Butterfly Host Plants: Milkweed is Just the Beginning!

Jill Staake

I’m frequently asked, “How can I get a wider variety of butterflies to visit my garden?” The answer to this question is actually pretty simple – you have to provide their host plants.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how important it is to plant milkweed to support the struggling monarch population. Milkweed is vital to monarchs, because it’s what’s known as their “host plant” – the plant that their caterpillars eat. Each butterfly is a specialist, laying its eggs on a specific plant or family of plants, which helps reduce competition between species. Without these plants available, butterflies will visit but may not stay long. Think of it like a young couple looking for their first house; they may like the fact that a certain neighborhood has a lot of restaurants around, but if the area doesn’t have a good school system, they probably won’t want to raise their kids there!

Butterflies don’t stick around and raise their young, but they do make sure they get the best possible start in life. They lay their eggs on or very near the plants their caterpillars need to survive. The choose the healthiest plants available, and often lay on the very newest growth, which is tender and easy for small caterpillars to eat and digest. Each female butterfly has 300 to 500 eggs to deposit in her short lifetime (each only lives a few weeks, on average), so she has a lot of host plants to find. Some butterflies will lay many eggs on a single plant, while others like to spread their eggs around. The more host plants you have available, the more butterflies you’re likely to see.

So, how do you know what host plants to use? The list obviously varies between regions, so your first job is to identify the butterflies that are found in your area, and find out what their host plants are (more on that in a moment). Then, you have to choose host plants that suit your garden. Some butterflies host on trees, which may not work for you if space is an issue. Others use plants that might be considered weedy, so you might not want to include them in a more formal garden setting. And it’s important to remember that host plants are there for caterpillars to eat, so they’re not always going to look very attractive – they’ll often have chewed-up leaves or no foliage at all. You have to determine what works best for you.

Now, as to determining the best host plants to include in your garden: I recommend doing a simple web search based on where you live. For instance, you might try, “Colorado common butterflies” and see what you can find. Most sites that provide butterfly info will also tell you what host plants they use. If you know what species you’d like to attract, visit the Butterflies and Moths of North America website and do a search to find out what host plants you need.

To get you started, here are some common butterflies found around the country and their host plants:

Help us build the list – tell us your favorite host plants and the butterflies they attract (don’t forget to include where you live). Is there a specific butterfly you’d like to bring to your garden? Drop your request in the comments below, and we’ll try to help you out!

  1. Jalene says

    When I was young I used to see Zebra Striped Swallowtails every summer. Their host plant is the Paw-Paw tree. The Paw-Paw trees are still here, but I have not seen a Zebra Striped Swallowtail in many years. I tried to find eggs or caterpillars to re-introduce, but could not find them either. Does anyone know of these butterflies? Do they still exist?

  2. Tracey Stephenson says

    We have a hackberry tree in our backyard that is a host to the hackberry butterfly. It is so neat to see them all summer!

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