Best Butterfly Bargain EVER!

Native wildflowers are the Best Butterfly Bargain…EVER!  You want butterfly beauty floating on fragile wings through your garden?  You can plant (*safe*) nectar plants for the adults, but the butterfly larvae need native plants to eat.  (Yes, the caterpillars will eat some leaves, but they will grow back after a short time.)  It is a small price to pay, after all, watching butterflies is priceless.

Two fat Monarch caterpillars on Asclepias incarnata, Swamp Milkweed.

Two fat Monarch caterpillars on Ascleias incarnata, Swamp Milkweed.

A Monarch during oviposit on Asclepias tuberosa, Butterflyweed.

Monarchs are pretty darned picky about larval host plants.  The only plants that their caterpillars are able to feed on are the various species of Milkweed (Asclepias spp.).  Its great that folks are planting Milkweed for the Monarchs;  please plant as much Milkweed as you can. It’s a beautiful plant, the caterpillars are fun to watch, and the butterflies are bound on an amazing voyage.  Its wonderful to have them use your yard for one leg of their thousands-mile journey.

But why stop at milkweed when there are lots of other butterflies and wildlife that would also benefit from you having host plants in your garden?


Spicebush Swallowtails (Papilio troilus) (adult above nectaring on Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)) will not lay eggs on milkweed, but instead use Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) for their larvae as well as a few other species such as Poplar and Sassafrass.  Perhaps they are not as picky as the Monarchs, but they are very selective.


Above is the Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar on Spicebush.  More info here.

Below is a Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia) nectaring on Narrowleaf Mountain Mint.  We also find them nectaring on Marshallia species as well as other white and pale pink flowers.

IMG_3210 Junonia on pyc tenn

Common Buckeye larvae are hosted on plants in several families, including Petunias or Ruellia, Plantains or Plantago family, Scrophulariaceae or Snapdragon family, and Veronica or Veronicaceae.  More information about the needs of Buckeyes here.

Cloudless Sulphur (Colias philodice) larvae use Cassia and Senna species in the Pea or Fabiaceae family.  In the photo on the right, a Cloudless Sulphur is nectaring on a Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis. It is one of the few butterflies with a proboscis long enough to nectar on the long and tubular Cardinal Flower.  Most species of Sulphur butterflies use various other species of the legume family or crucifer family as larval host plants.  Link to Sulphur host plant information here.


IMG_3748 cropped vanessa cardui

American Painted Lady (Vanessa virginiensis) above, is nectaring on Georgia Aster (Symphyotrichum georgianum.)  American Painted Lady and Painted Lady larvae use Antennaria and several other genera as larval host plants.  In fact, the Painted Lady uses 300 different plants as larval host plants.  Below on the left an American Painted Lady (Vanessa virginiensis) is laying eggs on Field Pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta.)  Below right an American Painted Lady caterpillar is chowing down on Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) in our nursery.    The Pussytoes came back good as new in a couple of weeks, no harm done.  A link to Red Admiral (Painted Lady) Butterfly information is here. 







Create a space and place for wonder in your backyard by planting butterfly and wildlife habitat.  Planting a diverse collection of butterfly host species ensures that your garden is graced with the flutter of bright wings, and diversity generally helps provide a welcoming space for other wildlife such as native birds and bees.

More detailed larval host information can be found at the HOST database.  You must use the Latin binomial of the butterfly or plant you are investigating in the search fields.


*safe = no neonicotinoids.  Please note plants treated with neonicotinoid pesticides will kill caterpillars; caterpillars are one of the targets of these pesticides.  Neonics have been implicated in butterfly population declines, songbird population declines and bee population declines. Please see our blog post “Dear Gardener” for links to articles by the science community.  There are also a lot of good articles at the Xerces website.

Please read labels.  Some common commercial names of these chemicals  are: imidacloprid, acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, nithiazine, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam.



Dear Gardeners

Please Plant Safe Plants! 

Please note plants treated with neonicotinoid pesticides will kill caterpillars; caterpillars are one of the targets of these pesticides.  Be sure to check the label to see if the plants you are buying are treated with these pesticides.  Please read labels.  Some common commercial names of these chemicals  are: imidacloprid, acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, nithiazine, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam.  There are a lot of good articles about the effects of these chemicals at .  I have linked to a few very solid, well researched, scientific articles below.

2 Articles about butterfly impact:

New Research Links Neonicotinoid Pesticides to Monarch Butterfly Declines

Butterfly declines linked to pesticides

These pesticides have also been determined by several researchers to be one of the contributing factors that causes Colony Collapse Disorder.

2 Articles about bee impact: 

Study strengthens link between neonicotinoids and collapse of honey bee colonies

Are Neonicotinoids Killing Bees Xerces Society

These pesticides have also been determined to be toxic to songbirds:

2 Articles about impacts on birds:

Risks of Neonicotinoids Pesticides on Birds

Declines in Insectivorous Birds Associated with High Neonicotinoid Concentrations

Again, dear gardeners, please read labels.  Some common commercial names of these chemicals  are: imidacloprid, acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, nithiazine, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam.

Your Back Yard Birds and Habitat Gardens

If you are a birder, you probably already know that Eastern songbird populations have declined dramatically since World War II.  More information here.

Why do I need to provide habitat? Where has habitat gone?   Landscape shrubbery is sparse, and often non-native; it may not have seeds, berries or be arranged in a way that offers shelter for birds and other wildlife.  Lawns provide very little support in terms of food choices beyond worms and grubs, and offer no shelter.   Small streams are often “piped,” or relegated to underground pipes in modern commercial and residential developments, leaving no water resources for wildlife.

The GOOD news is that, yard by yard, it is possible to provide many things that migratory and resident bird populations need to live and raise young.  Birds need water sources to replace the piped streams;  They need safe and secure nesting sites to rear their young;  They need cover to hide from predators such as cats and hawks; They need a steady, year-round supply of food for themselves and their young.

Choosing varied plants that occupy different layers in a yard or garden creates a border  of more and higher quality urban bird habitat. Tall trees can be placed towards the property line with shorter subcanopy trees and shrubs facing the house or garden to create a multilayer border with plenty of perches and nesting sites.   Placement of tall trees on the northern edge of the property will prevent them from shading out the lawn or garden.  Include some thorny trees, such as Hawthorns (Crataegus spp.), which are good for protective nesting sites, with the added benefit of providing plentiful berries in the late summer and fall.

Layering promotes:

  • Diversity of plant material, creating a diversity of insect food.
  • More potential feeding and nesting sites.
  • Greater quantity of insect food generated by sub canopy layers of herbaceous plants.
  • Greater number of fruit bearing shrubs.
  • Different types of nesting and roosting sites that can accommodate a greater diversity of bird species.
  • More possible cover from predators such as hawks from above, or cats from below.
  • Leaf litter under shrubs which provides insects, grubs and worms.


  • Berries from a variety of shrubs and brambles can and should be available from late spring through winter
  • Dewberry, blackberry, or strawberry produce berries from spring through mid summer.
  • Dogwood, Devil’s Walking Stick, viburnums, greenbriar, poison ivy, etc. provide fruits from late summer through fall.
  • Hawthorns, beautyberry, some viburnums, chokeberry, crabapples, and hollies provide winter-persistent fruits that are important sustenance for many birds during the lean cold months. They also host hundreds of species of caterpillars which are a crucial protein source for developing chicks.
  • Native plants provide native insects and caterpillars, as well as edible seeds and fruits, for many songbirds.
  • Leaf litter provides important food sources such as grubs, insects and worms to ground feeding birds like robins, thrashers and towhees.
  • Native grasses provide nesting materials and edible seeds.

Cavity nesting birds
Snags, or standing dead trees, are important nesting sites for many bird species, but are difficult to accommodate in an urban setting.  The proper placement of the right nesting box can sometimes replace this natural feature of woodlands.  Woodpeckers, nuthatches, owls, chickadees, tufted titmouse, kestrels and purple martins use snags.
A correctly dimensioned box should be placed in the correct habitat and at the correct height for each species desired. For instance, bluebirds prefer open habitats like fields; chickadees prefer mature woodland or border woodland type habitats.  Go to the “Birdhouses” pdf and NestWatch for more information.

Cup and/or Saucer Nesting Birds
Undisturbed shrub areas and a subcanopy of small trees such as dogwood, viburnums, or hawthorns provide excellent nesting sites for a wide variety of passerines and songbirds including robins, thrashers, cardinals and mockingbirds.  Nesting materials can be provided in the garden by leaving an unmowed area where dried native grasses and small twigs are allowed to collect for nest building.  A tidy lawn and garden may look nice to humans, but provides little in the way of nest building materials. Instead of bagging yard waste, create a small brush pile in the corner of the backyard and let native grasses go to seed and turn brown for the winter before trimming them back in spring.

Ground Nesting Birds
Brush piles and large patches of ferns or low-growing, dense shrubs can offer important cover for ground nesting birds such as towhees.  Ground nesting species are at a severe disadvantage with neighborhood cats if this type of cover is not provided.


Bird baths should be made of non-slip materials like cement or dull ceramic glaze rather than slick or glassy materials.  They should be shallow: 2 inches deep or less with gradually sloped edges to accommodate small birds as well as larger songbirds.

  • Pedestal birdbath is safer from cats.
  • Water should be cleaned every two days to:
    • Keep mosquitoes from breeding.
    • Bacteria from developing and making birds sick.
    • Cleaning the birdbath weekly with a stiff brush will keep bacteria down as well.

Place birdbath:

  • In an open area that is clear of hiding places for cats.
  • Near small overhanging tree branches that allow birds to preen and dry off; they are ungainly and easy prey with wet feathers.
  • Dripping or trickling water sounds attract more birds to a water source.


Ehrlich, Paul R., Dobkin. David S., and Wheye, Darryl. The Decline of Eastern Songbirds. Stanford University. Stanford.  1988

Tallamy, Douglas.  A Call for Backyard Diversity.  2009.