Gardening for Butterflies and Moths
tiger swallowtail on Vaccinium arboreum
Butterflies and moths are common and diverse through the Coastal Southeast. Unfortunately, most neighborhoods have cleared away the native vegetation and destroyed their natural habitats. We must make some effort to bring them back to our gardens. The effort is well-rewarded by the addition of color, energy and activity to the garden.
Several good books and websites exist on the subject of gardening for butterflies. Find one for that addresses your state for the most specific advice. Watching these insects is much more interesting if you know their names and understand their behaviors. These references will give additional information on the plants that attract butterflies and moths.
Simply planting a wide assortment of colorful flowering plants is an easy way to attract butterflies. Butterflies are attracted to some flowers more than others. With a little research, you can learn which flowers are the best for a butterfly garden. Attracting moths is more challenging. Some of the showiest moth species do not eat in their adult stage. A few will come to night-blooming plants. White or pale, tubular flowers will attract moths. While viewing them at night may be a challenge, too, a few interesting and attractive moths fly during the day and in the early evening. The following list includes some familiar plants with flowers that attract butterflies and moths. While native flowers tend to be the best for attracting butterflies and moths, some exotic plants are excellent sources of nectar, too.
Abelia x grandiflora – glossy abelia
Aloysia virgata - sweet almond verbena
Asclepias species – milkweeds (native and exotic types are available)
Bidens pilosa – Spanish needle (a garden “weed”)
Buddleia species and hybrids – butterfly bush
Calliandra inaequalis and other species – powderpuff bush
Echinacea purpurea – purple coneflower
Gaillardia pulchellum – wild basketflower
Hamelia patens - firebush
Hibiscus rosa-sinensis - hibiscus
Helianthus species - sunflowers
Lantana montevidensis – purple trailing lantana
Lantana hybrid – yellow trailing lantana
Liatris species – blazing star
Pentas lanceolata – pentas
Phlox drummondii – wild phlox
Phyla nodifera - frog bit or matchweed
Rudbeckia species – black-eyed susan and gloriosa daisy
Sabal palmetto – cabbage palm
Salvia species – salvia (Salvia coccinea is a native species)
Solidago species – goldenrods (some compact cultivated selections are available)
Stachytarpheta species - porterweed
Stokesia laevis – Stoke’s aster
Tecoma capensis – Cape honeysuckle
Vernonia species - ironweed
Vaccinium arboreum - sparkleberry
Providing flowers for nectar is a bit like establishing a coffee shop in a neighborhood. Customers will come and go, but they will not stay for very long. If you want butterflies and moths to make your garden their home, you need to provide food for their larvae. Butterfly caterpillars, in particular, are very picky about their food. Plant the food plants they like and you will have lots of butterflies. Moth caterpillars tend to be less specific but some of the showier species are particular about what they eat. Native plants are very important as host plants for butterfly and moth caterpillars. Following is a list of some valuable food plants for caterpillars.
Anethum graveolens (dill) - larval food plant for black swallowtail
Aristolochia species (pipevine) - larval food plant for pipevine and goldrim swallowtails
(native species are best, some exotic Aristolochia species are suspected of being harmful to our native butterflies)
Asclepias tuberosa and other native milkweeds - larval food plant for queen and monarch butterflies
Asimina species (pawpaws) – larval food for zebra butterfly
Boehmeria cylindrica (false nettle, a weed of moist places) – larval food plant for red admiral
Bidens pilosa (Spanish needle) – larval food plant of dainty sulphur
Buchnera americana (blue hearts) - larval food plant for buckeye butterfly
Carya species (hickories) - larval food plant for royal walnut moth and hickory horned devil
Chamaechrista and Senna species - larval food plant for sulphur butterflies
Celtis laevigata (hackberry) – larval food plant for snout, hackberry and questionmark butterflies
Cleome species and hybrids (spiderflower) – larval food plants for whites
Citrus hybrids (orange, tangerine) - larval food plants for giant swallowtail
Daucus carota (carrot or Queen Anne’s lace) – larval food plant for black swallowtail
Fraxinus species (ash trees) – larval food for tiger swallowtail
Gnaphthalium species (pearly everlasting or cudweed) – larval food plants of American painted lady
grasses and sedges (various species) – larval food for satyrs, wood nymphs, brown and pearly eye
Liquidambar styraciflua (sweet gum) - larval food for the luna moth
Liriodendron tulipifera (tulip tree, yellow poplar)- larval food for tiger and spicebush swallowtails
Lindera benzoin (spicebush) - larval food for spicebush swallowtails
Magnolia virginiana (sweet bay magnolia) - larval food plant for tiger swallowtail
Passiflora incarnata (passionvine) - larval food plants for zebra longwing, julia, gulf fritillary (as with Aristolochia, some of the exotic Passiflora species are suspected of being harmful to our native butterflies)
Persea borbonica (red bay) - larval food plant for spicebush and Palemedes swallowtail
Petroselinum crispum (parsley) - larval food plant for black swallowtail
Phoradendron serotinum (mistletoe) – larval food plant for great blue hairstreak (a benefit of mistletoe in your trees)
Phyla nodifera (frog bit or matchweed – a native lawn "weed") – larval food plant for Phaon crescent and white peacock
Plantago species (plantain, a weed of lawns) – larval food plant for buckeye
Plumbago auriculata (plumbago) - larval food plant for cassius blue
Ptelea trifoliata (hoptree) – larval food plant for giant swallowtail
Quercus species (oaks) – larval food plant for several hairstreak species
Salix species (willow) - larval food of viceroy, red-spotted purple and mourning cloak
Sassafras albidum (sassafras) – larval food for spicebush swallowtail
Trifolium spp. (clovers) – larval food plants for whites and sulphurs
Ulmus species (elms) – larval food plant for hackberry, question mark and comma anglewings
Zanthoxylum clavae-herculeaum (Hercules club) – larval food plant for giant swallowtail
Here are a few additional tips for butterfly gardening.
While an open sunny area lets you grow more flowering plants, some butterflies prefer shady woodlands. A variety of habitats will attract more butterfly species.
Plant your butterfly garden where you can see and enjoy it – possibly along your driveway or near a window.
Be very careful using insecticides around your butterfly garden. If you do not like the appearance of chewed leaves, plant your caterpillar host plants where they are not so conspicuous.
Observe the other insects in your garden. Mantids, grasshoppers, beetles and others play important roles in nature and are fun to discover and watch. In particular, do not harm the birds, lizards, spiders, dragonflies and other natural predators of butterflies. Predators help keep the butterfly population balanced and healthy.