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.