Butterfly Host Plants versus Nectar Plants

Since we’re talking butterflies, there are two terms you need to know, “Host Plant,” which is the plant on which the eggs are laid and the caterpillars feed and “Nectar Plant,” which are the primary plants they feed on.

Here are a few butterflies that you may find in your garden. If you are interested in the host and nectar plants for a specific butterfly, go to the Buttefly page.

This is what you need to take away from this. If we want to keep butterflies around us, we need to decide which ones we want and plant what they need. You may not always get them the first season or the second but eventually they will make it to your yard.

Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar MONARCH: The host plants for them are the Common Milkweed and the Swamp Milkweed, while the one plant they prefer for nectar is the Orange Butterfly Weed.

PAINTED LADY: Pearly Everlasting, Field Thistles and Hollyhocks are the host plants. They prefer Coneflowers and Tall Verbena for food. These butterflies also fly south for the winter.

EASTERN BLACK SWALLOWTAIL: Dill, Fennel, and Queen Anne’s Lace are the host plants. It enjoys Butterfly Bush and Orange Butterfly Weed for its food. If you see one, look for patches of blue on the lower wings; this is the female.

Pipevine Swallotail Butterfly Caterpillar PIPEVINE SWALLOWTAIL: It has only one host plant; oddly enough it is the Pipevine. It also enjoys the nectar of Swamp Milkweed and the Butterfly Bush. Unlike most caterpillars, these stay in groups and eat together.

SPICEBUSH SWALLOWTAIL: This butterfly also has only one host plant, the Spicebush. They feast on the Butterfly Bush, Coneflowers and Sunflowers. If you’re wondering if you have any caterpillars on your Spicebush, look for a folded-up leaf, which it makes with a mat of silk. Within this, it hides, and comes out at night to feed. The late stage of the caterpillar is neat-looking. It has two large “eyes” that make it look like a small snake, thus avoiding some predators.

Common Buckeye Butterfly Caterpillar COMMON BUCKEYE: It uses the Plantain, Monkeyflower and Snapdragon as their host plants and like the nectar of Milkweeds. They will also fly south for the cold weather.

VICEROY: It uses only willow trees for its host plant and feeds off the Butterfly Bush, Coneflowers, and Milkweed. Birds tend to avoid these butterflies because they resemble the bad-tasting Monarch.

ZEBRA SWALLOWTAIL: It has only one Host Plant, the Pawpaw Tree. For nectar plants, they like Cosmos and Milkweed. Since we have a lot of Pawpaw trees.

Red Spotted Purple Butterfly Caterpillar RED-SPOTTED PURPLE: Another butterfly uses the Willow, Poplar and Birch for a host plant, it prefers Butterfly Bush and Milkweed for its nectar. They also enjoy the juice from rotting fruit.

GIANT SWALLOWTAIL: It likes to use Prickly Ash, Hoptree and Rue Plants for its hosts. As for food, it likes the Butterfly Bush, Coneflowers and Sunflowers. Large groups of these butterflies have been known to defoliate small young trees.

Cabbage White Butterfly Caterpillar CABBAGE WHITE: It prefers mustard and cabbage plants as its host but will also go for Spider Flowers as the host. For their food, they prefer Cosmos and Tall Verbena. These butterflies are not as jumpy as others are and will continue to mate and lay eggs until the first frost. Farmers that grow cabbages consider it an agricultural pest. If you’re wondering how to tell male from female, the male has one black dot on the fore wings, while the female has two.

Further Information

Butterflies and Moths of North America
Southern Wisconsin Butterfly Assn (NABA)
The Butterfly Site