Caterpillar food plants

by Caroline Brown

I’ve been reading a bit lately about butterflies and how to attract them to your yard and garden. It’s important to plant flowers whose nectar attract butterflies, but don’t forget the larvae (caterpillars). Many butterfly (and moth) caterpillars only eat specific plants. The best known example is the monarch butterfly caterpillar, which eats only the sap from Asclepias species, or milkweeds, including butterfly weed (A. tuberosa) and swamp milkweed (A. incarnata).

(Author’s note: At this point let me acknowledge that it is a cheap ploy on my part to publish butterfly photos with this post. I should be posting caterpillar photos, but really….who wants to see those.)

There are many other examples:

The only host plant for larvae of the the Zebra swallowtail (above) is the pawpaw (Asimina triloba)–another great reason to plant this native fruit tree. Larvae of the gulf fritillary larvae (right) subsist exclusively on Passiflora species, known as passionflower or maypop. Alfalfa butterfly caterpillars (also known as orange sulphur) subsist only on, well, alfalfa (Medicago sativa).

Eastern black swallowtail caterpillars feed on members of the carrot family, primarily Queen Anne’s Lace that grows in the wild, but also including carrots, parsley, dill, and fennel. All caterpillars in the Speyeria family, which includes the regal fritillary, feast only on plants in the Viola species (violets). Scarlet runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) feed gray hairstreak caterpillars, and Dutchman’s pipes (Aristolochia) are the only food eaten by the appropriately named pipevine swallowtail.

And as if I need any more reasons to love asters (Aster spp), they are the only food source for larvae of the aster checkerspot butterfly.

It perhaps should be said that if your goal is to attract larvae by planting these plants…you have to be prepared for them to be eaten. Share and share alike is rule #1 of the wildlife garden, after all.

OK, OK, in the interest of fairness, here is a monarch caterpillar.

And here is a gulf fritillary caterpillar on a passionflower:

All photos courtesy of Wikipedia, except the passionflower, which is courtesy of the Santa Rosa County, Florida Extension Center.


21 Responses to “Caterpillar food plants”

  1. That’s a basic point that it’s easy to forget in planting a wildlife garden. It’s a little easier for me, because I’m far more interested in animals and insects than plants. But the local deer test even my patience in that regard.

  2. Thanks for including a picture from Santa Rosa County! We here in the Panhandle love us some natural gardens, despite what the tourist trap resorts might show!!


  3. I like your note re: butterfly photos C and I agree. 😉

    As I mentioned before, butterflies have a significant and special meaning for me, love to enjoy the ones you share and of course, all the great info. too! G

  4. I love the butterfly photos, and the info on which plants to plant to attract them. We had a lot of monarchs last year but I often wonder if our local area had native butterflies that disappeared long ago and we never knew of them…

  5. Hi Caroline, i would love to add a milkweed patch to my garden, any ideas where to find plants?

  6. Hi Mary, try NEWFS/Garden in the woods in Framingham…they have seeds & plants for swamp milkweed:
    It’s not exactly local but it’s not a bad day trip!

  7. I love the caterpillar photos too! Because we sometimes forget that the curious looking fellow munching on the milkweed or the nettles or the parsley is going to grow into a marvelous butterfly! I don’t know my caterpillars that well, but I’m workin’ on them!

  8. Wonderful to read about the butterflies. I planted milkweed for the first time last year and to find them covered with Monarch caterpillars was thrilling. (And of course I had to post Monarch baby pics on the Larraping garden blog, naturally.) I bought a Paw Paw JUST b/c I want to see a Zebra swallowtail in my yard. But as little as this paw paw is, the picnic is far from ready…. (to do: find bigger paw paw tree to buy…)

    A book I finished recently called “Bringing Nature Home” really opened my eyes to the need for planting host species for native butterflies. I highly recommend it. (Can’t remember the authors name, Tallamy maybe, but it’s new 2007 or 2008.)

    Thanks for your delightful blog.

  9. Wonderful to read about the butterflies. I planted milkweed for the first time last year and to find them covered with Monarch caterpillars was thrilling.

  10. I am from Pakistan. In my country have yet to love and understand breeding of Butterfly. We have 429 species & subspecies in Pakistan
    I am trying hard to advice gardeners on the subject.

    All I want is your guidance and support articles to circulate to Garden
    Lover. My slogan ” A garden without Butterflies is like a Bride without Makeup”
    I also do Organic Gardening The Eastern Way – No chemicals Required.

    Looking forward to avail your expertise on the subject

  11. I want to see the caterpillars! Some of them are quite pretty. I’d particlarly like to see the Zebra Swallowtail caterpillars in my yard, but I seem to be too far south for Pawpaw plants, because I can’t find any for sale down here. I’ve never seen a Zebra Swallowtail, but I have found about 40 other butterflies in South Florida and I’m always looking for more. Here are the caterpillars I’ve found so far: (the butterfies are a lot easier to spot than the caterpillars are!)

  12. oh my goodness!
    The “zebra printed” butterfly is the most gorgeous thing i have ever seen i have been to buttefly farms many times and never have i seen something so beautiful! What a delightful post!

    Thank you for this!

  13. How do I keep the purple passion vine from being completely devoured by the caterpillars. I keep planting them and in no time the catepillars have killed it off. Is there something I should be doing so that the plant does not die–cut it back with the caterpillars on the branches or what? I love to watch the butterflies but is it necessary that the plant be replaced each year? Thank you

    • Elaine, one earth-friendly way to fix it would be to plant a couple of passion flower plants in an area away from your other plants, where you don’t care if they get eaten –decoy plants if you will. I would pick the caterpillars off and move them to the decoy plants.

  14. One day I see a caterpillar and the next I don’t. Do they crawl away? Or are they being taken by birds? Or both?

  15. I live in South Florida and my passion vine is completely leafless! The Gulf Fritillary caterpillars really munched them all away. I love to look outside in the yard and see tons of butterflies flying around. I recently bought Milkweed plants just to see some Monarch caterpillars. Plant and they will come… Here is a link to my site with pictures of some butterflies I have been able to photograph from egg all the way to butterfly.

  16. I like how catapillars eat there food, I love how you give me all these answers about catapillars and butterfly eat there food, and I like how the catapillars grow up by eating there food

  17. it never fails to amaze me to see the metamorphosis of a butterfly. great article.

  18. Caterpillars can be found on many varieties of parsley including wild carrot. Wild collected female butterflies also can lay eggs in screen cages with host plant.

  19. The adult Alfalfa Butterfly likes to sip nectar from milkweeds as well as Lessingia and other members of the aster family. They seem to prefer plants in the Asteraseae and Leguminase families but are by no means restricted to them.


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