Saturday, September 12, 2015

Designing and Planting Your Very Own Butterfly Garden: Part 5

Enjoying your Butterfly Garden

Last time we talked about planting and maintaining your butterfly garden. Now let's discuss simple ways you and your family can enjoy it!

There's nothing more exciting than watching those first butterflies come fluttering in to enjoy the nectar you have provided for them.

It may be enough for you to just sit and watch the butterflies, but consider getting a good field guide to help you identify what you see. This is a great exercise for kids, as well as adults!

One of my favorite field guides for butterflies is the Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America.

A great web resource is Butterflies and Moths of North America. You can also look up a regional checklist for your area at this link, to help give you an idea what to species to expect, and how you can better attract them to your garden.

I'll share with you a few of the more common species you will likely see if you live in the Southeast (or at least east of the Rockies.)


Almost everybody is familiar with this iconic butterfly and its vital connection to Common Milkweed. It is easily recognized by its rich orange wings criss-crossed with black veins and bordered by white dots. 

It is singularly unique not only in butterflies, but the entire insect world, for the fact that it truly migrates. Found across our entire continent, they begin their journey from their wintering grounds (Southern California for the Western Monarchs, and the San Madre mountains in Mexico for the Eastern Monarchs). They lay their eggs on the first emerging milkweed plants and then die, passing the torch to the next generation. Each successive brood does the same, traveling North - following the milkweed plants as they emerge, until they reach Canada. The final "super generation" makes the long journey south to over-winter once again. The most miraculous thing about this migration is that these butterflies have never made the journey before, and how they know where to go still remains very much a mystery to scientists. 

This annual cycle makes them extremely vulnerable to extinction, and now more than ever - with their winter habitats disappearing in Mexico due to illegal logging.

Widespread pesticide use and extermination of milkweed and nectaring habitats are also having an impact.

If you plant milkweed in your butterfly garden, which I urge you to do, there is nothing more heart-warming than this sight:

One year I had so many Monarch caterpillars on my milkweed that they were going to eat it away to nothing long before they were ready to pupate. I actually had to relocate most of them!

Sadly, our milkweed plants have been void of Monarch caterpillars for the last several years, which has been a growing trend throughout North America. (You can learn more about how to help save our Monarchs here.)

They enjoy nectaring on a variety of flowers, including Echinacea, Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) and of course, milkweeds (Ascplepias).

Zebra Swallowtail feeding on Wild Hyacinth (Camassia scilloides)
This beauty is one of our Southeastern jewels, and also the Tennessee State butterfly.

The wings are white or greenish with black stripes, and two long, narrow tails. There is a Spring form and a Summer form, with the Summer Zebras having much longer tails. 

Their larval food plant is the Paw Paw (Asimina triloba). You won't find the caterpillars if you go out and check over the leaves in the daylight hours, because they are sleeping in the leaf litter below the trees. They only come out at night to feed.
Eurytides marcellus, larva
Discover Life
The adults also enjoy a variety of nectar plants.


Another conspicuous species found in Eastern North America, the Tiger Swallowtail stands out because of its large size and distinctive yellow and black coloration. However, its appearance isn't always so straightforward.

Males are always bright yellow with black stripes.

Females come in two color morphs: a yellow phase (pictured above), like the males, and a dark phase:

The yellow females can be distinguished from the males by their extensive blue shading on their upper hind wings.

Dark phase females can be a little trickier, since they resemble several dark species in their butterfly family. Usually, you can see a faint outline of tiger stripes on her dark wings.

A dark phase female Tiger Swallowtail feeding on Yellow Leafcup (Smallanthus uvedalius)
Their caterpillars are cleverly disguised as bird droppings for their first few weeks, and then start to resemble snakes. They feed on a variety of tree species, including Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), Cottonwood (Populus deltoides), and Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera).

Prairie Haven
The adults especially like to feed on taller plants like Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium fistulosum), Tall Ironweed (Vernonia gigantea) and a large variety of other species.


This is a denizen of moist wooded areas in the East. Males are flushed with a greenish blue wash on their hindwings, while females are a darker blue. 

Both sexes have wings rimmed with greenish submarginal spots. The underside of the hindwing can also be distinguished from similar species by the blue "comet" interrupting the row of orange spots.

You can find their caterpillars on Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and Sassafras. During the day they hide inside a leaf, folded over with silk. Open it up and you will find a very striking little animal.

Not only are their large eye spots meant to frighten away potential predators, but the strong volatile oils produced by their host plants are magnified in their bodies, producing a strong unpleasant smell and taste.


This striking butterfly can be found across the Southern United States. Arguably the most beautiful of the Swallowtails, Pipevines have narrower wings than similar species, giving them an almost airplane appearance. They are black above with a single row of pale submarginal spots. Males have bright iridescent blue wash on their hindwings, while females have a darker, more subtle blue coloration.

Pipevine Swallowtail
North American Butterfly Association
The underside of their hind wings has a large, uninterrupted row of bright orange spots.

The caterpillars are reddish black with multiple red knobs which slowly evolve into spines as they age. As their name suggests, they feed exclusively on pipevines (Aristolochia), and develop a store of toxins from these plants as they feed on them. They are colonial while small, and tend to spread out across the plant when they grow larger.

This toxicity gives them an unpalatable taste, and predators avoid them and any butterfly that looks like them. This is why there are so many black butterflies that resemble one another - they are all trying to mimic the Pipevine to avoid predation.


Another pretty familiar swallowtail, this one tends to show up the most in our cultivated gardens, because of its fondness for certain culinary herbs. Males are mostly black with a yellow band and a submarginal row of yellow spots. The pattern is greatly reduced in females, who are also trying to mimic the Pipevine Swallowtail for their protection.

North American Butterfly Association
Their colorful caterpillars can appear in large numbers on herbs like parsley, dill and fennel; sometimes to the point of making quite a pest of themselves.

They seem to prefer these to native sources, but still take advantage of them whenever available.

Black Swallowtail larva on Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea)


This is the king of the Swallowtails, with its unmistakable large size. They are dark above and pale below, with yellow bands that form a cross shape on their upper wings.

While beautiful, this is a species that citrus growers in the Deep South have a hard time loving, as they are considered a significant pest.

The caterpillars are colored like a bird dropping, and develop a distinctive "face," as they mature, giving them their nickname "Orange Dog."

In addition to trees in the citrus family, they also feed on Prickly Ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) and Hoptree (Pltea trifoliata).

In addition to clever disguises and noxious flavors, all of the Swallowtail species hide yet another surprise. When disturbed, they produce a red, forked structure known as an osmetrium. 

While it is harmless, it makes a convincing snake tongue, and is yet another effective survival strategy for these vulnerable little creatures.


Whenever you see one of these unmistakable lepidopterans, you can easily see where the whole "flying butter" connotation came from.

Cloudless sulfurs are one of the largest members of their family, sometimes with a wingspan of over 3 inches. Males are lemon yellow without markings on their upper surface, and females can be greenish yellow, bright yellow, white, or pinkish orange. Both sexes have 2, pink-edged silver cell spots on their lower hindwings.

Two Cloudless Sulfurs enjoying Verbena canadensis
Their larval food plant is Senna.

Cabbage White on Liatris spicata
Found throughout North America, Cabbage Whites can be seen in the city and the country, alike. Even though they are quite familiar to us, they are in fact non-native, introduced from Europe in the 19th century.

White to yellowish, males have one spot on each forewing, while females have two. Both sexes have horizontal black stripes on their wingtips.

GlobalNet Academy
Their caterpillars feed on members of the mustard family, and can be quite a garden pest at times.

Adults nectar on a wide variety of flowers, in including clovers.


This beauty is often quite conspicuous flying over meadows and roadsides in the Northern half of the US. The western and eastern species differ greatly in their appearance.

In Eastern Great Spangled Fritillaries, males are tan to orange and females darker and more tawny in their color.

They have one flight or brood in mid-summer, appearing in great numbers.

They enjoy milkweeds (Asclepias), thistles, Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium) and a huge variety of other wildflowers.

Their caterpillars feed on the leaves of various violet (Viola) species.

Welcome Wildlife


The Gulf Fritillary is a mostly Southern species straying northward. Most members of this family (known as longwings) are tropical. 

Brightred-orange with black markings and distinctive narrow wings set them apart from other fritillaries.

Their caterpillars feed on Passion Vine (Passiflora), which the butterflies have followed northwards.

Silver-spotted Skipper on Monarda fistulosa
The skipper family is huge, and many members can be very difficult to identify (even for the experts!). Luckily, this is one of the easiest ones.

Found in all but the most arid regions of our country, the large, silvery-white patch on their lower hingwing is unmistakable. The upper wings are pointed, and have a glassy, yellow-orange band.

They are attracted to a wide range of flowers, but especially love mints like Bee Balm (Monarda)

Their distinctive caterpillars feed on woody members of the legume family, including black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) and false indigo (Amorpha).


This common eastern species is a frequent visitor of parks, gardens and meadows.

They are named for the tiny "tails" on their hindwings, which they rub together to attract attention away from their heads whenever they feel threatened. Males are bright blue above and females blackish brown.

Their tiny, flattened larvae feed on members of the pea family: bush clover, yellow sweet clover and alfalfa.


A medium sized butterfly, it is one member of an enormous family. Silvery Checkerspots are common and widespread  across the East. Their orange upper wings are laced with black markings and borders, and have a row of black submarginal spots, some with white centers. The underside of the wings are pale with a submarginal band of white crescents.

Their caterpillars feed on members of the aster family, such as Purple Coneflower, Black-Eyed Susans and others.

The can actually make a bit of a pest of themselves, completely demolishing the Purple Coneflower meant to provide nectar for their adult counterparts.


The American Lady is almost as familiar as its very similar counterpart, the Painted Lady.  Luckily, there are several good field marks for identification.

The upper forewings have a white dot on the orange background, and the underside of the hindwing has two large eyespots instead of four smaller ones.

Their preferred larval foodplants are Everlastings, Pussytoes and Cudweeds.

They weave a protective cocoon at the top of the plant where they hide themselves.

Snowberry Clearwing nectaring on Verbena canadensis
Even though these guys are moths rather than butterflies, they are so cool I thought they deserve mentioning.

Sometimes mistaken for bumble bees or hummingbirds, these unique sphinx moths fly during the day, hovering over flowers to drink nectar with their long proboscis.

If you planted Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) in your garden, you may find their caterpillars feeding on the leaves. They will also occasionally eat the leaves of Blue Star (Amsonia tabernaemontana).

Creating a habitat attractive to butterflies will draw in a host of other wildlife, as well.

Other pollinators like native bees, wasps and flies will also really appreciate the abundant nectar source, and will reward you by pollinating your orchards and vegetable gardens.

Sweat Bee pollinating New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae)
Observing this mini ecosystem is a fascinating way to study ecology and predator/prey relationships up close and personal.

Here are a few other critters you will likely see coming and going in your garden:

Mantids. These native Carolina mantids are hatching from the egg case they overwintered in.

This bizarre creature is the larva of a Flower Fly (also known as Hoverflies). Excellent pollinators as adults, they are also voracious aphid predators, and a welcome addition to any garden.

Giant Robber Fly. While they look large and intimidating, they are more interested in catching insects than anything else. They frequently predate on wasps and other stinging insects.

A Dragonhunter dragonfly
Dragonflies. As long as your garden is within a reasonable distance of a waterway (or if you provide a water garden), these fascinating insects may be a frequent visitor. They have the most  advanced flight abilities of any animal, and are great fun to observe (and a challenge to identify!).

A female Ruby-throated hummingbird
Many of the flowers that draw butterflies are also attractive to hummingbirds!

Butterfly photography is something else you should consider trying.

Variegated Fritillary
As long as you have a decent point and shoot camera with a good macro function and a quick shutter speed (and a lot of patience!), you can get nice photos of the butterflies that visit your garden. Your photos will also help you keep records of what you see.

Even more exciting (I think) than observing the nectaring butterflies, is finding their eggs and caterpillars on the food plants you have provided.

Black Swallowtail  caterpillar
Some caterpillars are pretty recognizable, but what if you see something feeding and don't know what it is? Well, there are some good books to help you identify them, but you can also turn this into a great science project for your kids.

You can simply snip some leaves off your host plant and place them in a zip-loc bag along with your caterpillar in question. An even better option is to get them set them up in a small terrarium.

Take a small plastic container, such as an empty sour cream or yogurt tub, and use a knife or scissors to cut several x-shaped holes in the lid. Put some water into the container, and simply push sprigs of your host plant into the holes, refreshing them as necessary. This setup helps keep the plants watered and upright in a more natural position, and helps prevent the caterpillar from drowning.

Once your caterpillar is ready to pupate, he will simply climb to the top and build his chrysalis (provided it is a butterfly larva and not a moth).

Monarch chrysalis
If it is a moth, you will likely see a fuzzy cocoon instead of a chrysalis.

Keep an eye on the pupa so you can be there to watch the miracle of metamorphosis unfold right before your eyes.

Spicebush Swallowtail chrysalis
Once the butterfly has emerged and pumped its wings full of blood, you and your children can take it outdoors and set it free.

This newly emerged American Lady is ready to fly away.

What better way to educate your kids about the life cycle of a butterfly!

While incorporating a butterfly garden into your landscaping is an awesome way to provide habitat, you don't have necessarily have to! Even though that is what this entire series is meant to teach you, I realize not everybody wants to take the time to plant and maintain a garden.

One very simple thing you can do to increase butterfly habitat is to stop mowing a section of your property.

Tall grass also provides great habitat for butterflies and other wildlife. Several species of butterfly larvae feed on grasses.
You can scatter native wildflower seeds, but often, if left to its own devices, native flowers and grasses will sprout from the seed bank, especially if you disturb the soil somewhat.

Thistles and Goldenrod are great nectar plants that usually need no help colonizing an abandoned field.

One final thing you can consider doing, is getting your garden certified through the National Wildlife Federation as a wildlife habitat. 

The NABA offers a similar program, specifically for certifying butterfly gardens. Read all about that, here: Butterfly Garden Certification Program.

If you provide food and nectar plants specifically for Monarchs, and meet the criteria for other habitat requirements, you can register your garden as a Monarch Waystation.

A native plant butterfly garden represents so much more than just an enjoyment for the senses.

It creates endless learning opportunities for yourself and your family.

Besides all the personal benefits, you are creating and expanding habitat that is disappearing all across the country. Even if it represents just a tiny patch of land in the broad landscape of our country, it still makes a difference for the wildlife that take refuge there.

Hopefully this series has encouraged you to consider including native butterfly plants in your landscaping. It really isn't any more difficult than planting your average cultivated species, and it is something that will provide you and your family with a sense of pride and wonder at creating at least a small slice of paradise for our amazing fluttering friends.


(If you have any further questions, feel free to drop me a line and I will do what I can to help you get started!)


  1. Great article, lots of interesting information. My daughter enjoyed looking at all the beautiful pictures, she loves butterflies! I want to eventually grow a small butterfly garden for her some time.
    Shelly @ Humblelittlehomestead

    1. She would love that, I'm sure! Thank you for stopping by! :)

  2. Another great installment in this series. Beautiful photos! Thanks for sharing at My Flagstaff Home!


  3. Love these butterflies! This has been an awesome series, I'm so glad that you've shared it!

    Thanks for linking up with Green Thumb Thursday. I hope to see you back this week.