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Butterfly Host and Nectar Plants

Since we’re talking butterflies, there are two terms you need to know:

  Host Plant: The plant on which the eggs are laid and on which the caterpillars feed.

  Nectar Plant: The primary plants on which the adult butterflies feed on.

Host Plant Basics

Each butterfly species depends on particular plants called host plants to feed and nourish its caterpillars. Female butterflies seek out these plants for egg-laying. Plants contain a variety of noxious chemicals that protect them from herbivores — different plants have different chemicals.

Butterflies have adapted to some of these chemicals and are able to detoxify them. The ability to detoxify is limited, so Monarchs, whose caterpillars eat plants from the Milkweed family, but cannot eat parsley, a member of the Carrot family. Some butterfly species are host plant generalists and are able to utilize plants from a wide variety of families for their larval food. Others are strictly specialists--so highly adapted to one plant species that they can eat it and no other.

Knowledge of host plant choice is important in determining where to find particular butterfly species or to attract them to your garden. It is crucial to understanding how to conserve and protect them. The plants included in this list have all been documented as host plants in Wisconsin.

Nectar Plant Basics

Most adult butterflies feed on nectar from flowers. When seeking food, butterflies evaluate shape, color, fragrance, and taste. Their choices are often determined by proboscis (feeding tube) length: butterflies with long proboscises can access nectar from deep throated flowers; those with shorter ones must feed from shorter tubed plants.

The nectar plants included in this list are native or naturalized plants found in Wisconsin that are used by butterflies in Wisconsin as nectar sources. Most appeal to many butterflies. Some are associated with a particular species and are cited within that species account on this website.

Butterfly Host and Nectar Plants
For Selected Butterflies

Butterfly Host Plants Nectar Plants
Cabbage White Mustard, Cabbage Cosmos, Verbena
Common Buckeye Turtlehead, Plaintain, Snapdragon Milkweed
Eastern Black Swallowtail Dill, Fennel, Queen Anne's Lace Milkweed, Phlox
Eastern Comma False Nettle, Elm Tree Butterfly Bush
Eastern-tailed Blue Vetch, Clover, Wild Pea, Alfafa Milkweed, Coreopsis, Aster, Dogbane
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Cherry, Birch, Ash, Cottonwood, Willow Bee Balm, Butterfly Bush, Honeysuckle, Sunflower
Giant Swallowtail Prickly Ash, Hoptree, Rue Butterfly Bush, Coneflower, Sunflower
Great Spangled Fritillary Common Blue Violet Coneflower, Milkweed, Butterfly Bush
Gulf Fritillary Lantana, Butterfly Bush, Thistle, Verbena, Zinnia Passion Vine, Passion Flower
Monarch Milkweed Butterfly Weed
Mourning Cloak Birch, Elm Tree sap (mostly oak), rotting fruits
Painted Lady Pearly Everlasting, Field Thistle, Hollyhocks Coneflower, Tall Verbena
Pearl Crescent Heartleaf Aster, Wavy Leaf Aster
Pipevine Swallowtail Pipevind Milkweed, Butterfly Bush
Queen Milkweed Milkweed
Question Mark False Nettle, Winged Elm, American Elm, Common Hops Tree sap, Rotting Fruit, Carrian
Red Admiral Nettle, Cherry Milkweed, Clover, Alfalfa
Red-spotted Purple Cottonwood, Poplar, Cherry Milkweed, Butterfly Bush, Rotten Fruit
Silver-spotted Skipper Black Locust, False Indigo, Wisteria
Silvery Checkerspot Coneflower, Ragweed Black-eyed Susan, Sunflowers, Wingstem
Spicebush Swallowtail Spicebush Butterfly Bush, Coneflower, Sunflower, Joe Pye Weed
Spring Azure Dogwood, Wingstem, New Jersey Tea Buckeye, Violet, Winter Cress
Viceroy Cottonwood, Poplar, Willow Milkweed, Butterfly Bush, Coneflower
Zebra Swallowtail Pawpaw Milkweed, Cosmos, Joe Pye Weed

Conclusion

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.

Further Information:

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

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