By Joe Whitfield
In a conversation with a reader a while back, we were talking about how if you remove something from nature, something else is affected. Since we’re talking butterflies, there are two terms you need to know, “host plant,” which is the plant on which the eggs are laid and the caterpillars feed and “nectar plants,” which are the primary plants they feed on.
We’ll talk about some of the more common butterflies in our area.
The most well- known of these is the monarch. The host plants for them are the Common Milkweed and the Swamp Milkweed, while the one plant they prefer for nectar is the Orange Butterfly Weed.
Field Thistles and Hollyhocks are the host plants for the Painted Lady. They prefer Coneflowers and Tall Verbena for food. These butterflies also fly south for the winter.
Dill, Fennel, and Queen Anne’s Lace are the host plants for the Eastern Black Swallowtail — it enjoys Butterfly Bush and Orange Butterfly Weed for its food. If you see one, look for patches of blue on the lower wings; this is the female.
Pipevine Swallowtail has only one host plant; oddly enough it is the Pipevine. It also enjoys the nectar of Swamp Milkweed and the Butterfly Bush. Unlike most caterpillars, these stay in groups and eat together.
The Spicebush Swallowtail also has only one host plant, the Spicebush. They feast on the Butterfly Bush, Coneflowers and Sunflowers. If you’re wondering if you have any caterpillars on your Spicebush, look for a folded-up leaf, which it makes with a mat of silk. Within this, it hides, and comes out at night to feed. The late stage of the caterpillar is neat-looking. It has two large “eyes” that make it look like a small snake, thus avoiding some predators.
The Common Buckeye uses the Plantain and Snapdragon as their host plants and like the nectar of Milkweeds. They will also fly south for the cold weather.
The Viceroy (which looks somewhat like a Monarch) uses only willow trees for its host plant and feeds off the Butterfly Bush, Coneflowers, and Milkweed. Birds tend to avoid these butterflies because they resemble the bad-tasting Monarch.
The Zebra Swallowtail also has only one Host Plant, the Pawpaw Tree. For nectar plants, they like Cosmos and Milkweed. Since we have a lot of Pawpaw trees at Thornwood Preserve, I’ll be looking for their caterpillars this spring.
Another butterfly that only uses the Willow for a host plant is the Red-Spotted Purple, it prefers Butterfly Bush and Milkweed for its nectar. They also enjoy the juice from rotting fruit.
The Giant Swallowtail like to use Prickly Ash and Rue Plants for its hosts. As for food, it likes the Butterfly Bush, Coneflowers and Sunflowers. Large groups of these butterflies have been known to defoliate small young trees.
The Cabbage White prefers cabbage plants as its host but will also go for Spider Flowers as the host. For their food, they prefer Cosmos and Tall Verbena. These butterflies are not as jumpy as others are and will continue to mate and lay eggs until the first frost. Farmers that grow cabbages consider it an agricultural pest. If you’re wondering how to tell male from female, the male has one black dot on the fore wings, while the female has two.
This is what you need to take away from this. If we want to keep butterflies around us, we need to decide which ones we want and plant what they need. You may not always get them the first season or the second but eventually they will make it to your yard.
Joe Whitfield is a naturalist and gardener for the Greenfield Parks and Recreation Department. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.