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

Butterfly Larvae

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!

Check out the following video to learn about three great nectar plants for butterflies, too.

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

Beneficial Insect book

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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21 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?

  5. Anne Bunai says:

    I planted fennel and it has been very successful in attracting the black swallowtail. What surprises me most is how quickly the butterflies find that you have planted something. They come right away. I have lots of milkweed, thistle, hibiscus, aster, lavender, violets, queen Anne’s lace, butterfly weed, parsley and an annual nectar garden. I have sassafras, cherry, pin oak, birch, and walnut trees. This year I brought in 38 monarch caterpillars and 35 have been released. I find caring for caterpillars very rewarding.

    • Wonderful, Anne! Thanks for sharing your success with drawing in black swallowtails to your garden. Sounds like you have an excellent variety of plants in your landscape which is the biggest key to improving the insect diversity living there. Keep up the amazing work!

  6. Robert Patton says:

    You forgot about rue for Giant Swallowtails and PawPaw for Zebra Swallowtails.

  7. Patrick says:

    Thank you for this article! I like the term “Caterpillar Garden”. I’ve got to use that one. We’ve been incorporating tons of native plants in our yard over the past two years or so (we’ve only lived here for 3.5) and my kids and I got our yard certified as a Wildlife Habitat. This year I’ve been trying to look a little closer at my plants to find caterpillars and other great insects. We had over 23 Monarch caterpillars on our Butterfly Weed this spring and I found Black Swallowtail caterpillars on the dill and Zizia we planted only this year! We’ve got a bunch of oak trees too on which I notice plenty of caterpillar activity. Our American Beautyberry has played host to a few moth caterpillars too…I forget what kind of the top of my head. The caterpillars are huge though! Last fall we had caterpillars all over our Winged Sumac too. I think they were Gulf Fritillaries. Thanks again!

  8. Glenda says:

    Hi. Thanks for the interesting article.
    I live in South Florida and the curly tail lizards eat the caterpillar eggs. It’s hard to protect them.

  9. Sarah says:

    We had the wonderful experience of raising Monarchs this past summer, after discovering caterpillars on our Swamp Milkweed for the first time this July, after having grown it for the last several, and got to witness them transform from caterpillar, to pupa, to butterfly. We also grow other host plants… Hollyhocks for our Painted Ladies, who we see often, and Dill and Fennel for our Black Swallowtails, who we see from time to time. We don’t grow some of the others listed specifically as host plants, but our veggie garden abounds with Borage, and our apple tree guilds are abundant in Lupines. We love working amongst the fluttering of butterflies and the buzzing of bumblebees all summer long!

  10. Nancy says:

    I planted Swamp Milkweed last year and counted 38 Monarch caterpillars. Had lots of pupa all over my house rafters. Could see many of the Monarchs ready to come out but missed their flight. Where I live I have to plant my pollinator plants in containers and they always do well.

  11. Suzann says:

    I have a catapillar garden, but the praying mantises are ruthless. What can I do?

    • That’s such a challenge, I’m sure. Praying mantids are lovely, except most of the time, the ones we see in our gardens are introduced species – either European mantids or more commonly, Chinese mantids. There’s not much you can do other than relocate the mantids when you find them.

  12. Kara Kweder says:

    I just found a bunch of caterpillars in my garden. I forget the plant but I know it’s a pollinator. Will they kill this plant by eating its leaves? I’m excited to see them there!

    • Larval caterpillars rarely outright kill a host plant (it’s not in their best interest to, after all). Even if the plant doesn’t look so great temporarily, it will rebound quickly.

  13. Lourdes Aguila says:

    Hi, I live in Southwest Florida and was very successful raising Monarchs inside the lanai last year. This year I placed the milkweed plants outside and even though I find monarchs visiting the plants, feeding on the flowers and laying their eggs, the caterpillars disappear promptlyand I have witnessed wasps getting the caterpillars and eating them. Is there something I can do to protect them from these predators?
    Thank you for your help.

  14. Allison Sloan says:

    I am the steward for a natural area restoration in a local park in Illinois. We were thrilled last week to find three Giant Swallowtail caterpillars on the Prickly Ash and Wafer Ash shrubs we planted three years ago. At home, I let a number of native weedy volunteers grow specifically because they appear to be so important to caterpillars based on the amount of leaf damage. Violets, asters and choke cherries get chewed to shreds, I’ve noticed, as well as our American elms and hackberry trees. I have tried to identify all of our weeds using iNaturalist and let most of the native ones stay. Our pollinator populations are definitely growing as a result.

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