If you want butterflies in your garden, you need to offer food in the way of nectar, such as the Tithonia that I wrote about a few weeks ago. If you want butterflies to lay eggs, turn into caterpillars and then metamorphosize (is that a word?) in your garden, you need to offer host plants.
Host plants are specific species of plants that a specific species of butterfly eats in its larva stage. This plant is where the female butterfly will lay her eggs on. How the butterflies knows what plant is the correct plant for them is unknown, but it is believed that they can sense the plant’s chemical compounds.
Here are 8 host plants to plant in your butterfly garden, to ensure they hang around and raise another generation. Some of these butterflies are found all over, but some, like the Anise Swallowtail, are native to the west. This is a list that is applicable for most western gardens, so if you’re in other parts of the world, check to see what native butterflies you have, and make sure to put in some of their host plants!
Butterfly Garden Host Plants:
Milkweed, Asclepias sp.
This family of plants are the only host plant for the Monarch. There are many different species of milkweed, many which are seen as weeds. A. speciosa is the native species to California, is found in many areas below 6000 feet. I see it everywhere when I visit my parents near Shasta, growing on the side of the road in drainage ditches. The plant is deciduous, and is toxic to animals. This makes the caterpillars eating the plant also poisonous, an evolutionary adaptation to help keep the larva safe from predators. It is reported that A. fascicularis, or narrow leaf milkweed, is the favorite species for the Monarchs.
Fennel, Parsley & Dill, Apiaceae family
Plants in the Apiaceae family attract the Anise Swallowtail butterfly. This family includes parsley, dill, carrots, celery, parsnips, caraway, and of course, fennel (commonly called wild Anise). This is an easy host plant to incorporate into your edible garden, just plant these common plants! I always make sure not to harvest all, and allow to freely reseed, ensuring I have another generation of plants. I’ve raised 3 Swallowtail butterflies from larva that I’ve found on dill and fennel. Many people consider the wild Anise to be a weed, but if you have a large garden, consider allowing some to grow in the back corner. Flowers of Apiaceae plants are also great for attracting beneficial insects.
Coffeeberry, Frangula/Rhamnus californica
This California native shrub is a favorite for any wildlife or habitat garden. It produces tons of tiny spring flowers for the bees, small round edible berries in the fall for birds, and its the host to the Echo Spring Azure butterfly. There are different cultivars of this long lived, evergreen shrub, ranging from 4-12 feet high. Its a great addition to act as the anchor in a butterfly garden, or add to a hedgerow or privacy screen.
Dutchman’s Pipe, Aristolochia californica
This California native is a deciduous vine, and naturally grows along streams and in woodlands below 1500 feet. It’s a rhizomatous vine that has fuzzy, heart shaped leaves and strange pale green and burgundy flowers that look a bit like an fancy, old fashion tobacco pipe (thus the name). In the garden, its beautiful over an arbor or left to scramble amongst other shrubs and banks. This is the only host plant for Pipevine Swallowtail, and a great addition to a shady woodland butterfly garden.
Passionvine, Passiflora spp.
There are both an edible and an ornamental varieties of Passiflora. Either will attract the Gulf Fritillary, along with many other varieties of butterflies. This is a vine that grows by tendrils and have amazing, tropical flowers. They come in many different colors, but purple is the most common. I have read that red flowered varieties are actually poisonous to the larva, but I do not know first hand. P. incarnata can be used medicinally, and P. edulis produces edible, tropical fruit. Some can be very frost tender, so check your zoning and the individual species needs.
Brassicas, Brassicaceae family
If you are a vegetable gardener, you are already familiar with this host plant and likely the green larva are your nemesis. But if you’re a butterfly gardener, or don’t mind sharing your garden with these winged creatures or keep most of your crop covered, there is not a more reliable host plant to the Cabbage White butterfly than cruciferous vegetables. Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, and kale are sure to attract these to your garden. If you want to protect your crop, cover with remay or netting, or set aside a section for the larva. Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) is also in the Brassica family, and can act as a host without sacrificing your edibles.
Nettles, Urtica dioica
Stinging nettles might seem like an unlikely garden plant, but if you have an unused corner of your property, consider adding nettles as part of your butterfly garden. In addition to being highly nutritional and medicinal, it is the host species for the Painted Lady and Red Admiral butterfly. If you do add some Urtica to your garden, it can spread, so consider keeping in a large pot. Painted Lady has a think with pokey plants, as it also hosts on thistles.
It is quite possible that the only benefit to the invasive Bermuda grass and other grass weeds that are present in my yard is that they are host plant to Skippers. These tiny little butterflies move fast, and I’ve spotted many of them in my yard. I can only assume there is a healthy population of larva, due to plentiful Bermuda, Timothy, and other unidentified grasses. Of course, you don’t need to let invasives move into your butterfly garden just to host Skippers, beautiful native Festuca or Mulhenbergia, or any of the other ornamental grasses will do just as well.
Want to know more about raising butterflies from a larva? Check out this post for my experience raising an Anise Swallowtail: http://sweetbeegarden.com/butterfly-larva-to-wings/
Want more ideas on how to attract wildlife to your yard or to create a bee and butterfly paradise? Follow my Wildlife Gardening board on Pinterest.