Focus on Natives: Giant Swallowtail Butterfly

Photo by Jill StaakeIf you live in the Southeast, perhaps you’ve seen one of these beauties floating through your gardens.

Photo by Jill StaakePhoto by Jill StaakeIf you live in the Southeast, perhaps you’ve seen one of these beauties floating through your gardens. It’s the Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes), the largest butterfly in the United States. With a wingspan that can measure over 6 inches, this is one butterfly that will definitely catch your attention!

This most magnificent of butterflies has what is arguably the ugliest of caterpillars. These caterpillars grow quite large, and need extra protection from predators while they grow. Camouflage is their main form of defense; rather than blending in with the leaves or flowers like some other caterpillars, these little guys instead choose to make themselves as unappealing as possible by resembling, well, bird poop.

Photo by Jill StaakePhoto by Jill Staake

It’s hard to imagine that anyone would object to having these amazing butterflies around, but in some areas, that’s exactly the case. What’s the problem? Giant Swallowtail caterpillars host on several plants, including members of the citrus family. In areas where citrus farming is important to the economy, Giant Swallowtail caterpillars (sometimes called “Orange Dogs”) are a pest instead of a welcome sight.

Photo by Jill StaakePhoto by Jill StaakeFortunately, these butterflies seem to prefer native species over cultivated citrus. If you’re trying to grow citrus in your own yard and are worried about Orange Dog damage, consider planting some Giant Swallowtail alternative host plants, like Hercules Club, Prickly Ash, Wild Lime, or Common Rue. Click here to learn more about Giant Swallowtail host plants and the butterfly’s entire life cycle.

If you’re not able to grow any of these host plants in your yard, you can seek out Giant Swallowtails where they are most likely to be found. In the mid-South, try pine flats. In the Deep South, citrus groves are a good bet. They hibernate in chrysalis during the colder months, appearing in the spring as early as March in warmer regions. Enjoy them all summer long throughout the Eastern U.S., and into the fall down South.

Have you ever spotted a Giant Swallowtail? Tell us about it in the comments!

Every weekend, the Focus on Natives segment highlights a plant, bird, or butterfly native to the Southeastern U.S. Know of a particular species you’d like to see featured here? Make your suggestions in the comments section below.

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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.