BONNIE’S GARDEN – Caterpillars to Butterflies

Caterpillars to Butterflies – How to Make the Magic Happen in Your Garden

I had a customer, with a packet of milkweed seeds in her hand, ask me how to get rid of the caterpillars that ate these every year. My first reaction was amusement—I was sure she was joking. She wasn’t. I then looked at her in horror.

“Why are you growing milkweed?” I asked.

“For the Monarch butterflies!” she said.

“Um, Monarch butterflies will eat nectar from many flowers. It’s the BABIES that eat the milkweed!”

I’ll never forget the look on her face when she realized that all these years she’d been killing Monarch butterfly caterpillars.

Because I get lots of questions about what to plant for a butterfly garden, I thought I’d start with “host” plants. If we don’t start planting things for the caterpillars to eat, we won’t have to worry about planting butterfly gardens because there won’t be any butterflies.

A List of Good Host Plants

Oaks, willows, maples, hawthorns, hickory, Sweet Bay magnolias, elms, dogwoods all are good. Yes, some of our best host plants are trees. According to Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants (by Douglas Tallamy, Professor of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware), oaks are a host plant for 534 Lepidoptera (butterfly/moths) species alone; willows 455 species; maples 285 species.

Of course, most of us know that milkweed (Asclepias) is the host plant for Monarch butterflies. Asclepias incarnata and Asclepias Syriaca are both native to the northeastern U.S.

Alcea aka Hollyhocks are host plants for Painted Lady Butterflies

Dill, fennel, parsley, rue, Queen Anne’s Lace—These are host plants for Black Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars. I love parsley and dill, so I  always plant a couple of extras and I transfer all the caterpillars to those plants.

Passiflora aka Passion Flower is a host plant for fritillary butterflies and Zebra Longwings.

Snapdragons are host plants for Buckeye butterfly caterpillars.

Violas, including our little wild violet, are host plants for certain Fritillaries.

Other good host plants are Rudbeckias (Black-Eyed Susans), Goldenrod (Solidago), Coneflowers (Echinacea), Rue, Shasta Daisies, Verbena, Baptisia, Spicebush, mallows, sunflowers, sedums, spicebush, Artemisias, sunflowers, phlox, asters, verbena, helianthus–even azaleas and morning glories.

This is by no means a complete list–there are many more plants out there.  Whenever possible, plants that are native to our area are good to plant because these are the plants that butterflies expect to be here.

Remember that some species of caterpillars are VERY specific about what they will eat.  If you want to protect your Echinaceas and move the caterpillars elsewhere, they may die.  Maybe next year, plant extra Echinaceas specifically for the caterpillars.

Maybe we should be a bit more cautious before running to the pesticide aisle and picking up a product to kill caterpillars.  Maybe we should do a bit of research first, and see if we can identify the caterpillar.  Or maybe we could just wait it out.  After all, most caterpillars are out munching for such a short period of time—usually a week or two.  You can always apply a product later, if necessary, but once you apply it, you can’t un-apply it.

And while we’re on the topic, go “Google” what a tomato hornworm turns into.  After I did that, I don’t dispose of them anymore.  I move them to a separate tomato I grow just for them….

If you want a great butterfly garden, start with feeding the babies first…

Your Questions Answered

If you have questions about how to create a butterfly garden for your specific yard conditions, stop by the Great Big Greenhouse and let us help you. We’re here to answer all your gardening questions.

To read more from Bonnie, visit our blog

11 thoughts on “BONNIE’S GARDEN – Caterpillars to Butterflies”

  1. OMG, thank you so much for this information about caterpillar’s I learned so much. I was one of those people that would get rid of the caterpillar nests in my cherry tree, never again will I do that.

  2. Thank you for this post! I’ve been working my way through Tallamy’s book, but it’s pretty dense and for the average, not so adept gardener (like me), rather overwhelming. Bite-sized information helps and I’ll be dropping by the greenhouse.

  3. I have tried many times to grow orange and colored Butterfly weed, and every time they have not survived.

    I don’t know why. They have had plenty of sun and good drainage. I have planted them in various soils. Since they are native I tried to plant them in non-enriched soil.

    I have many of the plants in my yard that Lewis Ginter has in the greenhouse during their Butterflies Live event. Each year I have an increasing number of butterflies, so I must have caterpillars in those host plants that I am not seeing.

    • Milkweeds are known to be rather finicky to grow from potted plants however Milkweeds can spread readily from seed, so perhaps you might try direct sowing. Plant the seeds IN THE FALL as they need to go through a cold winter before germinating in the spring. This way you don’t have to worry about transplant shock.

      There are a couple of varieties which are rather specific about their requirements so be sure which variety you are planting. The Asclepias tuberosa (the orange one) needs very well-draining, even sandy or gritty soil. With our preponderance of Virginia red clay, you might try amending your soil with brown sand. The Asclepias incarnata, on the other hand, is Swamp Milkweed–needing fairly moist soil.

  4. Apparently my email address wasn’t acceptable from earlier comment about why I am unsuccessful growing butterfly weed. I am trying again with different email address.

  5. Thank you for the info.
    I am afraid of caterpillars and I have sprayed my plants and cut trees down that house tent caterpillars. I love butterflies and enjoy seeing them in my yard. I have many of the plants and trees you listed, but I am guilty of spraying my plants. Thanks for the education.

  6. Thank you for your clarification on planting. I have tried both direct seeding and potted plants. One year the seeds from colored varieties of Tuberosa (I think?) sprouted but died off as it got warmer. I may have planted them in late winter and not fall.

    I tried planting Seeds of “showy” milkweed last year, and another that were supposed to be native or non-invasive. Did not see any of them sprout.

    Timing of sowing seeds may be my problem.

    Thanks again.

  7. The timing is very important. They need to go through what is called stratification–that is a COLD winter–then they’ll sprout as the soil warms up in the spring. If you plant them in late winter, they don’t get that long cold winter like they get in the wild. Try timing the sowing right this year and hopefully you’ll get better results. I do carry fresh 2021 dated Milkweed seeds this summer for fall planting.

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