Butterflies & Host Plants

When planning your butterfly garden, it is important to match your host plants with the butterflies you want to attract. Here are the most common North American butterflies and their host plants. Note that many butterflies have different patterns on each side of their wings and undergo changes in appearance throughout their life cycles.   

Acmon Blue (Plebejus acmon)​

Range: Primarily California west of Sierra Nevada-Cascade Divide south to northern Baja California; precise limits in neighboring Oregon and Nevada not ascertained.

Caterpillar Hosts: Naked buckwheat (Eriogonum nudum) and other buckwheats, coyotebrush (Baccharis), lupines (Lupinus), milkvetches (Astragalus), and bird's-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus).

Adult Food: Flower nectar.

Photos: Alan SchmiererPublic Domain

American Painted Lady (Vanessa virginiensis) 

Range: Throughout United States.

Caterpillar Hosts: Plantain-leaved pussy toes (Antennaria plantaginifolia); burdock (Arctium); wormwood (Artemisia); asters (Asteraceae) including pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) and cudweed/everlasting (Gnaphalium obtusifolium); and ironweed (Vernonia).

Adult Food - Flower nectar, especially common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); asters (Asteraceae) including cudweed and everlasting; dogbane (Plectranthus); selfheal (Prunella); goldenrod (Solidago); marigold (Tagetes); and vetch (Vicia).

Photos: John FlanneryCC BY-SA 2.0

Baird’s Swallowtail (Papilio bairdii)

Range: Holarctic (northern half of globe). In North America, south from Alaska to northern British Colombia, east across Canada to western Quebec. Southern British Colombia south through New Mexico. 

Caterpillar Hosts: Parsley (Apiaceae) and Artemisia - including sagebrush, wild tarragon, and wormwood.

Adult Food: Flower nectar.

Photos: Dave Rogers by permission

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)

Range: Most of the eastern U.S., north into Quebec, west into Southern Saskatchewan, Colorado and Southeastern California; south to Northern South America. Subspecies color found in desert Southwest.

​Caterpillar Hosts: Parsley family (Apiaceae) including carrot, celery, dill, and Queen Anne's Lace; citrus (Rutaceae) are preferred.

Adult Food - Flower nectar, especially milkweeds (Asclepias), milk thistle (Silybum marianum) and other thistles, and red clover (Trifolium pratense).

Photos: Dean MorleyCC BY-ND 2.0

Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice)

Range: Alaska south through central and southeast Canada, all of contiguous United states except much of California, south Texas, and most of Florida.

Caterpillar Hosts: Pea family (Fabaceae), especially garden pea (Pisum sativum), alfalfa (Medicago sativa), and white clover (Trifolium repens).

Adult Food: Flower nectar.

Photos: (top) MeganmccartyPublic Domain; (bottom) John FlanneryCC BY-SA 2.0

Coral Hairstreak (Satyrium titus)

Range: Northern two-thirds of United States.

Caterpillar Hosts: Prunus species, especially wild cherry, wild plum, and chokecherry, rose family (Rosaceae).

Adult Food: Flower nectar, especially butterflyweed (Asclepias  tuberosa), New Jersey tea (Ceanothus  americanus), dogbane (Apocynaceae), and sulphur flower.

Photos: John FlanneryCC BY-SA 2.0

Dun Skipper (Euphyes vestris)

Range: Nova Scotia west across southern Canada to southern Alberta, south to Florida, the Gulf Coast and eastern Texas. Also found in the high plains and Rocky Mountains and along the Pacific Coast.

Caterpillar Hosts: Various sedges including chufa flatsedge (Cyperus esculentus) and sun sedge (Carex heliophila).

Adult Food: Nectar from white, pink, or purple flowers including common milkweed, purple vetch, selfheal, peppermint, dogbane, New Jersey tea, and viper's bugloss.

Photos: (top) Don LoarieCC BY 2.0; (bottom) Aaron Carlson, CC BY-SA 2.0

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)

Range: Eastern North America from Ontario south to Gulf coast, west to Colorado plains and central Texas.

Caterpillar Hosts: Leaves of various plants including wild cherry (Prunus), sweetbay (Magnolia), basswood (Tilia), tulip tree (Liriodendron), birch (Betula), ash (Fraxinus), cottonwood (Populus), mountain ash (Sorbus), and willow (Salix).

Adult Food: Nectar of flowers from a variety of plants including wild cherry and lilac (Syringa vulgaris). Milkweed (Asclepias) and Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium) are favorites in summer.

Note the many color variations of this butterfly (at right).

Photos: (top) dr.scott.mills, CC BY 2.0; (bottom) The Peanut GalleryCC BY-SA 2.0

Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes)

Range: Throughout eastern North America west to the Rocky Mountains, south through the desert Southwest to South America. A rare stray to Quebec, North Dakota, and Bermuda.

Caterpillar Hosts: Trees and herbs of the citrus family (Rutaceae) including citrus species, prickly ash (Zanthoxylum americanum), hop tree (Ptelea trifoliata), and common rue (Ruta graveolens).

Adult Food: Nectar from lantana, azalea, bougainvilla, bouncing Bet, dame's rocket, goldenrod, Japanese honeysuckle, and swamp milkweed.

Photos: (top) Thomas BressonCC BY 2.0; (bottom) Greg GilbertCC BY-SA 2.0 

Gray Comma (Polygonia progne)

Range: Northwest Territories and British Columbia south along Pacific coast to central California, southeast through Montana, Utah, Colorado, and the Dakotas to eastern Nebraska, central Kansas, and central Arkansas; east through southern Canada and the northern United States to Maine and the Maritimes; south in the Appalachians to North Carolina.

Caterpillar Hosts: Gooseberries (Ribes) and azalea (Rhododendron).

Adult Food: Sap; rarely flower nectar.

Photos: Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarrenCC BY 2.0

Great Purple Hairstreak (Atlides halesus)

Range: Guatemala north to central California, east through Texas and southern Missouri to Maryland.

Caterpillar Hosts: Mistletoe (Phoradendron species) growing on several tree species.

Adult Food: Nectar from flowers including goldenrod, Hercules club, shepherd's needle, sweet pepperbush, and wild plum.

Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)

Range: South America through Central America, Mexico, and the West Indies to the southern United States. Occasionally wanders north to the central United States.

Caterpillar Hosts: Various species of passion-vine including maypops (Passiflora incarnata) and running pop (P. foetida).

Adult Food: Nectar from lantana, shepherd's needle, cordias, composites, and others.

Photos: John FlanneryCC BY-ND 2.0

Henry's Elfin (Callophrys  henrici)

Range: Maine west through southern Canada to Wisconsin, south to Texas, the Gulf Coast, and central Florida.

Caterpillar Hosts: Diverse plants in Texas; dahoon (Ilex cassine), American holly (I. opaca), and yaupon (I. vomitoria) in Florida and North Carolina. Redbud (Ceriscanadensis), huckleberries and blueberries (Vaccinium species), Mexican buckeye (Ungnadia speciosa), and Viburnum species are selected in other locations.

Adult Food: Where redbud is the caterpillar host, its flowers are the main nectar supply for adults. In other places, flowers of plants that are not the caterpillar host are used for nectar including willows, wild plum and hawthorn, and forstiera.

Photos: John FlanneryCC BY-SA 2.0

Monarch (Danaus plexippus)

Range: Southern Canada south through all of the United States, Central America, and most of South America. Also present in Australia, Hawaii, and other Pacific Islands.

Caterpillar Hosts: All milkweeds (Asclepias spp) in North America and milkweed vine in the tropics.

Adult Food: Nectar from all milkweeds. Early in the season before milkweeds bloom, monarchs visit a variety of flowers including dogbane, lilac, red clover, lantana, and thistles. In the fall adults visit composites including goldenrods, blazing stars, ironweed, and tickseed sunflower.

Photos: (top) F Delventhal, CC BY 2.0, (bottom) John FlanneryCC BY-SA 2.0

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)

Range: On all continents except Australia and Antarctica. From the deserts of northern Mexico, the Painted Lady migrates and temporarily colonizes the United States and Canada south of the Arctic. Occasionally, population explosions in Mexico will cause massive northward migrations. The Painted Lady is also known as the Thistle Butterfly because of the caterpillars' food preference and also as the Cosmopolitan because it is the most widely distributed butterfly in the world.

Caterpillar Hosts: More than 100 host plants have been noted; favorites include thistles (Asteraceae), hollyhock and mallow (Malvaceae), and various legumes (Fabaceae). 

Adult Food: The Painted Lady prefers nectar from composites 3-6 feet high, especially thistles; also aster, cosmos, blazing star, ironweed, and joe-pye weed. Flowers from other families that are visited include red clover, buttonbush, privet, and milkweeds.

Pygmy Blue (Brephidium exilis or Brephidium exile)

Range: Central California east to southern Nevada, central Arizona, central New Mexico, and west Texas. South through southern California, Baja California, and Mexico to Venezuela. Migrates to Arkansas, Nebraska, and Oregon.

Caterpillar Hosts: Pigweed (Chenopodium album), saltbush species (Atriplex), and others in the goosefoot family (Chenopodiaceae).

Adult Food: Flower nectar.

Painted Lady (1) Ettore Balocchi, (2) John FlanneryCC BY-SA 2.0; Pygmy Blue by  Alan Schmierer, public domain