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Home & Garden

Learning to Grow in St. Charles: Different plants nurture varied butterflies

Provide for swallowtails and other butterflies in your garden.
Provide for swallowtails and other butterflies in your garden.

As a fellow master gardener said to me recently, “What about the other butterflies?”

We hear so much about what to plant to attract and increase the Monarch butterfly population that we sometimes forget there are other very lovely butterflies that we should also provide for.

All butterflies need nectar food sources, but they also need to lay eggs on a food source the caterpillars can eat. Caterpillar food sources can range from trees and shrubs to perennials and annuals.

My friend reported success attracting the Swallowtail butterfly to lay eggs by planting dill, which led me to investigate which plants attract different butterflies.

I discovered that butterflies seek out and lay eggs on specific plants that the caterpillar will feed on until they mature into butterflies. Each species has a limited range of plants that their caterpillars will eat. Milkweed is the favorite food for Monarch caterpillars, but what do other butterflies prefer?

Black Swallowtail butterflies like to lay eggs on plants from the carrot family, which includes carrot, dill, parsley and parsnip. The Tiger Swallowtail prefers river birch, tulip, apple, crab apple, plum, cherry, willow and maple trees. Caterpillars of Fritillary butterflies feed on violets, and the Painted Lady caterpillars prefer cornflower and hollyhock.

In addition to a food source for caterpillars, there must be a nectar source for mature butterflies so they will stay in the garden. Some butterflies are picky eaters, but most are attracted to flowers that have flat tops with single petals or small flower clusters. These include the butterfly bush, buttonbush, milkweed, butterfly weed, common lilac, English lavender, verbena, aster, lantana, salvia, coneflower, black-eyed Susan, zinnia, marigolds, and sedum … just to name a few.

Since butterflies are active from spring until late fall, it is important to plant for continuous blooms, preferably with masses of flowers in a sunny area.

If you decide to have a butterfly garden, make sure to include a mix of these plants to attract a variety of butterflies throughout their life cycles. Ideally, you want to provide both nectar and caterpillar food sources. Of course, caterpillars feed on plant leaves, but the damage is usually minimal and certainly not as bad as that caused by Japanese beetles.

Darlie Simerson is a University of Illinois Extension master gardener for Kane County. The “Learning to Grow” column runs weekly during warmer months of the year. Call the extension office at 630-584-6166 for more information. Feedback on this column can be sent to editorial@kcchronicle.com.

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