4 Butterfly host plants are important to support biodiversity.

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Even insect-wary gardeners have a special place in their hearts for butterflies. They bring a touch of whimsy and whimsy to our yard, flying like fairies and pollinating flowers. Unfortunately, after decades of habitat loss and biodiversity loss in the United States, gardening for butterflies has taken a dire turn. The good news is that gardeners like us can help save them. It all starts with feeding their caterpillars, and for that you need butterfly host plants.

Adult butterflies drink nectar from a variety of flowers but lay their eggs only on compatible host plants that their caterpillars can eat. Some butterfly species have multiple hosts, others have only a few, and some, like monarchs, have only one. I added monarch butterflies. IUCN Endangered List In July 2022. Even in the eastern United States, where the majority of monarchs reside each summer, they are threatened with extinction. Going out of your way to include these host plants in your landscape can make a difference in supporting biodiversity.

Orange butterfly near the grass
Butterfly weed, with its bright orange flowers and narrow foliage, is one of the most attractive milkweeds.

Milkweed

Asclepias spp and cvs., zones 3-9
Size: 2 to 4 feet tall and 1½ to 2 feet wide (depending on variety)
Conditions: Full sun and well-drained soil
Opening Time: June to August

Plants of the milkweed genus are the only compatible hosts for the monarch butterfly, and several species are native to the Southeast. Clusters of milkweed’s separate, starry flowers shine above the lanceolate foliage in summer. butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosazones 4–9) and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnataZones 3-9) are among the best-suited milkweeds for urban and suburban gardens because they are prolific bloomers and do not spread aggressively through rhizomes like common milkweeds (Asclepias syriaca, zones 3-9), although both species are self-sowing. There is even more landscape potential with incredible color variations on the market. Research on milkweed cultivars has shown that they are just as beneficial to monarch caterpillars and other pollinators in home gardens as the parent species.

Close-up of yellow golden alexander flowers
Golden Alexander is a charming native suitable for sun or shade. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Golden Alexander

Zizia OriyaZones 4-9
Size: 1½ to 2½ feet tall and 1½ to 2 feet wide
Conditions: Full sun to part shade and moist to average soil
Opening Time: April to June

This member of the carrot family is native to the eastern U.S. and is the food of the black swallowtail butterfly. Golden Alexander sports clusters of golden blooms in late spring, each tiny flower perfectly balanced in a graceful chandelier-like arrangement of stems. Its lace architecture makes it a wonderful local alternative to the unsightly but popular Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota, zones 3-9). This plant would be right at home in a cottage garden. In summer, its seed heads dry to an attractive purple color. Golden Alexander thrives in moist to wet areas in the wild but has proven to be adaptable and breezy to care for in the garden. Mine grows very happily in a sunny spot with only Virginia rain to water it.

Dam of Shenandoah Switchgrass
‘Shenandoah’ switchgrass (Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’, zones 4-9) is a cultivar known for its red foliage.

Switchgrass

Panicum virgatumZones 4-9
Size: 36 to 72 inches long and 18 to 36 inches wide (depending on variety)
Conditions: Full sun to light shade and moist to average soil
Opening Time: August

It is best not to overlook the importance of grasses in butterfly and wildlife gardens. Although switchgrass is not a nectar plant, it is a host plant for many species of skippers, citrus and common wood nymphs. Its seeds are eaten by pheasants and songbirds after they fall to the ground, and its dense foliage provides shelter for insects and small wildlife. Switchgrass is native to almost every state in the country and will thrive in almost any type of soil. Its artfully swirling curls and reddish-purple seed heads add plenty of interest. Cultivars on the market push the color-changing capabilities even further, offering vivid shades of burgundy, maroon and purple in the fall.

Spice bush
In addition to its benefits to wildlife, spicebush has significant ornamental value with its red berries and yellow foliage. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Spice bush

Lindara BenzoinZones 4-9
Size: 6 to 12 feet tall and wide
Conditions: Full sun to part shade and moist to average soil
Opening Time: From March to April

Another eastern American native, spicebush is a host plant for the eastern tiger swallowtail and the spicebush swallowtail (which is also experiencing alarming population declines). Tufts of yellow flowers bloom on otherwise bare stems in early spring, lending a similar glow to forsythia (Forsythia spp and cvs., zones 3–9). Female plants produce bright red berries if there is a male nearby for pollination, much to the delight of birds. In autumn, the Spicebush shines with brilliant yellow foliage. This shrub thrives in partial shade but can handle full sun with adequate moisture, making it a versatile landscape shrub. In addition to butterfly gardens, it’s great for layering in deciduous borders and softening the boundary between woodland and yard space.

Spicebush swallowtail caterpillar
A spicebush swallowtail caterpillar feeds on its host.

Once you’ve selected and planted your host plants, remember that gardening for butterflies is about more than plant selection. It’s also about our approach to insects. These plants are beacons for both beneficial and unwanted insects. (Some gardeners also call caterpillars pests.) Because these are host plants, you’ll have to be okay with parts of the plant being eaten by hungry caterpillars. And remember that any pesticides applied to the plant will adversely affect the caterpillars you’ve worked so hard to attract. To get rid of aphids, you need mild soapy water or a hose blast.

For more information on supporting pollinators, check out:

And for Southeast regional reports, click here.

— Cheyenne Wine is a writer and photographer for Rare Roots Nursery in Mechanicsville, Virginia.

Photos, unless otherwise noted: Cheyenne Wine

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