If I see a butterfly flitting about my yard, I’ll stop everything I’m doing to watch it. I feel so happy knowing my garden is a haven for butterflies, bees, and other beneficial insects. And I’m mindful of trying to incorporate plants for a butterfly’s entire life cycle. That’s where butterfly host plants come into the picture. There are lots of articles about planting pollinator gardens to provide nectar to butterflies and other insects. Adding host plants will help to support the caterpillar stage.
Host plants are the plants where butterflies and moths lay their eggs. They’re important because those plants are what a new caterpillar will start to eat after it has hatched—and after it has consumed its egg shell. A female butterfly will lay her eggs in clusters or as single eggs, depending on the species. You will often find them underneath a leaf or along a plant stem.
In this article, I’m going to share some butterfly host plants for common North American butterflies. It’s important to note I live in Southern Ontario, Canada. Some of the included plants may differ from those who live in other parts of Canada and the United States.
Adding butterfly host plants to your garden
A butterfly doesn’t deposit her eggs on just any old plant. She is very specific about finding the host plant or one of a range of host plants that will nourish her young. She uses scent and sight to seek them out. For example, and probably the most commonly known, a female monarch butterfly will look for milkweed plants. Each butterfly species sticks to their host plant or plants, though some have adapted because of plant scarcity.
When looking for host plants, look beyond the perennial flower section of your local nursery or garden center. There are a number of trees, shrubs, and native grasses that are also host plants for a plethora of butterflies and moths. A search for local websites and conservation societies will help reveal which butterflies are native to your area. The Xerces Society is a great place to start, as well.
When purchasing your new garden additions, consider adding nectar plants, too, which will provide energy for adult butterflies.
Common blue violet (Viola sororia)
This native self-seeding plant pops up in my lawn every spring. It’s native range extends from southeastern Canada through the eastern U.S. It prefers a wetter soil and is the larval host plant of several fritillary butterflies, including the great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele), Aphrodite fritillary (Speyeris aphrodite), and silver-bordered fritillary (Boloria selene).
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
Drought and heat tolerant, the hardy black-eyed Susan is the larval host to the bordered patch (Chlosyne lacinia), the gorgone checkerspot (Chlosyne gorgone), and the silvery checkerspot (Chlosyne nycteis). Mine does well in not-so-great soil. Plant it in full sun. It grows in Eastern and Central North America.
Pale purple coneflower (Echiniacea pallida)
This recognizable native plant, often used for medicinal purposes, is native throughout eastern and central North America. Pale purple coneflower is drought tolerant and low-maintenance, perfect for meadow gardens. It is the larval host plant of the silvery checkerspot (Chlosyne nycteis).
Blue vervain (Verbena hastata)
Deer resistant, this member of the verbena family is found throughout the United States, and southern Canada. Blue vervain thrives in full sun to part shade, and in moist soils. It’s often found in wetlands. Blue vervain is the larval host plant of the common buckeye (Junonia coenia).
Pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea)
This full-sun perennial that is perfect for summer vases is the host plant of American lady (Vanessa virginiensis) and painted lady (Vanessa cardui) butterflies. Plants can grow to be up to three feet tall, with white clusters of flowers. Pearly everlasting can be found in various parts of the United States and Northern Mexico.
Pussy willow (Salix discolor)
Early spring brings the furry little catkins of the pussy willow shrub. They’re an early pollen source for bees and a larval host plant for a number of moths and butterflies, including Compton tortoisehell (Nymphalis l-album), Acadian hairstreak (Satyrium acadica), eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), and viceroy (Limenitis archippus). Pussy willows can be found throughout the northern states and Canada.
Milkweed (Asclepias spp.)
Milkweeds are the only host plants monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) will frequent to lay their eggs. Declining monarch populations have meant they’ve gotten a lot of press over the last few years. Jessica has written a very thorough article about how to grow milkweeds from seed. Various milkweeds are host plants for other moths and butterflies, too. For example, showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) is a larval host of the queen butterfly (Danaus gilippus).
Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella)
One of my favorite perennials that comes up in my front yard garden each year is the blanket flower. This drought- and salt-tolerant plant that belongs to the sunflower family is the larval host of the bordered patch (Chlosyne lacinia) butterfly. It is native throughout a great deal of Canada, the United States, and Mexico.
Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea)
Golden Alexanders, which are host plants of the black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)are members of the carrot family. In a home garden, black swallowtail butterflies also gravitate towards members of the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae to lay their eggs. I wrote about host plants for black swallowtail caterpillars because I’m obsessed with finding them on my parsley and dill!
A few other butterfly host plants
- Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana): Weidemeyer’s admiral (Limenitis weidermeyerii), red-spotted purple (Limentitis arthemis Astyanax), spring azure (Celastrina ladon), tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)
- Blue wild rye (Elymus glaucus): Woodland skipper (Ochlodes sylvanoides)
- Spicebush (Lindera benzoin): Spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus)
- Purple passionflower aka Maypops (Passiflora incarnata): zebra longwing (Heliconius charithonia), Gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae), variegated fritillary (Euptoieta claudia)
- Black elderberry: Spring azure (Celastrina ladon)
- New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus): Mottled duskywing (Erynnis martialis), Spring azure (Celastrina ladon), summer azure (Celastrina neglecta)
- Paw paw: Zebra swallowtail (Protographium marcellus)
- Alternate Leaved Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia): Spring azure (Celastrina ladon)
- Asters (Aster spp.): Painted lady (Vanessa cardui), Crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos), among others
- Willows (Salix spp): Mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa)
Read more about pollinator plants for your garden
- Flowers that attract pollinators: It’s not about the grown-ups
- Foraging habitat for pollinators: What to plant in sun and shade
- Milkweed pods: How to collect and harvest milkweed seeds
- Shrubs for pollinators: 5 bloom-filled choices for bees and butterflies
- Pollinator garden design: How to get started attracting bees, butterflies, and birds