Plant a Caterpillar Cafe in Your Butterfly Garden

Add a mix of flowering shrubs, annuals and perennials to attract hungry caterpillars to visit your butterfly garden.

spicebush swallowtailCourtesy Marie Shake
Spicebush swallowtail butterfly just emerged from its chrysalis

You may already have a butterfly garden in your yard. But with a little extra effort, you can add a caterpillar café!

Milkweeds for monarchs and parsley for black swallowtails are the most common caterpillar food sources in gardens. By adding a few more native shrubs, perennials and annuals, and leaving a few weeds alone, your caterpillar café could be open in no time, Allsup says. You can attract silvery checkerspot caterpillars, southern dogface caterpillars, buckeye caterpillars, and spicebush swallowtail caterpillars.

Kelly Allsup, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator, says the project is challenging and rewarding. “Choose the right plants and, with some care, caterpillars will be feasting, adding to the diversity of backyard and enhancing healthy pollinator habitats,” Allsup says.

Eyespots in the Butterfly GardenJill Staake
Spicebush swallowtail caterpillars

Shrubs for Caterpillars

Blackhaw Viburnum

(Viburnum prunifolium)

Zones 3-9

Boasting stunning white flowers in late spring, this deciduous shrub grows 12 to 15  feet tall in full sun to part shade. These flowers turn into blue drupes that last into winter and attract berry-eating birds. The blue drupes contrast nicely with red fall foliage. Spring azures, Baltimore checkerspots, and clear wing hummingbird moth caterpillars will populate this plant. Check out the top 10 flowering shrubs that birds and butterflies love.

Leadplant

(Amorpha canescens)

Zones 2-9

A native shrub with gray leaves and hairy stems, leadplant’s summer flowers are dense spikes with bluish-purple blooms that butterflies adore. When grown in full sun, the plant reaches and spreads 2 to 3 feet. Southern dogface caterpillars munch on the leaves. Take our caterpillar quiz to see how many you can identify.

Spicebush

(Lindera benzoin)

Zones 4-9

Growing between 6 to 12 feet in full sun or part shade, this native deciduous shrub is dioecious, which means there are separate male and female plants. The female plants bear red drupes after being cross-pollinated by a male plant. The flowers appear before the leaves and are bright yellow and fragrant. After the leaves are consumed by spicebush swallowtail caterpillars, they turn yellow in the fall. The leaves have a unique fragrance when crushed. Here’s even more shrubs that attract butterflies.

snapdragon bloomsCourtesy Larry Hargis
Snapdragons

Annuals for Caterpillars

Snapdragons

(Antirrhinum)

These cool-season annuals have been selected by the industry to weather the summer heat. They make great additions to any garden or container in full sun. They grow about 1 to 2 feet tall and come in a plethora of colors. The blooms may attract the butterflies and hummingbirds, but they serve as a food source for buckeye caterpillar. Discover 10 fast-growing annuals you can grow from seed.

Sunflowers

(Helianthus annuus)

Start sunflowers from seeds for summer-time blooms. Thriving on full sun, sunflowers can reach 3 to 10 feet depending on the type. “A plant coveted by most birds usually doesn’t have the most attractive leaves by the end of the season. So let the silvery checkerspot caterpillars gorge on them,” Allsup says.

butterfly on coneflowerCourtesy Kari Thomson
Red admiral on a coneflower

Perennials for Caterpillars

Purple Coneflower

(Echinacea purpurea)

Zones 3-9

A gardener’s favorite, coneflower is an easy-to-grow native plant. Grown in full sun, it usually looks attractive during the season, unless large groups of silvery checkerspot caterpillars begin eating the leaves. These durable plants will send up beautiful long-lasting blooms, Allsup says. Coneflowers also attract birds and butterflies.

Weeds for Caterpillars

Though detested by those who want the perfect lawn, clover, violets, and plantains are early sources of bee food. Clouded sulphur and buckeye caterpillars may also munch on these undesirable plants.

Lori Vanover
Lori Vanover is the senior digital editor for Birds & Blooms. She enjoys growing vegetables in containers and raised beds and watching for birds in her backyard.