 10: Common sulphur larva.
Figure 11: Variegated fritillary.
Figure 12: Variegated fritillary larva.

1P.A. Opler, Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior; and W.S. Cranshaw, Colorado State University Extension entomologist and professor, bioagricultural sciences and pest management. 4/96. Revised 6/13.

Go to top of this page.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *