Butterfly host plants are essential to the survival and continued flourishing of most butterfly species. Without these plants, many of these butterfly species would be hard-pressed to continue existing and likely become extinct.
These plants are critical food sources for butterflies and their larvae. Additionally, butterfly host plants are beneficial to other pollinators, such as bees and birds. By planting these host plants around the garden, homeowners can help support and sustain the local wildlife population in their areas.
What Are Butterfly Host Plants?
Simply put, butterfly host plants are plants that are used in the reproductive cycle of most butterflies. They are used both for laying their eggs and also to provide food for the young caterpillars. Without these plants, butterflies are unable to lay their eggs and reproduce.
Important to note, different species of butterflies have different host plants. If you’re looking to attract a specific species, then research which plant to grow. You should also be aware of the butterflies that are native to your area. There’s no use trying to attract butterflies that aren’t native to your area as this will likely lead to disappointment.
Best Butterfly Host Plants
Below, you’ll find our top picks for butterfly host plants. Each one will include a little info on the care of the plant, as well as the species of butterflies that use it as a host plant.
Scientific name: Asclepias spp.
Host For: Monarch butterflies
This plant is the primary host for the majestic monarch butterfly. Milkweed plants provide nectar for adult butterflies while providing food for their caterpillars. Aside from the monarch butterfly, milkweed plants also attract a variety of other pollinators, such as bees and hummingbirds.
Milkweed grows in USDA zones 3–9, making them one of this list’s hardier butterfly host plants. Ideally, this plant should be placed in full sun and in well-draining soils. It is very easy to care for and even easier to propagate. Milkweed can be multiplied by seeds or through cuttings.
When planting milkweed seeds, they should be sown in the fall or early spring. For cuttings, simply place them in well-draining soil. Water them regularly until properly established.
Homeowners should note that this plant is potentially poisonous to humans and pets. Aside from this, milkweed is also considered invasive in many areas.
Scientific name: Passiflora spp.
Host For: Gulf Fritillary Butterfly
This plant is the primary host for the Gulf fritillary butterfly. Its nectar also provides nourishment for a wide variety of other butterfly species. When in bloom, the intricate and attractive flowers add visual interest in colors of purple, white, and red. Some cultivars emit a strong fragrance, creating a wonderful array of sensorial pleasures for the growers.
Passionflower plants grow in USDA zones 6–11, where they thrive in full sun to partial shade. Keep these in well-draining soil to prevent root rot. While it prefers soils with consistent moisture, passionflower plants can tolerate short periods of drought.
These plants have a vining growth habit. To keep them from falling on the ground, place them on support structures, such as trellises, pergolas, and arbors.
Scientific name: Lindera benzoin
Host For: Spicebush Swallowtail
Spicebush is the primary host for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly. Similar to other plants on this list, its flowers contain enough nectar to feed different varieties of butterfly species, but will tend to attract more swallowtails. In early spring, the spicebush produces an attractive yellow flower.
These plants thrive when planted in USDA zones 4–9. Place these in an area where they enjoy full sun to partial shade. They tolerate a wide range of soil types as long as the soil is well-draining. Keep the soil consistently moist, even though the spicebush tolerates a bit of drought every now and then which makes them easy to care for.
Scientific name: Clematis viorna
Host For: Clematis Sphinx Moth
Pipestem clematis is a perennial plant with a sprawling or climbing habit. It is the primary host plant for the clematis sphinx moth. In the summer, it produces attractive bell-shaped flowers in creamy whites and pale yellows.
This plant grows really well when grown in USDA zones 5–9. Keep the pipestem clematis in an area that receives full sun to partial shade. When it comes to soil, it prefers to be in well-draining substrates that are kept consistently moist.
Since pipestem clematis has a vining growth habit, it is best to keep it supported as it grows. Once mature, this plant can reach anywhere from 8 to 12 feet in length. They bloom in a variety of colors so there are lots of options to match any given aesthetic.
Scientific name: Foeniculum vulgare
Host For: Black Swallowtail
Gorgeous and feathery, this herb is known for its aromatic scent. It is the primary host plant for the black swallowtail but also provides food and shelter for other varieties of butterflies. In the summer, expect to see small clusters of pale yellow flowers that bloom from a single spot on the plant stalk.
Fennel grows particularly well when planted in USDA zones 4–9. Place this herb in areas that get full sun to partial sun. When its well-draining soil is kept consistently moist, this herb can grow to be over 6 feet tall.
However, fennel is known to spread quickly. When planting this herb, consider its placement carefully. Placing them in containers can also help contain its growth. Otherwise, it can quickly overtake neighboring plants.
Scientific name: Vernonia spp.
Host For: Pearl Crescent
Ironweed is a native plant in Arkansas. It is the primary host plant for the pearl crescent butterfly, as well as the spangled fritillary. The plant has finely textured foliage in bright green colors. In late summer, it produces bright purple flowers that attract bees and butterflies.
This plant thrives in USDA zones 4–9. Keep ironweed in areas that receive full sun to partial shade. It requires very little maintenance once established. In order to establish the plant, water it consistently and ensure that the soil is well-draining. Afterwards it’s largely set and forget requiring only minimal upkeep.
Scientific name: Aristolochia macrophylla
Host For: Pipevine Swallowtail
These perennial vines have attractive heart-shaped dark green leaves which feed the pipevine swallowtail butterfly caterpillars. Normally, they are found on the east coast of the United States. However, they can be planted almost anywhere that is conducive to their growth.
Dutchman’s Pipe plants grow well in USDA zones 4–8. Keep them consistently moist in well-draining soils. They can tolerate a bit of drought although it is best to water them regularly. Due to its vining habit, gardeners should use structural supports to help it grow.
It should be noted that every part of this plant is toxic to humans and pets. It is also considered one of the more invasive plants in many states and should be grown with care to prevent spreading.
Blue False Indigo
Scientific name: Baptisia australis
This perennial plant attracts the eastern-tailed-blue and silver-spotted skipper butterflies. Once established, it grows into a multi-stemmed shrub that draws in even more butterfly species. It flowers early in the season, displaying attractive flowers in blue to purple colors.
Blue false indigo grows well in USDA zones 3–9. Ideally, it should be placed in areas that experience full sun to partial shade. While it can tolerate a short period of drought, it is best to keep its well-draining soil consistently moist. Under these conditions, expect the plant to quickly establish itself.
It has some traditional medicinal uses, although the plant is classified to have low levels of toxicity. In some areas, the blue false indigo is considered invasive.
Scientific name: Solidago spp.
Host for: Monarch butterflies
There are many goldenrod cultivars, and most of them provide valuable nectar to a diverse range of butterflies. These include the monarch and the common buckeye butterfly species. In late summer to early fall, these plants produce vibrant yellow flowers.
Goldenrod plants are easily cultivated in USDA zones 3–9. Place them in areas that receive full sun to partial shade and well-draining soils. Water them regularly although they can withstand short periods of drought.
Parts of the plant are toxic to humans and animals. While they are not considered invasive, goldenrod plants easily out-compete other plants for water, soil, and nutrients. As a result, they spread quickly and aggressively under the right growing conditions.
Butterfly Host Plants
A well-planned garden becomes its own ecosystem of sorts that can attract a host of delightful critters. The above plants are all excellent at bringing in butterflies and adding life to your garden.
Do you grow any of the above? Have you seen any butterflies visiting them? Let us know, or let us know if we missed any of your favorite butterfly host plants!