Plant Butterfly Hosts to Support Caterpillars

May and June have been bustling with garden work, but I’ve finally found a moment to sit down and share a fascinating discovery. Amidst the chaos of tending to countless plants and the never-ending cycle of weeding, watering, and fussing, there’s been one thing that has captured my attention: caterpillars.

In May, my daughter and I planted fernleaf dill and cucumbers from seed. Cucumbers have always been her favorite vegetable since she was a toddler, so it has become her annual responsibility to plant them. However, this year, we decided to add fernleaf dill nearby, hoping to attract black swallowtail butterflies. We planted enough for ourselves and enough for them.

While caught up in the endless tasks of maintaining our garden, I rarely paused to observe what was happening. But one day, I stopped to take a closer look at the black spots on the dill. And there it was, like a scene out of a dream – a cluster of swallowtail caterpillars. It felt incredibly rewarding to witness the fruition of our intentions. The mystery of how these delicate creatures find their way to our humble dill plants filled me with awe. If you plant it, they will come. And they did. I felt truly honored.

Every morning since the discovery, I find myself eagerly heading to the vegetable garden, hoping these six little caterpillars have survived the night and are ready to face a new day. So far, they have thrived, although only two remain. They have reached their final stage before venturing away from the dill to transform into something even more beautiful within the garden. This journey reminds me of my oldest daughter, who is preparing to leave for college soon. While the swallowtail’s transition takes only a matter of days, it has been almost nineteen years since my daughter blessed my life. I long to slow down time, if only for a moment, as it has passed far too quickly for a mom whose children still genuinely like her.

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The Importance of Host Plants for Caterpillars

In my garden, nectar plants such as zinnias, salvias, and Joe-Pye weed are abundant, providing happiness to visiting butterflies. But to foster a thriving butterfly population, I also make sure to include host plants. These are the plants that adult butterflies select for laying their eggs. However, not all butterflies have the same dietary preferences. They are discerning eaters with specific plant requirements.

For instance, Monarchs exclusively lay their eggs on milkweed. Fortunately, I have been fortunate enough to attract them without much effort. Perhaps the seeds were carried by birds or arrived on the wind, but now I have an abundance of Monarch adults searching for suitable spots to deposit their offspring. Consequently, my garden is graced with a continuous presence of Monarch caterpillars throughout the summer. However, this presents a dilemma – should I remove the common milkweed since it spreads rapidly through underground rhizomes? In a small garden, its aggressiveness becomes problematic.

To assist those interested in attracting butterflies, below is a list of commonly found butterfly species in the Midwest and their corresponding caterpillar host plants. These guests, unlike those odd family members we endure at gatherings, will always be welcome additions to our garden:

  • Black Swallowtail: carrot, dill, fennel, parsley, Queen Anne’s lace
  • Great Spangled Fritillary: violet
  • Monarch: milkweed
  • Viceroy: plum, cherry, poplar, willow
  • Pipevine Swallowtail: pipevine, Dutchman’s pipe, Virginia snakeroot
  • Pearly Crescent: aster
  • Red-Spotted Purple: wild cherry, willow
  • Spicebush Swallowtail: sassafras, spicebush

If you’re interested in learning more, Chicago’s Field Museum offers a fantastic field guide complete with captivating photographs!

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Photo by Ames Farm Center

Remember, by including these host plants in your garden, you not only provide sustenance for caterpillars but also create a haven for the magnificent butterflies themselves. It’s a small gesture that can make a significant impact on the beautiful ecosystem buzzing right outside your door.

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