Sunday, February 19, 2017

Plan for Butterflies

Tiger swallowtail on native azalea (April)
Even with our mild winters in Georgia, seeing that first butterfly is always a thrill. I usually always run back inside for my camera to record the event. It’s like a flower woke up and took flight!

You might think that butterflies just happen. The truth is, you have to plant for butterflies. Therefore, you need to plan for butterflies. The monarch butterfly’s troubles give us a good case for discussion because a large number of people are familiar with its reproductive needs.

Monarch on goldenrod (great nectar plant)
Butterflies (and their more numerous relatives the moths) live out their cycle first as eggs and caterpillars and then become amazing flying machines. Caterpillars eat leaves and the adult females will only lay their eggs on just the right kind of plant. In the case of the monarch butterfly, that plant is milkweed (Asclepias sp.). If all the milkweed were to disappear, the monarch butterfly would become extinct. In fact, there are fewer monarches today in part because there is less milkweed in the wild than before.

Therefore, if you want butterflies, you need to provide the adults with plants on which they can lay their eggs. Lots of people plant butterfly gardens full of beautiful non-native flowers for them to feast on, but without sufficient host plants for the eggs, it’s like a nice cocktail bar … only there for adults. (For those of you adding parsley and fennel to your garden, that only supports 1-2 common butterfly species.)

How do you plan for butterflies? I take two approaches. First, I see what butterflies are already in my area by observing them in my yard or on my walks around the neighborhood and surrounding wild areas. For those butterflies, I want to make sure that I know what host plants they need and try to keep providing those plants in my yard.

American lady on pussytoes
Cloudless sulphur on partridge pea

Butterflies (and host plant examples) already around me include: Eastern tiger swallowtail (tuliptree, black cherry), red-spotted purple (black cherry, hawthorn), spicebush swallowtail (spicebush, sassafras), American lady (pussytoes, rabbit tobacco), buckeye (Ruellia, Agalinis), Gulf fritillary (passionvine), monarch (milkweed), and the many butterflies that host on plants in the pea family: cloudless sulphur and sleepy orange (partridge pea), long tailed-skipper (hogpeanut, Desmodium, silver-spotted skipper (false indigo), and Eastern tailed blue (Lespedeza).

Second, I research other common butterflies (or ones that other people near me mention) and work on adding to my yard the plants that they need for their caterpillars; the plants they need are native to my area but were probably culled out by humans before me. For example, the red admiral, comma, and question mark butterflies need false nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica) as a host plant, so I ordered some seeds for it. I recently added pipevine in the hopes of attracting a pipevine swallowtail. I have juniper but I’ve yet to see a Juniper hairstreak.

Red-banded hairstreak on Eupatorium
Sometimes new butterflies surprise me. In 2016, 4 new ones showed up: red-banded hairstreak, viceroy, gemmed satyr, and great spangled fritillary. Of those new ones, I don’t have host plants for the viceroy but I believe someone down the street has a willow (Salix). Willows are actually pretty common in wild wet areas but people don’t usually notice them. In my caterpillar searching, I found the caterpillar of the luna moth on sweetgum in the backyard, but I’ve not seen the adult.

It’s important to do your research and keep your eyes open. That’s one thing I learned during my caterpillar search last year; even if you don’t notice them, they’re out there. The more diverse selection of native plants that you have, the more butterflies you’ll have. Plan for it.


  1. I have many of the host plants you listed...and I hope to add more species and more of each species.

    Just last week, a friend of mine commented on one of my Facebook posts...she was interested in attracting butterflies. I shared a link and a little information with her already (and offered to share some plants), but I think I will post a link to your post for her to read.

    You make great points and it is easily accessible. Also, I love your poetic comment "It’s like a flower woke up and took flight!"

  2. So, Ellen, do you keep a butterfly yard list annually, similar to an annual bird list? That would be fun! If so, how much variation do you notice from year to year? Cynthia

  3. Love this article! Well done!