Butterfly Gardening with Native Plants

In order to support butterflies through their entire life cycle, we need to provide them with more than just plants that give them access to nectar. Sure, adult butterflies drink the nectar from lots of plants, but what about the time when they aren’t yet butterflies?

Monarch caterpillar eating milkweed leaf

The larval stage of a butterfly — a caterpillar — can’t survive unless the adult butterfly can find the appropriate host plants on which to lay her eggs. Most people are aware of the monarch’s need for milkweeds, but it isn’t as well known that all butterflies have similar needs, and are dependent upon certain plants or families of plants.

That’s where native plants come in. Native plants are the host plants for many more species of butterflies than most of the plants we’ve been accustomed to using in our gardens. The ability of a butterfly larva to digest any particular plant evolves over a very long period of time, and when we use plants that have been brought here from Asia or Europe, our native insects often can’t eat them. Sure, they can sometimes get nectar from them when they’re an adult butterfly, but they can’t lay their eggs on them because the caterpillars can’t eat them.

And that doesn’t bode well for their survival, does it?  So shouldn’t we be gardening for insects and birds just as much as we garden for ourselves? For too long, gardening has been almost entirely focused on human desires for a specific floral appearance or fragrance. Fortunately, this outlook is beginning to change so that we’re considering the needs of other life forms as equal to our own. After all, we share the planet and we all depend on each other. If we can’t sustain enough biodiversity in the insect world, the impact on humans could be immense.

So what can you do? Plant a real butterfly garden that provides host plants as well as nectar. You’ll be amazed at how many more butterflies you’ll see in your garden within just a couple of years!

Click the image to the right to see information compiled by Jan Dixon of the Oak Openings Region chapter to help you garden for butterflies.

And another good tool you can use is the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder, where you can find out which plants are the host plants for the butterfly species you’d like to attract to your yard. You enter your zip code and search by butterfly or plant name. If you search for the butterfly, it tells you which plants are its hosts, and if you search by plant name, it gives you a list of the butterflies that use that plant as a host for their baby caterpillars.  It’s a lot of fun, and you’ll be surprised how that knowledge can change how you think about your gardening.

Thanks for being open to new ideas and for sharing this information with your friends!