caterpillars on flowers that attract pollinators

Flowers that attract pollinators: It’s not about the grown-ups

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It’s been a spectacular year for the butterflies in my garden. I believe we’ve seen more species this year than ever before. I’ve worked very hard over the years to create a garden that’s welcoming to all creatures and includes lots of flowers that attract pollinators. The huge diversity of plant material in my garden provides a variety of food sources for all of the pollinators hanging around our place.

From trees to groundcovers, we’ve got a plethora of flowers from which adult butterflies can source nectar. But, we also have many of the plant species used as food sources for butterfly larvae. You see, monarchs aren’t the only butterflies with caterpillars who have specific food needs. The larvae of many other butterflies can feed on only one or a small handful of plant species.

Today’s post will show you how to build a garden for caterpillars, instead of focusing only on providing nectar sources for adult butterflies.

Related post: Helping native bees

Larval Lives Matter

I’m half-tempted to start a twitter campaign with the hashtag #larvallivesmatter. Everyone seems to be focused only on planting for adult butterflies, but the truth is that when it comes to flowers that attract pollinators, it’s not just about the grown-ups. Yes, everyone is on a mission to plant milkweed (which is great, don’t get me wrong), but in the meantime, there are dozens of other butterfly species aside from the monarch who have nowhere left to lay their eggs because we aren’t growing the right plants in our yards. And, in some cases, we’re purposefully killing the sole larval food source of some of North America’s most beautiful butterfly species.

While there are articles all over the internet listing flowering plants that are great nectar sources for adult butterflies, only a handful of articles listing plants for butterfly larvae are reaching the masses. Very few gardeners seem to know about the danger some of our butterfly species are facing because of a lack of food for their caterpillars.

So, today, it’s my mission to change that. Here, in a simple, easy-to-use format, is a list of larval food sources for some of North America’s butterflies and a handful of useful ideas for how to incorporate these plants into your landscape. Rather than butterfly gardening, I like to call this caterpillar gardening!

Flowers that attract pollinators include members of the carrot family.

Easterm black swallowtail caterpillars can only use members of the carrot family as host plants.

Flowers That Attract Pollinators: Caterpillar Gardening 101

To build a caterpillar garden of your own, follow these simple steps.

Step 1: Begin with these tips

  • Locate your caterpillar garden in a place that receives a minimum of six hours of full sun per day. As you’ll soon see, most of the plants used as a food source for larval butterflies require full sun.
  • You should also try to place your caterpillar garden in a slightly sheltered site, away from strong winds. This helps adult butterflies navigate their way to the garden and keeps the caterpillars protected.
  • Avoid hanging any birdhouses in or very near the caterpillar garden. While birds are mighty good for the garden (they consume a lot of pest insects), each pair of chickadee parents require 6000 caterpillars to raise each brood. I’m sure you’d prefer they eat gypsy moth caterpillars instead of butterfly larvae, so keep birdhouses in the veggie or flower garden rather than near the caterpillar garden.
  • Size matters… but not as much as you think. If you can manage to dedicate just 1% of your total landscape area to a caterpillar garden, the butterflies will thank you. And, if you don’t want to create a dedicated garden just for caterpillars, then add as many larval host plants as possible to your existing landscape. Tuck them in your perennial garden, around your veggie patch, in foundation beds and shrub islands. Heck, you can even plant them in containers! I have several containers dedicated to flowers that attract pollinators and host butterfly larvae – one includes a hops vine and dill, and another is filled with milkweed and borage.

Step 2: Plant these plants

As promised, here’s a handy list of what kinds of plant species to include in your caterpillar garden. The name of the butterfly is first, followed by a list of its host plants. If there’s only one host plant listed, that means the larvae of that butterfly can only eat that particular plant (making it extra important for you to include it in your larvae garden!). In my humble opinion, when it comes to flowers that attract pollinators, these species are the most important ones to include in your landscape, whether they’re in a dedicated caterpillar garden or somewhere else in your yard.

While this list obviously doesn’t include every butterfly species in North America, it’s a good place to start. You can always reach out to the Xerces Society and their book Attracting Native Pollinators for a more extensive list of butterflies native to your region along with a list of their larval host plants and more flowers that attract pollinators.

Monarch – milkweed

Great spangled fritillary, meadow fritillary, Zerene fritillary, Atlantis fritillary, and silver-bordered fritillary – violets (and only violets! Please stop killing the violets in your lawn!)

Gulf fritillarypassionflower

Baltimore checkerspot – white turtlehead, hairy Penstemon, speedwell, honeysuckle, arrowwood, white ash

Milbert’s tortoiseshell – stinging nettle

Eastern tiger swallowtail – plum, apple, ash, willow, elm, and others

Spicebush swallowtail – sassafras, spicebush, tulip tree, sweet bay magnolia

Pipevine swallowtail – Dutchman’s pipe, black bindweed, knotweed

Painted lady – Yarrow, thistle, lupine, borage, sunflower, lambsquarters, sage

Eastern comma – Elm, hops, nettles

Red admiral – nettle, hops

Eastern black swallowtail – Angelica, dill, fennel, Zizia, lovage, wild carrot

Pearly crescent – aster

Little wood satyr – orchard grass

Common wood nymph – bluestem, porcupinegrass

Mourning cloak – willow, cottonwood, birch, elm, hops, white ash, basswood

American lady – pussytoes, sagebrush, sunflower, lupine, nettle, Canada thistle, hollyhock, mallow

Viceroywillow, birch, plum, hawthorn, serviceberry, cherry

American snout – hackberry

Metalmarkyellow thistle

Spring azure – plum, cherry, maple, hop, blueberry, viburnum, wingstem, and others

Gray hairstreak – false indigo, bush clover, lupine, clover, vetch, hibiscus, mallow hawthorn, and others

Banded hairstreak – oak, hickory, ash, walnut

Wild indigo duskywing – baptisia, wild lupine, crownvetch

Cloudless sulphur – cassia

Southern dogface – false indigo, clover, alfalfa

Question mark butterfly lifecycle

The question mark butterfly is one of many examples of butterflies with specific host plant needs.

Step 3: Be mindful of nature’s way 

While some of the caterpillars present in your caterpillar garden will reach maturity and pupate into adults, many of them will not. There are many insectivorous birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals who dine on caterpillars as they grow, and there are certainly plenty of predatory and parasitic insects who enjoy slurping down a caterpillar every now and then or using them to house and feed their developing young.

Though not all of the caterpillars in your larvae garden will survive, don’t be discouraged. That’s the way nature rolls. Some will make it, others won’t. Be mindful of nature’s way and try not to interfere. But, even if just one caterpillar survives to adulthood, you’ve made a difference in the life of an important and beautiful pollinator.

Plant a garden full of flowers that attract pollinators and feed a diversity of larval insects. Caterpillar gardening is butterfly gardening at its finest!

Related post: Reasons NOT to clean up the garden this fall

Do you have any larval host plants for butterflies? If so, what do you grow? Tell us in the comment section below. 

Pin it! Plant these host plants for caterpillars and have more butterflies in your garden.







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6 Responses to Flowers that attract pollinators: It’s not about the grown-ups

  1. Larry says:

    We just bought another 6 acre parcel that we plan on building on. I just retired and plan on kind of homesteading. We are currently clearing part of it for pasture, chicken coop/run and last but not least a garden flower/veggie. My mother was a huge garden person she had over 300 different Iris’s plus a bounty of all other types of flowers. But it is a slow process so the garden will hopefully materialize next year and yes I plan on lots of plants for everything

    • This is another great column. I find most people around me do everything wrong. I try to take them through the steps of landscaping for all the bugs and butterflies. Your work is fascinating and useful at the same time. Thanks. My mother published on butterflies and moths, so I am late to the game.

  2. I’m happy to report that I have many of these butterfly caterpillar-friendly plants in my yard, adding more each season (planted an elm tree and a hawthorn this year). BUT I also spend a lot of time trying to eradicate Canada thistle and honeysuckle bush, as these are alien invasive species. No danger of them becoming extinct around here: Canada thistle lines the roads and the city zoo is *full* of honeysuckle bush.

  3. Gabriel Bertilson says:

    Great article and list. I know about monarchs and American painted ladies, but not many others. I wish people provided for all kinds of butterflies, not just monarchs.

    One correction: American painted lady caterpillars eat pussytoes, pearly everlasting, and sagebrush; the regular painted lady eats thistles, hollyhocks, mallows, and lupines. Got to keep those two separate.

  4. Kevin says:

    I found 5 caterpillars on my parsley this year. What kind of butterfly do those caterpillars become?

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