Caterpillar Cafe: Grow Host Plants to Attract Caterpillars

Support the next generation of butterflies by nurturing caterpillar host plants for hungry larvae. Design a garden to feed caterpillars.

Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly Laying Eggs On Dutchman's PipevineMary Anne Borge, www.the-natural-web.org
Pipevine swallowtail butterfly lays eggs on Dutchman’s pipevine plant

Butterfly gardening is gaining popularity, and with good reason! Any flower garden instantly becomes more interesting when winged beauties stop by to sip sweet nectar from the blooms. But the fluttering adults represent just one stage in the life of a butterfly. To support a healthy population of these colorful pollinators, it’s key to provide caterpillar host plants, as well. With a little extra effort, you can grow a caterpillar café!

Nectar Plants vs Host Plants

caterpillar host plants, Pipevine Swallowtail Eggs On Dutchman's PipevineMary Anne Borge, www.the-natural-web.org
Pipevine swallowtail eggs

Most adult butterflies are attracted to flowers, and many sample from an array of blooms, as long as they have a good nectar supply and enough space to land. Popular choices, such as coneflowers, zinnias or verbenas, may get visits from dozens of butterfly species.

But when it comes to caterpillar host plants, it’s a different story. The larvae of most butterfly species are very particular and will feed on only a few kinds of plants. Plus: Where do caterpillars come from?

Cldlss Slphr 20130820 0076Mary Anne Borge, www.the-natural-web.org
Cloudless sulphur butterfly

For example, monarch caterpillars are famous for munching solely on milkweeds. Many people now plant milkweeds to support these orange-and-black fliers, but those plants are no help for the vast majority of butterflies that can’t digest milkweeds. So while it’s possible to attract many kinds of adult butterflies with just a few nectar plants, growing caterpillar host plants requires more attention and variety.

Discover the truth about common butterfly host plant myths.

Be a Good Caterpillar Host

caterpillar host plants, Questn Mark Hackbrry 20110620 0013Mary Anne Borge, www.the-natural-web.org
Question mark caterpillar on hackberry leaf

To boost your success in hosting butterfly larvae, find a good native plant nursery in your region, and talk with the staff about the possibilities for your garden. Although there are exceptions, local native plant species almost always make the best hosts for nearby butterflies. It’s also important to remember that butterflies are insects, so it’s essential to avoid using pesticides in any space that’s intended to attract them.

Hackberryemperorbfly 2 20060618Mary Anne Borge, www.the-natural-web.org
Hackberry emperor butterfly

Low-growing plants should be located where you can skip mowing them. And don’t tidy up the garden too much in winter, because some butterfly species may be sleeping through the cold months as half-grown larvae or pupae that are hidden away among the fallen leaves and dried stalks.

American Snout 20170720 0060Mary Anne Borge, www.the-natural-web.org
American snout butterfly on blunt mountain mint

The host plants for butterflies range from herbs to small weeds to full-size trees. With some planning, you can work at least a few of them into almost any size of garden or yard. Try some of these plant picks that help multiple butterfly species.

Flowers and Ground Covers

Asters

Baltimore 20140518 0002Mary Anne Borge, www.the-natural-web.org
Baltimore checkerspot caterpillars

Larvae of the pearl crescent butterfly, a small gem that’s common east of the Rockies, feed on the leaves of native asters. The larvae of several other crescents and checkerspots enjoy this plant as well, and the flowers provide nectar for adults.

Baltimore Chckrspt 20140616 0060Mary Anne Borge, www.the-natural-web.org
Baltimore checkerspot butterfly

Frogfruit

Attractive but inconspicuous as a ground cover, frogfruit hosts several butterflies, including common buckeye, white peacock and phaon crescent, in the southern states.

Grasses

Cdarrdge 20180823 0026Mary Anne Borge, www.the-natural-web.org
Zabulon skipper (left) and Peck’s skipper (right) drinking nectar from field thistle, a native, noninvasive thistle.

Many skipper butterflies use grasses as their host plants. In fact, one whole subfamily of smaller orange species is referred to as grass skippers. Many satyr butterflies, such as common wood-nymph and little wood satyr, also feed on grasses. Some larger grasses make great accent plants in gardens, and others can be used in a section of yard that is left unmowed for the season.

Nettles

The stinging hairs of these plants make them a poor choice for most flower beds, but try growing them in a wilder section of a yard. Nettles serve as host plants for several beautiful butterflies, including red admiral, eastern comma and Milbert’s tortoiseshell.

Violets

Many species of fritillaries rely on violets as their sole host plant across Canada and the northern and central U.S.

Trees, Shrubs and Vines

Oak

Native oaks are the host plants for a variety of butterfly larvae, including California sister, banded hairstreak, white-M hairstreak, Colorado hairstreak and some of the dark skipper butterflies known as duskywings. Oaks also support birds and other wildlife, in addition to serving as host plants for many kinds of moth caterpillars.

Passion Vine

gulf fritillary on passion vineCourtesy Michele Ramsey
Gulf fritillary butterfly on passion vine

In warm climates where these vines grow well, they are host plants for some tropical and subtropical butterflies, including zebra heliconian, Julia heliconian, Gulf fritillary and variegated fritillary.

Willow

Most native willows require wet soil in order to thrive and can have aggressive root systems, so they won’t work on every property. But planted near a pond or water feature, willows will host caterpillars of the viceroy butterfly (the smaller mimic of the monarch), in addition those of the mourning cloak, red-spotted purple, white admiral, Lorquin’s admiral and even the western tiger swallowtail.

In total, hundreds of plant species are hosts for North American butterflies. But if you grow some of these top picks, you might get to watch the fascinating development of the caterpillars as they grow, pupate and emerge as beautiful winged adults. And in return you’ll be helping support the survival of these wonderful garden delights.

Bonus Plant Picks

caterpillar host plants, Polefarm 20170808 0006Mary Anne Borge, www.the-natural-web.org
Partridge pea is a host plant for the clouded sulphur butterfly. Plant it with care—it can be a prolific reseeder.

More favorites to try for specific butterflies:

Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman
Kenn and Kimberly are the official Birds & Blooms bird experts. They are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world. When they're not traveling, they enjoy watching birds and other wildlife in their Northwest Ohio backyard. Fascinated with the natural world since the age of 6, Kenn has traveled to observe birds on all seven continents, and has authored or coauthored 14 books about birds and nature, including include seven titles in his own series, Kaufman Field Guides, designed to encourage beginners by making the first steps in nature study as easy as possible. His next book, The Birds That Audubon Missed, is scheduled to be published by Simon & Schuster in May 2024. Kenn is a Fellow of the American Ornithological Society, and has received the American Birding Association’s lifetime achievement award twice. Kimberly is the Executive Director of Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) in northwest Ohio. She became the Education Director in 2005 and Executive Director in 2009. As the Education Director, Kimberly played a key role in building BSBO’s school programs, as well as the highly successful Ohio Young Birders Club, a group for teenagers that has served as a model for youth birding programs. Kimberly is also the co-founder of The Biggest Week In American Birding, the largest birding festival in the U.S. Under Kimberly’s leadership, BSBO developed a birding tourism season in northwest Ohio that brings an annual economic impact of more than $40 million to the local economy. She is a contributing editor to Birds & Blooms Magazine, and coauthor of the Kaufman Field Guides to Nature of New England and Nature of the Midwest. Accolades to her credit include the Chandler Robbins Award, given by the American Birding Association to an individual who has made significant contributions to education and/or bird conservation. In 2017, she received a prestigious Milestone Award from the Toledo Area YWCA. Kimberly serves on the boards of Shores and Islands Ohio and the American Bird Conservancy.