6 Common Swallowtail Butterflies You Should Know

Learn about six of the most common swallowtail butterflies in the United States and how to identify them.

Monarchs are in the news a lot lately, but they’re not the only butterfly out there—or even (arguably) the most spectacular. Big and flashy, swallowtail butterflies are a delight in the butterfly garden. Everyone would love to attract more of these beauties to their backyard. Here’s a quick run-down of the most common swallowtail butterflies in the United States.

Common Swallowtail Butterflies Tiger Swallowtail 2Courtesy Jill Staake

Common Swallowtail Butterflies Tiger SwallowtailCourtesy Jill Staake

1. Tiger Swallowtail

A tiger swallowtail flying against the blue sky is a lovely sight. Though they’re frequently found in wooded areas (they generally host on trees), they’re common in the flower garden, too. There are a variety of species around the country, all of which look fairly similar. In the east, look for the Eastern tiger swallowtail, Canadian tiger swallowtail, and Appalachian tiger swallowtail. Out west, you’ll find the Western tiger swallowtail and the pale swallowtail. In some areas, females are black with tiger stripes only faintly visible in the bright sun.

Common Swallowtail Butterflies BlackCourtesy Jill Staake

Common Swallowtail Butterflies BlackCourtesy Jill Staake

2. Black Swallowtail

Black swallowtail larvae are often known as “parsley caterpillars” since that’s one of their most common host plants. They also host on dill, fennel, Queen Anne’s lace, and common rue. This swallowtail butterfly is found in much of the U.S. with the exception of the northwest. Females have a band of iridescent blue on their hind wings, while males have a band of yellow instead. Check out the top 10 plants for swallowtails.

Common Swallowtail Butterflies PipevineCourtesy Jill Staake

Common Swallowtail Butterflies PipevineCourtesy Jill Staake

3. Pipevine Swallowtail

Pipevine swallowtails are found throughout the eastern U.S. and through the southwest to California. They host on pipevines (Aristolochia sp), as their name indicates. Males are a beautiful iridescent blue. Females are a duller black color. They lay bright red eggs in groups on their host plants, and their caterpillars are extremely fast moving. Learn how to attract pipevine swallowtails to your garden.

Common Swallowtail Butterflies GiantCourtesy Jill Staake

Common Swallowtail Butterflies GiantCourtesy Jill Staake

4. Giant Swallowtail

The giant swallowtail is the largest swallowtail butterfly in the U.S., with a wingspan of up to 6 inches. This butterfly is an excellent example of countershading, being dark on the topsides of their wings and bright yellow on the bottom. This gives them better camouflage against predators. Giant swallowtails lay eggs on citrus trees, as well as prickly ash and common rue. Their caterpillars also display excellent camouflage, looking exactly like fresh bird droppings. How many butterflies can you ID?

Common Swallowtail Butterflies SpicebushCourtesy Jill Staake

Common Swallowtail Butterflies SpicebushCourtesy Jill Staake

5. Spicebush Swallowtail

Spicebush swallowtails are found in the eastern half of the country, where their range overlaps with the extremely similar-looking black swallowtail. You can easily tell a spicebush swallowtail from a black swallowtail if you can get a close look. Black swallowtails have a tiny black dot in the orange circle at the base of their lower wing, while spicebush swallowtails do not. As the name might suggest, this swallowtail butterfly hosts on Spicebush, as well as red bay, camphor, sweet bay, and tulip tree. Their caterpillars are leaf-rollers with large eyespots to scare off predators. Here’s how to grow a wildflower meadow for butterflies.

Common Swallowtail Butterflies ZebraCourtesy Jill Staake

6. Zebra Swallowtail

Probably the most spectacular of the swallowtail butterflies, the zebra swallowtail flies in the eastern half of the country. However, it is one of the rarest swallowtail butterflies. It’s usually only found in great numbers where its host plant, pawpaw (Asimina sp.) also thrives. The long tails and distinctive zebra striping make this butterfly a stunning sight. If you want to see hundreds of rare butterflies, travel to South Texas!

Jill Staake
Jill lives in Tampa, Florida, and writes about gardening, butterflies, outdoor projects and birding. When she's not gardening, you'll find her reading, traveling and happily digging her toes into the sand on the beach.