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Keep Butterflies in Mind When Planning Your Garden

For most gardeners, each year’s garden is a new adventure – a chance to improve, expand or just reimagine your own lovely patch of blooms.

Now is the time to think of our little caterpillar friends and plant a nice variety of welcoming host plants. There are many varieties of butterflies and moths in Michigan, and they all need specific host plants to feed and shelter their caterpillars. Most caterpillars can only feed on one or two specific plants. These plants are known as the “host” for the species. So in order to have beautiful butterflies to enjoy, we must plant proper host plants to nurture the cute little caterpillars.

Butterfly Weed
Butterfly weed by: Melissa McMasters CC-BY-2.0 (for Monarch)
Violets by: Liz West CC-BY-2.0 (for Frittilary)
Snapdragons by: Inga Munsinger Cotton CC-BY-2.0 (for Common Buckeye)

Important features for a butterfly garden include:

  • No Pesticides! Please do not spray bug killers. Even airborne bug killers from neighboring yards can contaminate butterfly plants.
  • Native host plants by specific species (see list below for some favorites)
  • Bright and pretty pollen plants (e.g.: golden Alexander, Coneflower, Black-eyed Susan, tall Verbena, New England Aster)
  • Dish of damp sand, salt and rotting fruit (watermelon works well) for for moisture and minerals
  • Some form of windbreak on the west / north sides
  • Combine a pollinator plants with rain garden plants for twice the benefit (see https://therouge.org/rain-gardens-to-the-rescue/ for the FOTR’s rain garden information)

It is a good idea to plant clusters of each type of host plant. The larger mass of a cluster increases the smell and color pattern of the plant for attracting passing butterflies. It also provides a denser shelter and food supply for new caterpillars.

Pearly Everlasting
Pearly Everlasting by: Peter Stevens CC-BY-2.0 (for American Lady)
Spicebush by: Katja Schulz CC-By-2.0 (for Spicebush Swallowtail)
Fennel by: Forest & Kim Starr CC-BY-2.0 (for Black Swallowtail)
River Birch
River Birch (Pikrepo) Many butterfly and moth caterpillars require trees as host plants. If you have the space for a new tree, there are many good options. Willow and River Birch trees serve as host plants to Tiger Swallowtails, Morning Cloaks, and Common Tortoise Shell Butterflies.


This year, plant a butterfly buffet, and invite these little winged wonders to make a home in your yard!

Some possible butterfly host plants for your garden are shown below.



American Lady

Host Plants: Pearly Everlasting

American Lady Caterpillar
American Lady Caterpillar by: Judy Gallagher CC-BY-2.0
American Lady Butterfly
American Lady Butterfly by: Andy_Reago & Chrissy McClarren CC-BY-2.0

Common Buckeye

Host Plants: Snapdragon, Plantain & Monkey Flower

Common Buckeye Caterpillar
Common Buckeye Caterpillar by: Judy Gallagher CC-BY-2.0
Common Buckeye Butterfly
Common Buckeye Butterfly by: Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren CC-BY-2.0

Eastern Black Swallowtail

Host Plants: Dill, Fennel & Parsley

Eastern Black Swallowtail Caterpillar
Eastern Black Swallowtail Caterpillar by: Bitslammer CC-BY-2.0
Eastern Black Swallowtail Butterfly
Eastern Black Swallowtail Butterfly by: cautrok77 CC-BY-2.0


Host Plants: Milkweeds and Butterfly weed

Monarch Caterpillar
Monarch Caterpillar by: Mike Kestrell CC-BY-2.0
Monarch Butterfly
Monarch Butterfly by: Charles Patrick Ewing CC-BY-2.0

Spicebush Swallowtail

Host Plants: Spicebush

Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillar
Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillar by: Judy Gallagher CC-BY-2.0
Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly
Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly by: Andrew Weitzel CC-BY-2.0

Variegated Frittilary

Host Plants: Common Violet (Note: very aggressive spreading plant)

Variegated Fritillary Caterpillar
Variegated Fritillary Caterpillar by: Judy Gallagher CC-BY-2.0
Variegated Frittilary Butterfly
Variegated Frittilary Butterfly by: Anne Toal CC-By-2.0

Hummingbird Sphinx Moth

Host Plants: Cherry, Plum & Hawthorne Trees

Hummingbird Sphinx Moth Caterpillar
Hummingbird Sphinx Moth by: C Watts CC-BY-2.0
Hummingbird Sphinx Moth
Hummingbird Sphinx Moth by: US Fish & Wildlife Service CC-BY-2.0

Header image by Andreanna Moya Photography CC-BY-2.0