by Linda Valdez, Victoria County Master Gardener

April 3, 2008

Edited by Charla Borchers Leon,
Victoria County Master Gardener
Of all the insects that visit my yard, I love the butterflies.  As a long time birder it is easy to transition from birding to wildflowers to butterflies. So when I became serious about identifying butterflies, my obsession with them grew to include enticing them into my yard.

But before you can entice them into your own yard, you need to understand their life cycle which exists in 4 complex stages.  In the first stage the female butterfly will lay an egg. Secondly, a caterpillar will emerge; thirdly, it will change itself into a chrysalis (or transformation stage), and finally in the fourth stage it emerges as a full-grown butterfly.

The female butterfly not only lays her eggs on plants, but she is very specific as to on which plant she will do so.  This very specific plant then becomes a larval or host plant for that butterfly.  Some plants serve as not only a food source for the caterpillar but also as a nectar source for the mature butterfly.

When the egg hatches, the ensuing caterpillar will eat the leaves of this host plant until it reaches
a mature stage.  It will shed its skin several times before forming a chrysalis which with time will develop into a butterfly.  The developed butterfly will need plenty of food, and that will be in the form of nectar which is its only form of nourishment.  Plant plenty of flowers in sunny locations to provide nectar.  Keep in mind that butterflies begin their day by sun bathing to warm their bodies to become active.  Warmer temperatures not only warm the butterflies but nectar will also start to flow more freely in sunny areas thus providing ample food for the butterflies.

Simply put: Flowers = nectar = butterflies.

If you want to go a step further and have them reproduce in your yard, then you will have to provide larval plants for the female butterfly to lay her eggs on.  The problem arises that this will produce hungry caterpillars that will eat your plants.  Sometimes the caterpillars eat the young to mid-mature leaves, sometimes the entire above ground portions of a plant and sometimes the buds, flowers or young fruit.  Obviously, some people may not want caterpillars in their yards.

As you look over the printed list of larval plants you will notice that thistle is mentioned as the host plant for a few butterflies.  Most people would prefer not to have nettles or thistles in their yard but by planting behind other plants or in the back corner of your yard, you can still provide the red admiral and painted lady with the plants they need.
Food Plants for the Caterpillar Stage of Butterflies

Butterfly Species              Food plant for its caterpillar stage

Black Swallowtail             Dill, parsley anise, fennel, carrots, rue
Buckeye                            Plantain, snapdragon
Cloudless sulphur             Senna, partridge pea
Giant Swallowtail             Citrus trees, rue
Giant purple hairstreak    Mistletoe
Goatweed butterfly          Goatweed (Croton ssp.)
Gray hairstreak                Various legumes, (including Esperanza)
Gulf fritillary                    Passion flower vines
Hackberry butterfly          Hackberry
Little sulphur                    Partridge pea
Monarch                           Milkweeds
Painted lady                      Hollyhock, thistles
Pearl crescent                    Aster
Phaon crescent                  Texas Frog Fruit (considered a weed)
Pipevine swallowtail          Dutchman’s Pipevine (all species of Aristolochia)
Queen                               Milkweeds
Question mark                  Hackberry, elm
Red admiral                      Nettles, false nettle
Snout butterfly                  Hackberry
Sulphur butterflies             Lindheimer senna
Tawny emperor                  Hackberry
Texan crescent                   Shrimp plant, ruellia
Tiger Swallowtail               Ash, Common catalpa, spicebush
Zebra longwing                  Passion flower vines
Viceroy                              Cottonwood, poplar, willow

Victoria County Master Gardener Linda D. Valdez
PHOTOS BY LINDA VALDEZ, Victoria County Master Gardener
The black swallowtail caterpillar feeds on herbal plants including dill, parsley, fennel and rue that is shown here.
Attracting butterflies to your yard is easy by providing them with nectaring plants in a sunny spot. Remember that big masses of color are more attractive to butterflies than small individual plants.  By far the most favored flower colors come in purple, white, yellow and pink ranges with true blues next best.  Butterflies also prefer short tubular flowers and lantana, butterfly bush, Mexican heather, verbena and pentas come to mind.  If you have a very shady yard, consider planting pentas. They come in a variety of colors, do very well in the shade and will require less watering.

Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) requiring good drainage comes in several colors and can become a big bush.  The milkweeds of which there are over 108 different types in the United States are not only good nectar plants, but are also host plants for the queen and monarch butterflies. Two Eupatorium plant species that are excellent in attracting butterflies are crucitas (E. ordoratum) and blue mist flower (E. gregii) both producing blue mist type flowers.  The crucitas, a superb nectaring plant, should be planted in a large sunny area.  It can easily get to be 6’X6’ in size.  I planted it in my yard and in the fall when it bloomed, I counted over 15 species of butterflies on it in one day.  Blue mist flowers should be planted in an enclosed bed because it spreads readily.  If you have limited gardening space check carefully on the plants you wish to plant because many nectaring and larval plants can get quite large. A prime example is purple porter weed which can get very tall.  If you don’t have the space look for the dwarf porter weed variety.

Plant the herbs listed in the printed table for the black swallowtail to lay her eggs.  In my yard she tends to favor the dill herb.  With both species of milkweed planted in my yard, I have many queen and monarch butterflies.  Sometimes I will see both of them nectaring on blue mist flower (E. gregii).  If you are looking to entice the Gulf fritillary, plant the purple Passiflora incarnate or the native yellow passion vine, Passiflora lutea.  These grow beautifully on fences or on a trellis.  However, there are several beautiful cultivars to be wary of.  If the female lays her eggs on them they will not come to fruition.
Nectaring Plants for Butterflies

Common Name
                Flower Color
Asters                                Pink, purple, lavender, white
Butterfly Bush                   Purple, lavender, white, yellow
Butterfly Weed                  Yellow
Button Bush                      Cream
Blue Mist flowers               Lavender
Purple Cone Flower           Dark pink
Cosmos                             Yellow, orange
Crucitas                             Blue
Duranta                             Purple, white, light blue
Flame bush                        Red-orange
Goldenrod                         Yellow
Jatropha                            Red, pink
Lantana                             Yellow, orange
Mexican flame-vine            Orange
Mexican heather                 Lavender
Mexican milkweed              Red-orange and yellow
Mexican sunflower             Orange
Mist flower                         Blue
Pentas                                Red, pink, lavender, white
Phlox                                 Purple, pink, red, white
Porter Weed                       Purple, coral, red
Salvia                                 Lavender, pink, red
Verbena                             Purple, lavender, blue, red, pink, white
Zinnia                                Yellow, orange, red, pink, white.
Many people consider the hackberry tree a trash tree but it is the host plant for the hackberry, tawny, snout, and question mark butterflies.

Butterflies will often puddle together at a moist area.  They are not drinking water but seeking the salts or amino acids left behind.  You can make your own puddling station by filling a plastic saucer with sand and salt.  In her book
Butterfly Gardening for the South, author Geyata Ajilvsgi suggests a ratio of ½ to ¾ cup of salt to one gallon of moist sand.  Be sure to keep the mixture moist.

After you have chosen plants for your yard, be sure and mulch them and keep them watered.  Then sit back and enjoy an abundance of butterflies visiting your yard.
Crucitas, a superb nectaring plant with blue mist type flowers, is known to attract queen butterflies to a sunny area.
The pipevine swallowtail butterfly is attracted to the lantana plant which blooms bright yellow and orange short tubular flowers.