Ilene Sternberg is a multiple award-winning freelance garden writer and co-author of Best Garden Plants for Pennsylvania and Perennials for Pennsylvania.

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Welcoming Butterflies
by Ilene Sternberg       #Beneficials   #Insects

Whatever the size of your garden, you can add excitement and wonder by welcoming beautiful, delicate members of the Lepidoptera family to share your little plot of heaven on earth.

A fritillary butterfly in hand.2

Despite their freewheeling, frivolous demeanor, butterflies follow a deliberate and complex regimen in their day-to-day doings. Their life-cycle consists of four stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and adult (butterfly), each stage requiring specific food and environments.

The Life Cycle

Butterflies deposit eggs — singly or in clusters — in spring, summer or fall, depending on the species. A good nectar source promotes the production of large numbers of eggs. Some lay eggs on only one or a few plant species, others on many kinds, usually on those appropriate as larval food. Eggs usually hatch within a few days. Nine out of 10 eggs never become adults because predators, mainly birds, think the eggs, caterpillars and butterflies are delicious. 

Emerging caterpillars feed first on their eggshells, then the host plant. They shed their “skin” usually four or five times, growing larger with each stage (called an “instar”). Caterpillars with abundant, high-quality food mature earlier than poorly fed larvae.

A tussock moth pupating on the underside of a leaf.2

The full-sized caterpillar spends about a day forming a green or brown pupa (chrysalis) using silk produced by its glands. The chrysalis has a smooth, hard surface and is suspended by a thin fiber from a stem or twig. Some butterflies, such as skippers, pupate inside a thin covering of silk and leaves. Moths spin a “cocoon,” usually in a shell surrounded by a protective fuzzy, cottony covering.

Depending on the species and temperature, the chrysalis stage usually lasts about two weeks. During this time, they astonishingly develop into an adult. Some species go through a hibernation stage called a diapause, before the pupa splits and the butterfly emerges. During the first few hours, the butterfly’s wings expand, the skin hardens and then it is able to fly, sip nectar, mate and lay eggs, thus repeating the life cycle.

From egg-to-caterpillar-to-butterfly takes about five to six weeks. Some species have only one generation per year. Others may go through two or three generations in a season. Most live only two or three weeks, although some, such as the mourning cloak, which spends the winter as an adult, may live for 10 months or more.

Host Plants for Caterpillars

Zebra swallowtail caterpillar in its green form.1

A zebra swallowtail caterpillar in its striped form.1
Swallowtail Family (Papilionidae)
Black swallowtail: parsley family (Apiaceae family) includes wild and cultivated carrot (Daucus spp.), dill (Anethum spp.), parsley (Petroselinum spp.) and parsnip (Pastinaca spp.)
Spicebush swallowtail: Sassafras
Tiger swallowtail: aspen (Populus spp.), cherry (Prunus spp.), birch (Betula spp.)

Skipper Family (Hesperidae)
Blazing star skipper: grasses 

Snout Butterfly (Libytheidae)
Common snout butterfly: hackberry (Celtis spp.)

Brush-footed Family (Nymphalidae)
Great spangled and Idalia fritillary: violet (Viola spp.)
Buckeye: plantains (Plantago spp.), toadflax (Linaria spp.), snapdragon (Antirrhinum spp.), false loosestrife (Ludwigia spp.)
Painted lady: thistle (Onopordum, Carduus, Cirsium)
Red admiral: nettle (Urtica spp.), false nettle (Boehmeria spp.)
Viceroy and red-spotted purple: willow (Salix spp.), especially black willow (Salix nigra), pussy willow (Salix caprea), poplar (Populus spp.), plums (Prunus spp.), cherry (Prunus spp.)
Hackberry butterfly: hackberry (Celtis spp.)
Monarch: milkweeds, butterfly weed (Asclepias spp.)
Mourning cloak: willow (Salix), birch (Betula spp.), aspen (Populus spp.), maple (Acer spp.), elm (Ulmus spp.)

Sulphur Family (Pieridae)
Cabbage white butterfly: (Brassicaceae family), Brassica spp.: cauliflower, broccoli, kale, mustard, turnip, radish (Raphanus spp.)
Common (clouded) sulphur: clover (Trifolium), alfalfa (Medicago)
Dogface butterfly: leadplant (Amorpha), false indigo (Baptisia), prairie clover (Dalea)

Coppers, Blues, Harvesters, Metalmarks Families (Lycaenidae, Riodinidae)
American copper: sorrel (Rumex spp.)
Sylvan hairstreak: willow (Salix spp.)
Common hairstreak: mallow (Malvaceae spp.), rose mallow (Hibiscus spp.), marsh mallow (Althea spp.), hollyhock (Alcea spp.)
Gray hairstreak: hawthorn (Crataegus spp.)

Source: University of Minnesota, James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History.

Attracting Butterflies to Your Garden

An adult zebra swallowtail.1

Monarch being handled.2

Select a variety of nectar-producing plants in flower throughout the season, especially those that bloom in mid to late summer, when most butterflies are active. Flowers with multiple florets that produce abundant nectar are ideal. (Double flowers are bred for appearance, not nectar production.) Adults will lay their eggs on specific plants that will serve as a food source for the caterpillars that hatch.

Provide shelter. Butterflies prefer to feed and lay eggs away from gusty winds. A row of shrubs or trees provides a windbreak. Plant tall plants at the back and sides of the garden for additional protection.

Wet sand or a mud puddle nearby encourages “puddling.” Though they get their sugar from plant nectar, butterflies need other nourishment for reproduction. For that, they sip from mud puddles, ingesting salts and minerals from the soil. Puddling is mostly seen in males. They incorporate those nutrients into their sperm, which when mating, are transferred to the female. These extra salts and minerals improve the viability of the female’s eggs, increasing the couple’s chances of passing  on their genes to another generation.

Avoid using broad-spectrum pesticides. Although caterpillars will chomp on some plants, they need this to metamorphose. Eventually your garden will attract natural predators for other pests attacking your garden.

Host Plants for Adult Butterflies

A monarch on a butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.).2
Azalea (Rhododendron spp.)
Blueberry (Vaccinium spp.)
Butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.)
Lilac (Syringa spp.)
Sumac (Rhus spp.)
Coneflower (Echinacea spp.)
Flowering tobacco (Nicotiana spp.)
Impatiens (Impatiens spp.)
Marigold (Calendula spp., Tagetes spp.)
Phlox (Phlox spp.)
Sunflower (Helianthus spp.)
Verbena (Verbena spp.)
Aster (Aster spp.)

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)2
Bee balm, bergamot (Monarda spp.)
Butterfly weed (Asclepias spp.)
Chrysanthemum (Dendranthema spp.)
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.)
Blazing star (Liatris spp.)
Coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.)
Ox-eye daisy (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum, Leucanthemum vulgare)
Ageratum (Ageratum spp.)
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Dogbane (Apocynum spp.)
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)
Ironweed (Vernonia altissima)
Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum, syn. Eupatorium purpureum)
Nettle (Urtica spp.)
Thistle (Onopordum spp., Carduus spp., Cirsium spp.)

Source: University of Minnesota, James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History.


1. Photo courtesy of © Rose Franklin,
2. Photo courtesy of Ilene Sternberg

From State-by-State Gardening July/August 2013.


Posted: 05/22/17   RSS | Print


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