Butterfly host plants

Monarch on milkweed ©Janet Allen A monarch on its host plant, a milkweed

Here are some of our caterpillar food plants, known as "larval host plants". (Unfortunately, we don't have a lot of room for as many trees as we'd like, but we're working on it!)

NOTE: The larval host plants for monarch butterflies are in the monarch section.

As I continue to research this topic, I won't be surprised to find that we have many other host plants for other butterflies or especially for moths. People generally don't take note of the many fairly plain-looking moths, for example, and so their host plants aren't written about as much. These less glamorous insects, though, are just as important in supporting healthy ecosystems.

Zizia ©Janet AllenGolden alexander (Zizia aurea)

We'd been planting parsley, dill, and fennel for many years—partly for our own use and partly for black swallowtails. We noticed the swallowtails laying eggs on dill more than on the others, but that may be because the dill was in a more noticeable location and we had much more of it since it generously self-sows.

One thing we were curious about, though, was why its host plants for swallowtails weren't native. What did they use before these plants were brought to our continent?

The question was answered last year when I read that golden alexanders (Zizia aurea) were actually the native host plant, but since the other plants were closely related, they could also use these more commonly available, though non-native, plants. Looking back through my old photos, I discovered this photo, which I had taken simply because it showed a butterfly getting nectar. Now I realize she had a more important reason for landing there!

Chelone for Baltimore Checkerspot ©Janet AllenChelone glabra for Baltimore Checkerspot

Turtlehead (Chelone) is a host plant for the beautiful little Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly. This is a photo of C. glabra, native to the Northeast, which is definitely its larval host plant. The more commonly-available pink chelone varieties (C. lyonii) is NOT a host plant, though it's often advertised as such.

Pussytoes for American Lady ©Janet AllenPussytoes for the American lady

Pussytoes (Antennaria) is a larval host plant for American lady butterfly, though they also use pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea).

Violets for fritillaries ©Janet AllenViolets for fritillaries

Violets (Viola) are the larval host plant for fritillaries. This photo shows labrador violet (V. labradorica).

Tulip tree for eastern tiger swallowtail ©Janet AllenTulip tree for eastern tiger swallowtail

Tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) are a larval host plant for the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. This is a small volunteer. We let it grow for a couple of years, but it's such a fast-growing tree, we've decided that it can't stay.

Another reason we'll be eliminating it is that tulip trees don't support the total numbers of insects that some other trees do (according to Tallamy's research - click on Downloads and then on Host Plants). Given that we have room for only a few trees, we'd rather use our limited space for a tree with more wildlife benefits.

Dogwood ©Janet Allen Gray dogwood

Dogwoods are host plants for the spring azure butterflies.

Wild cherry for eastern tiger swallowtail ©Janet AllenWild cherry for eastern tiger swallowtail

Wild black cherries (Prunus serotina) are a larval host plant for the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, too.

Spicebush for spicebush swallowtail ©Janet AllenSpicebush for spicebush swallowtail

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a larval host plant for—what else?—spicebush swallowtail.

Here is evidence that they've been here: a rolled up leaf the caterpillar makes.

Steeplebush ©Janet Allen Steeplebush

This native spirea (Spirea tomentosa), also known as steeplebush, is a host plant for the spring azure butterfly.

Steeplebush ©Janet Allen New Jersey tea

This is a host plant for the spring azure butterfly.

Pussy willow for cecropia and mourning cloak ©Janet AllenPussy willow for cecropia and mourning cloak

Mourning cloaks and white admiral butterflies use willows as host plants, along with some other trees.

Pussy willows (Salix discolor) have become one of my favorite plants for a number of reasons. Even more than the gray catkins in the spring, I love the "flowering" of the catkins, which provide a lot of nectar for bees in the spring.

New England aster ©Janet AllenNew England aster for pearl crescent butterfly

This New England aster (Aster novae-angliae) is a larval host plant for the pearl crescent butterfly, besides being an excellent fall nectar plant for many other species of butterflies, moths, and insect species.

Virginia creeper ©Janet Allen Virginia creeper

This is the host plant for the eight-spotted forester moth, a pretty little moth.