Monday, January 31, 2011

Create a butterfly garden ~ easy as 1, 2, 3


Providing Habitat for Butterflies (with lists of local species)

Providing habitat for butterflies is as easy as 1, 2, 3!
1) Eliminate chemicals from your landscape
2) Plant plenty of flowers for the adult butterflies
3) Plant host plants for the caterpillars

Nothing brings life to your yard and garden like an abundance of colorful, carefree butterflies! Since there are so many species of butterflies in North America, providing any type of flowering nectar plant will probably attract one or two to stop by your yard from time to time. But if you really want to make your yard something more than a fast-food fueling spot for these beautiful creatures, you must provide both nectar plants for the adult butterflies and host plants for the larval caterpillars. Yes, caterpillars will leave holes in the plant leaves and chew certain species of host plants down to the ground. But the joy and educational experience of being witness to the entire butterfly life-cycle makes it worthwhile to buy some plants specifically for that purpose.

When an adult butterfly lands on a host plant, if you watch closely, you may see them curve their ovipositor up under the leaf to deposit an egg. Although females can produces hundreds of eggs, most are deposited singly or in small clusters, either on or under a leaf of the host plant. The eggs are sometimes as small as the head of a pin, but within a few days a tiny caterpillar emerges and begins pursing its life’s purpose—to eat!!! Caterpillars eat constantly, until they get too big for their own skin. Then, they shed their skin to make room for more food. This process is repeated numerous times until the caterpillar reaches many times its original size. Once fully grown, the larva seeks a safe place to pupate. This can be a branch, a twig or the eave of your house or other structure. It will attach itself with a fine strand of silk-like material and form a chrysalis. This is where the transformation to a butterfly takes place. When the butterfly is ready to hatch, the process happens very quickly, so only the most observant catch a glimpse of this “birth”. However, if you have butterflies in your yard, you will often be able to witness the newly hatched butterfly as it hangs from it’s chrysalis drying its wings in preparation for its first flight. To be able to witness all or part of this wonderful garden miracle, you must select the right plants.

For nectar, choose plants that are brightly colored and fragrant. Large blooms provide a place for the butterfly to land while feeding. Plant a large variety of different flowers and be sure to keep different blooming times in mind so that you can feed the butterflies throughout the garden seasons. Many adult butterflies prefer to feed in full sun.

For larval, or caterpillar plants, most butterflies feed on only a limited number of species of plants. If you are trying to attract a certain type of butterfly, it is important that you plant the larval food for that species. Remember that if you are successful in attracting the caterpillars to your yard, your host plants will be chewed, sometimes down to the bare stems. Therefore, buy your host plants in quantities and intersperse them with your other garden plants to hide the chewed leaves and to give the caterpillars a certain amount of cover from birds and other predators.

Also, it is important to avoid pesticides in your yard if you want butterflies. Both the butterflies and the caterpillars can be harmed by any sort of toxic chemical. Even "benign" insecticides, such as Bacillus thuringiensis, can be lethal to butterflies and caterpillars.

Here is a list of some of the butterflies common to DC, Virginia and Maryland. Complete lists are available here: Butterflies of DC , Butterflies of Maryland , Butterflies of Virginia.

Butterfly Adult butterfly nectar plant Host Plant
Zebra Swallowtail Redbud, lilac, verbena, milkweed Pawpaw
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Flowers of many plants incl. lilac and cherry Wild cherry, sweet bay, cottonwood, willow
Monarch Milkweed, lilac, lantana, thistles, others Milkweed
Red Admiral Bird droppings, tree sap, fermented fruit Nettles
Gulf Frittillary Lantanas, cordias and others Passion vines, including maypop
Common Buckeye Aster, chickory, tickseed, peppermint Snapdragons, ruellias
Painted Lady Thistles, aster, cosmos, joe-pye weed Many hosts, incl. thistles, hollyhock, legumes
Giant Swallowtail Lantana, azalea, goldenrod, milkweed Citrus, prickly ash, hop tree
Black Swallowtail Red clover, thistles, milkweed Parsely, celery, dill
Long tailed skipper Bougainvillea, lantana, shepherd's needle Legumes, wisteria, beggar's ticks


  1. We always have swallowtail caterpillars on our fennel each spring. Luckily, fennel is a fast grower and can take it. We have also noticed them on our parsley too. Having lots of host plants for caterpillars is rewarded by lots of beautiful butterflies all during the summer.

  2. Don't forget to set out a shallow dish of water because butterflies need to drink too. Also, planting native plants that attract butterflies help to feed them as well as produce their larvae.

  3. Last year i only saw one butterfly in my garden. ;(
    Thanks for the tips.


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