We know it’s important to provide flowers that attract butterflies, but there’s another important element that is often overlooked. The baby nursery! Without a place to lay their eggs and nurture their young, we can’t have the mature butterflies we love, providing essential pollination for our gardens.
The plants that provide the ‘baby nursery’ are called larval host plants. Let’s have a look at how it all works and see what this means for your garden.
Also see How to make a bird and butterfly water feeder.
The information and (most of the) images in this post are from the new book, Pollinator Friendly Gardening by Rhonda Fleming Hayes with permission from the publisher who provided a review copy of the book. You can see Rhonda’s gorgeous garden here.
Pollinator Friendly Gardening
Pollinator Friendly Gardening is a fabulous resource guide exploring the relationship between plants and pollinators (and how it all works together) and what we can do to create gardens that support the pollinator movement. If you are at all interested in this stuff, I highly recommend this book. When I got my copy, I ended up spending the whole afternoon reading.
Before we jump in and look at the plants butterflies need to survive (larval host plants), it’s worth repeating a few basics.
- Gardening organically is not just a trendy idea. It’s super smart. There is no point in putting out the buffet (flowering plants attractive to pollinators) if there’s poisons present.
- When in doubt, leave things alone. The life cycles (and co-dependency) of the natural world are complex and wonderful. Gardening becomes a deeply enjoyable activity when we decide to observe and learn rather than control and destroy. For example, you can’t have butterflies without first having caterpillars, and those caterpillars can’t survive if they don’t eat. And yes, that means some of your plants. The best option is to have a lot of the right plants with enough for everyone.
So, What do Butterflies Need to Survive?
Let’s start with caterpillars (or, butterflies just waiting to happen, as the cool kids say).
A Close Look at Caterpillars
Has something been devouring your dill or chomping on your hollyhocks? Congratulations, you might already be a butterfly host! What many people think is a pesky “worm” may really be a welcome caterpillar doing what caterpillars do before they turn into butterflies, which is eat. However, they don’t just eat any plant: the specific plants they require to survive are called larval host plants. Turns out that supporting pollinators on their journey through complete metamorphosis requires way more than just planting pretty flowers.
You might say this is the not-so-sexy part of butterfly gardening, yet that’s exactly what it is. You see, after butterflies mate, like lots of folks, they need proper childcare. Offering food and drink will encourage full-fledged butterflies to visit your gardens. But if you want them to do more than visit occasionally, if you want them to star around and increase their populations, you have to provide food for their children.
Where Do Butterflies Lay their Eggs?
Once mated, the female has to find a place to lay her fertilized eggs, and that isn’t just any dead leaf or dusty corner. She seeks out the unique and necessary food plants that her species has co-evolved with over countless generations, so that her young will be able to start feeding immediately after they hatch, thus aiding their survival. The female looks for the right leaf shape and shade of green, then ventures closer. Butterflies taste with their feet (how cool is that!), so she drums her feet on the leaf to make sure it’s the right plant. Then she lays one, several, or lots of eggs; under the leaf, on the leaf, on the flower or stalk, or perhaps at the leaf axils, depending upon her species.
Related: Make a Butterfly Water Feeder
Specialists versus Generalists
The female monarch uses another strategy, usually laying a single egg on each milkweed plants so as to not draw attention to the new larva while lessening competition for food.
When it comes to larval host plants, butterflies are considered either specialists or generalists in their food needs. The monarch butterfly is a specialist (also called an obligate) in that although the adult butterflies can nectar on a number of flower species, its larvae can only eat milkweed (Asclepias) as a host plant. Other butterflies, such as the painted lady and mourning cloak, utilize numerous species of larval host plants: they are the generalists.
Getting Started with Larval Host Plants
Larval host plants include a wide range of choices including trees, shrubs, grasses, herbaceous perennials, cover crops, herbs, and vegetables plants.
Here’s a smart tip from the book to know which larval host plants to choose for your garden.
1. Make a list of the butterflies you commonly see.
2. Look up the host plants they prefer or require. This way you know you’ll be providing for the most common visitors in your area and likely become the local pub for butterflies.
If You Want Super Simple Choices
Plant these three: dill, hollyhocks, and milkweed. These plants support a large number of a wide variety of species.
- Black swallowtails use members of the wild carrot family which includes lots of everyday herb plants, such as parsley and dill.
- Sulphur butterflies are connected to the legume family.
- Skippers use numerous grasses.
- Admirals feed on tree species.
- Monarch need specific milkweed plants.
More Larval Host Plants
- Anise (Pimpinella)
- Dill (Anethum)
- Fennel (Foeniculum)
- Mint (Mentha)
- Parsley (Petroselinum)
Related: How to Identify Butterflies
- Aster (Aster)
- Hardy hibiscus (Hibiscus)
- Hollyhock (Alcea)
- Mallow (Althea)
- Milkweed (Asclepias)
- Pearly everlasting (Anaphalis)
- Purple coneflower (Echinacea)
- Turtlehead (Chelone)
- Wild indigo (Baptisia)
- Wild senna (Senna)
Did you know some plants are completely dependent on insects for pollination? Here’s the list.
- Alfalfa (Medicago)
- Clover (Trifolium)
- Mustard (Brassica)
- Sweet Clover (Melilotus)
- Vetch (Vicia)
- Nettle (Urtica)
- Pepperweed (Lepidium)
- Plantain (Plantago)
- Thistle (Cirsium)
- Violet (Viola)
- Big bluestem (Andropogon)
- Blue Gramagrass (Bouteloua gracillis)
- Little bluestem (Schizachyrium)
- Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica)
- Prarie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepsis)
- Switch grass (Panicum)
- Aspen (Populus)
- Black cherry (Prunus)
- Cottonwood (Populus)
- Elm (Ulmus)
- Hackberry (Celtis)
- Hawthorn (Crataegus)
- Oak (Quercus)
- Poplar (Populus)
- Tulip tree (Liriodendron)
- Willow (Salix)
- Honeysuckle (Lonicera)
- Hops (Humulus)
- Moonflower (Ipomea)
- Passionflower (Passiflora)
- Pipevine (Aristolochia)
- False Indigo (Amorpha)
- Pawpaw (Asimina)
- Spicebush (Lindera)
- Viburnum (Viburnum)
- Wild lilac (Ceanothus)
More About Pollinator Friendly Gardening
It’s no secret that pollinators are increasingly threatened. While you can’t solve all their problems, every gardener can join the front lines. So stow your pesticides and learn how to foster a beautiful, healthy garden that attracts bees, butterflies, birds, and other pollinators. In Pollinator Friendly Gardening, Master Gardener and pollinator advocate Rhonda Fleming Hayes starts by covering the most visible and beloved pollinators, as well as some more unlikely candidates, such as wasps, beetles, and even bats. She then explains the synergy between plants and pollinators, illuminating how and why they work so well together, and how gardeners like you are an integral part of the system.
Plant selection, hardscape choices, habitat building (both natural and manmade), nutrients, and growing practices that give pollinators their best chance in the garden are all covered in detail. Plant lists organized by category, helpful tips, and expert spotlights make this book an invaluable resource and guide. Don’t just improve your garden-improve the lives of those who spend the most time in it, beautifying it each and every day: the pollinators!