Food for butterflies, moths, and skippers

Joe pye ©Janet AllenA monarch getting nectar from joe-pye

Butterflies have chewing mouth parts when they're caterpillars, but sucking mouth parts when they're butterflies. We provide food for both these phases of a butterfly's life.

For adult butterflies, we provide lots of nectar in spring, summer, and fall.

Even more important, though, we're planting lots of food for the caterpillars that will later become the adult butterflies. These are the larval host plants, sometimes called caterpillar food plants. Every species has specific plants they use in this stage of their lives.

Chickadee feeding a caterpillar to its babies ©Janet Allen
Chickadee feeding a caterpillar to its babies

No host plants for the caterpillar stage, no butterflies, no moths, nor skippers!

(AND a lot fewer birds as well, since caterpillars are a critically important food for birds to feed their young!)

Mixed border of native plants(Enlarge) ©Janet Allen
Bed of native nectar plants mixed together

You may find that different plants appeal to the butterflies in your yard, and if you live anywhere other than in Central New York, I encourage you to use plants native to your own eco-region, since that's what is best for your native wildlife.

I like to mix my plants and plant them close together. Here's an assortment of native nectar plants that butterflies (and other insects) in this area like.

Buddleia aka butterfly bush

No buddleia ©Janet AllenWe got rid of all our buddleias

Buddleia is found on most all lists of butterfly garden plants.

It certainly does attract butterflies to observe, BUT what is fun for humans isn't necessarily good for butterflies or for healthy ecosystems.

Our monarch conservation page lists the many reasons why.

We USED to have about a dozen buddleia plants, but we dug these out many years ago.

There are lots of beautiful alternatives to buddleia (listed in the sidebar) that are much healthier for the planet and for the butterflies themselves.

Native nectar plants

Lady in Red salvia ©Janet AllenThis monarch taught me that native plants are best

This monarch demonstrated to me that native plants are best even for nectar.

This bed of salvia was the last year we planted the typical salvia bedding plant—just "eye candy" for people—and the first year we planted the native Salvia coccinea. (This is actually native farther south from here, and is a cultivar called 'Lady in Red.' )

As I watched the monarch visiting this patch of hybrid and native salvias mixed all together in one bed, it visited ONLY the native salvias. He knew that's where the nectar was!

Butterfly food that's not from flowers

Question mark drinking sap ©Janet AllenQuestion mark drinking sap

Like most people, at first we just thought about providing nectar-rich flowers as food for butterflies. Of course, this is a good thing to do, but we since learned that some butterflies also use other sources of food or even prefer other sources.

This question mark butterfly (note the question mark on his wing), for example, is drinking sap from our apple tree.

As incongruous as it may seem, some beautiful butterflies eat rotting fruit or even dung!

Mourning cloak eating  ©Janet AllenMourning cloak getting something from the soil

I'm not sure what this mourning cloak is eating in the vegetable garden, but possibly it's getting minerals dissolved in the soil.

(The white object next to the butterfly is a plastic plant marker.)