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Flying colors
Learn to attract butterflies to your garden

Host plants are the plants on which the female butterflies lay their eggs, and no good butterfly garden is complete without them, says Janis Miller, horticulturist at Virginia Living Museum in Newport News.

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"Once the eggs hatch, the young butterfly larva — usually called a caterpillar — needs to eat," she says. "Unlike their parents, caterpillars eat leaves and can eat quite a lot before they are ready to transform into butterflies. So you can expect your host plants to look very ragged by late summer."

Many butterflies are very specific about their host plants and will not lay eggs in your garden if you don’t have the plants they need. Here are some of the host plants for some common butterflies:

Monarch — milkweed, climbing milkweed

Black Swallowtail — parsley, dill, fennel, Queen Anne’s lace

Zebra Swallowtail — pawpaw

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Painted Lady

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Red-Spotted Purple

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Spicebush Swallowtail


Spicebush Swallowtail — spicebush, sassafras

Tiger Swallowtail — wild cherry, birch, tulip poplar, ash, sweetbay

Great Spangled Fritillary — violets

Pearl Crescent — asters

Buckeye — plantain, snapdragon

Red Admiral — nettles

Mourning Cloak — willow, elm, birch, hackberry

Red-Spotted Purple — willow, poplar

Painted Lady — thistle, sunflower, hollyhock, common mallow


A good butterfly garden needs a variety of nectar plants that will produce continuous blooms throughout the season, including both tall and short species and large and small flowers, Janis says.

Adult butterflies predominantly feed on nectar — although some species do feed on fruit juices, tree sap or even animal dung.

Some good native nectar plants include:

Milkweed, Butterfly Weed (Asclepias species)

Aster (Aster species)

Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatoriadelphus species)

Sunflower (Helianthus species)

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Black Swallowtail caterpillar

Blazingstar (Liatris species)

Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta, R. fulgida, R. triloba)

Green Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata)

Rosinweed, Cup Plant (Silphium species)

Goldenrod (Solidago species)

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

Downy Lobelia (Lobelia puberula)

Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)

Bee Balm (Monarda didyma)

Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)

Beardtongue (Penstemon species)

Spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana)

Rose Verbena (Verbena canadensis)

Ironweed (Vernonia species)

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus)

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

Arrowwood, Possum Haw, Black Haw (Viburnum species)

Sweet Pepperbush or Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)

Buggy hospitality

Growing a butterfly garden? Don’t pick up that insect spray, says Christine Lewis, director of education at Virginia Living Museum, Newport News. 0701wildlife1.jpg (11626 bytes)

"Butterflies are insects, so the same chemicals designed to rid your garden of aphids and ants will also kill butterflies and their caterpillar offspring."

There are safe ways to control pests without jeopardizing your butterflies. A strong spray of water from the hose will knock off unwanted buggy visitors like aphids and spider mites. Put on a pair of garden gloves and pick off the bigger bugs.

If you seem to be losing the battle against insect pests and can’t seem to control them any other way, use a mild insecticide — like a soap spray — that breaks down quickly in the environment. Apply it on a calm day so the mist doesn’t drift, and spray only the pests, not all the plants in your garden. Be careful to avoid spraying caterpillars, butterflies and moths.

Remember, too, you need host plants for caterpillars to eat so they can become butterflies. Those green-black striped, yellow-dotted caterpillars on your parsley soon become gorgeous black swallowtail butterflies.

When your yard is full of beautiful butterflies this summer you’ll agree that a few chewed leaves are a small price to pay.

Photos: David Liebman of Norfolk


Now- Oct. 7 Butterflies, Bugs ‘n Blooms — real butterflies and blooming plants — returns for a second year at the Virginia Living Museum, 524 J. Clyde Morris Blvd., Newport News. Volunteers help visitors identify local insects and butterflies and share tips on creating a backyard haven for wildlife of all kinds.

Now- Oct. 7 Pollination Station. Watch live chrysalides emerge into butterflies. Enjoy interactive exhibits about pollinators. Younger visitors can act out the stages of pollination with puppets.

Both included in regular VLM admission: $7 adult, $5 child (3-12). Call 757-595-1900; visit

Butterfly Festival: Caterpillars Are Cool, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Aug. 4, sponsored by Butterfly Society of Virginia at Norfolk Botanical Garden; $1 admission to festival/gardens. Tours, plants, accessories; 499-6789 or 625-7143.


Caterpillars are Cool — 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Aug. 4 Butterfly Festival 2001, sponsored by Butterfly Society of Virginia at Norfolk Botanical Garden. See the Bristow Butterfly Garden and adjacent Butterfly Maze and Four Seasons Garden. Take guided walks, hear guest speakers, build butterfly cages and learn how to turn your own yard into a butterfly magnet. Plant sale, vendors. Garden and festival admission $1 with coupon from butterfly society. Call Ruth Burch at 499-6789 or Don Snipes at 625-7143.

Shop for butterfly-attracting plants during the fall wildflower sale Sept. 22-23 at Virginia Living Museum, 524 J. Clyde Morris Blvd., Newport News. Call 595-1900.

For information on how to raise monarchs, visit,   an educational program. Also visit the North American Butterfly Association at

Turn your home, school or workplace into a registered Backyard Wildlife Habitat for butterflies, birds and other small animals. Visit or call (716) 461-3092; for general information, call (703) 438-6100. National Wildlife Federation sponsors the program.

August 2001

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