Plan Now for a Caterpillar, Butterfly Habitat in Spring

Reader Contribution by Corinne Gompf and Heritage Harvest Farm
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Just the other day, I was outside watering my new cottonwood tree, when I saw this odd-looking little caterpillar. It was brown and white with tiny spike-like horns. I plucked the leaf from the tree and walked over to the barn where my husband was doing a bit of end-of-summer cleaning. We chatted about the caterpillar, neither one of us ever seeing one like this.

So I took a picture of the caterpillar to send to my friend, Samantha. She’s the first one I think of when I have a question regarding anything creepy-crawly, and I mean that in the best possible way. She’s a super-cool lady, interested in all things nature and is a licensed trapper. I knew she’d be the one who could tell me more about this little guy.

Within just a few minutes, Samantha responded that what I had in a jar on my kitchen counter was a viceroy caterpillar. I read over the link she sent me, and showed Fletcher and Emery the pictures of the butterfly it will become. What a beauty!

After reading that the viceroy caterpillars eat primarily cottonwood and willow leaves, it got me to thinking about creating a whole habitat area just for butterflies. And the next day while the kids and I waited for the school bus, we talked about digging up a few flower bed areas around our cottonwood tree to plant flowers that host and feed caterpillars and butterflies.

Plants for Caterpillars

A successful butterfly garden should have plants for all stages of their lifecycle. There are plants specific for feeding larvae and adult butterflies, and it’s a good idea to include a variety of annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees to attract a number of species to your property.

Milkweed: Of course milkweed has to be on the top of the list. As the food source for larval Monarch butterflies, Asclepias milkweed is a must for a butterfly garden. It is a perennial, so once established, it should return year after year. Milkweed isn’t too particular about its soil, but does prefer partial sun/shade. Actually, fall is the perfect time to mimic nature by seeding milkweed now in your flowerbed. After winter dormancy, you should see little sprouts in the spring.

Dill: I have a lot of black swallowtails fluttering around my herb bed, so adding dill to a butterfly garden makes total sense. Dill is a host plant for caterpillars, and there are a bunch of varieties to choose from, so you’re sure to find one that’s beautiful enough to put in a flower bed. I like growing “Superdukat” dill because it holds off flowering so I can get more harvestable leaves for market sales. But, I am open to trying quick-flowering varieties for butterflies (Now I can’t wait for my seed catalogues to arrive!). Dill is a quick-growing annual, so you should be able to get a few sowings in each year. And if you leave flowers in place to produce seeds, you may find that dill will self-seed and end up with free plants the following spring (this happened in my hoophouse).

Hollyhock: Painted Lady caterpillars munch on good, old-fashioned hollyhocks and other meadow-type plants. Hollyhocks are perfect for the back of the butterfly garden because of their height, sometimes growing to eight feet. They like full sun and well-drained soil, and are easy to grow once established. I’ve never had luck growing them from seed, but if you’ve got a start from a friend, or purchase a potted plant from a store or nursery, hollyhocks are a lovely flower for your butterfly habitat.

Plants for Butterflies

Of course, all of the above plants are a food source for adult butterflies, as are many flowers. From asters to zinnias, you’ll find butterflies on just about anything you provide in your flower garden. But just as a little insurance to make your winged beauties happy, consider these nectar plants to add to your landscape.

Buddleia: Also known as a butterfly bush, buddleia is readily available at most nurseries and box stores, and is a nectar plant to many species of butterflies. It’s a deciduous shrub, with long, elegant flowers that bloom throughout the growing season. Many varieties now offer colors that will complement your butterfly garden.

Asters: Attracting monarchs and painted ladies is just one of the reasons to plant asters in your butterfly garden. These perennial flowering plants are a colorful burst in late summer/early fall, and keep your butterflies fed toward the end of the season. Aster germination can prove a bit unpredictable, so I recommend purchasing plants or getting a start from a friend’s garden. Asters prefer full sun and well-drained soil.

Tickseed: Ah, coreopsis! One of my favorite perennials, I like to plant bright yellow coreopsis throughout the landscape. What I like about coreopsis is that it seems to thrive on my neglect (because, you know, life), and isn’t too picky. Well, all the plants listed here do not require too much care other than occasional watering during dry spells. There are many colors available now, and you’re sure to find one or two or three to add pops of mid-summer color to your butterfly garden.

So, if you’re like me, and already planning your spring garden in your mind, I hope this helps inspire you to make room for a butterfly habitat on your property. If you’ve got a favorite butterfly plant that I haven’t listed, please leave it in a comment below.

Corinne Gompf is a writer and hobby farmer in Morrow County, Ohio. She is a graduate from the University of Toledo, with a BA in English, creative writing concentration. Along with her husband, Matt, and two children, Fletcher and Emery, Corinne raises poultry, Boer goats, rabbits, and chemical-free produce. Connect with Corinne on her Heritage Harvest Farm Facebook page.


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