Planning for butterflies

Planning for butterflies.

It’s never too early to start thinking about the next growing season in the garden. Last summer, enough butterflies visited my garden to get me started thinking of ways to attract more. More butterflies of each species as well as more species.

To that end, I am interested in learning more about butterfly habits and habitat. What wildflowers and weeds, yes, weeds, can I nurture that will attract more butterflies. The gardens need more larval food plants for butterflies as well as more butterfly-friendly flowers for nectaring over a longer period of time. I need to know much more about north Jersey butterflies, and what better time to study up on them than during the dark days of November.

So, 5 different species of butterflies visited the gardens last summer that I know of. Well, 6 if I were to count cabbage butterflies, which I refuse to do. Live and let live is what I say to the fluttery little cabbage butterflies. You are responsible for cabbage worms in my kale. I will cover my kale with bed covers to keep you out. So flutter all you want to. I plan to ignore you in my butterfly planning.

Using the NABA-North Jersey Butterfly Club website as my authority, I will first record my 5 butterfly species’ preferences in terms of flowers for nectaring and larval food plants, as well as their time spent in New Jersey and their overwintering stage if they are north Jersey residents. The North Jersey Club website records 92 butterfly species photographed in New Jersey since the year 2000, so I can hope to welcome many more butterfly species to the garden. Actually, I would be just as happy to welcome larger populations of, say, monarchs, or any of the swallowtails. I have much to hope for.


Eastern tiger swallowtails (Papilio glaucus) are residents in north Jersey. Their populations are common and widespread. The photos above were taken on July 21 and July 24. The photo at left above is of a female eastern tiger swallowtail. The photo at right above is of a male. The blue markings near the tail of the female provide the gender clue.

Eastern tiger swallowtails are attracted to purple coneflowers, as can be seen in these photos. They also like wild bergamot and milkweeds.

Their flight period is from May to early June, and from July to mid-August. Extreme flight dates for New Jersey are 4/2 to 10/11.

Eastern tiger swallowtails have 2 larval food plants listed–black cherry (Prunus serotina) and tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera). I do not know of any black cherries or tuliptrees in this area, but I must learn to identify these trees and see how close by they might be found.

Eastern tiger swallowtails overwinter in New Jersey as pupa.


Black swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes) are residents of New Jersey. Their populations are common and widespread. The above photo is from September 14. The flower is a verbena. Photos of black swallowtails in my garden were taken from September 14 to September 18.

Black swallowtails are attracted to purple coneflowers and milkweeds. Also verbena, evidently.

Their flight period is from early April to mid-October. Extreme flight dates range from 4/7 to 10/19.

Black swallowtails have several larval food plants common to most vegetable gardens. They include fennel, parsley, and dill. Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), or wild carrot, is another larval food plant.

Black swallowtails overwinter in New Jersey as pupa.


Giant swallowtails (Papilio cresphontes) are residents of New Jersey. They are locally common. I take “locally common” to mean not widespread. The only photos of a giant swallowtail in my garden were taken on September 18, when this butterfly was attracted to the gardens by red zinnias. The giant swallowtail in the photo above seems old and worn.

Giant swallowtails are attracted to purple coneflowers, milkweeds, and wild bergamot. Also red zinnias, evidently.

Their flight periods are from late April to early May and again in mid-July. Worn individuals may be seen in late September, according to NABA-North Jersey website. So this worn giant swallowtail in the gardens was right on schedule.

Larval food plants for giant swallowtails include common prickly ash (Xanthoxylum americanum) and common rue (Ruta graveolens).

Giants swallowtails overwinter in New Jersey as pupa.


Red admirals (Vanessa atalanta) are non-residents of New Jersey. They are migrants. Irruptions of red admirals occur in New Jersey once a decade, the last irruption occurring in 2012. Although they are migrants, their populations are common and widespread in New Jersey. The photo above was taken in the garden on July 10. This red admiral is enjoying a purple coneflower, but July 10 is also during a time when fallen ripe pears are plentiful under the old pear tree.

Red admirals are attracted by overripe fruit. Oh, no. Don’t pick up those rotten pears covering the ground in the summer. Save them for the red admirals. Also for Daisy, my yellow lab. Also for the blue jays and the European starlings. Also for the robins and all sorts of bees and wasps. Probably for some night critters. Rotten pears are a nuisance for us but a vital source of food for many of the wild ones. Well, Daisy isn’t exactly wild, but she sure loves fallen ripe pears.

Flight period for red admirals is from late March to late November with peaks in May, early summer, and late August to September. Extreme flight dates range from 3/24 to 11/22.

Larval food plants are nettles (Urtica spp.), including stinging nettles (U. dioica).

Overwintering does not occur in New Jersey. Red admirals are migrants.


Finally, monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus). I’m pleased and proud to say that 2 monarchs passed through the garden on September 18. Monarchs are nonresidents of New Jersey. They are migrants, as we all know. But they are common and widespread on their passage through. I hope they will continue to be common and widespread.

They are attracted to milkweeds, purple coneflowers, asters, and goldenrods. Also verbena, evidently, since the monarch pictured above is enjoying a verbena.

Flight period for monarchs in New Jersey is from mid-April to November with extreme flight dates from 4/15 to 11/23.

Larval food plants are milkweeds.

Overwintering stage is as adults, but not in New Jersey.

So. What have I learned about planning for butterflies.

First, can I provide flowers for butterflies from late March through late November. No, but I can do better than I’m doing now. For 1 thing, I can do a better job deadheading the spent flowers, thus encouraging new blossoms to take their place. Purple coneflowers will keep producing new blooms if the old ones are deadheaded. I guess that’s true of most flowers.

I also want to expand the beds for native wildflowers. Since our backyard neighbors removed white walnut and Norway maple scrubby trees from our back fence line, there are now sunny areas where new trees and wildflowers can be introduced. This will require work but will be a wonderful addition to the garden. I want more of everything already present–purple coneflowers, wild bergamot, milkweeds, and verbena. I started some asters this fall but probably need more. I have parsley, fennel, and dill in the vegetable garden, but should plant more in dispersed areas to be overwintered. Should I plant Queen Anne’s lace. It’s definitely a weed, in that it will spread aggressively if not kept under control.

I remember seeing white Queen Anne’s lace along the roads in upstate New York, intermingled with blue chicory and a little yellow flower I never learned the name of. What a beautiful mixture of colors and textures. All weeds, of course. Or wildflowers, if you prefer. Chicory is growing in the old apple tree area of my gardens. I keep it under control by cutting it back before it goes to seed. I could probably do the same with the Queen Anne’s lace.

More milkweeds are always in order, given the loss of milkweeds due to ever more intensive agricultural practices diminishing this crucial monarch larval food plant. Of course, milkweeds are good nectaring flowers for other butterfly species. Don’t get sucked into buying cool hybrid milkweed seeds, since butterflies may not recognize them as food plants. I once bought some Cheyenne Spirit coneflower seeds which I planted alongside the common purple coneflowers. I have never seen a bee, wasp, or butterfly on the Cheyenne Spirit coneflowers, while the purple coneflowers next to them are buzzing with activity. The same is true for milkweeds.


Tried and true milkweeds include pink swamp milkweed (Asclepius incarnata), seen at left, orange butterfly weed, or pleurisy root (A. tuberosa), seen at right, and purple milkweed (A. purpuracens), no photo of that.

I’m thinking of introducing some common milkweed (A. syriaca) into my garden. Remember that all these milkweeds are indeed weeds with seed pods blowing in the wind in the fall if you don’t control them. I have neighbors who are proud of their manicured lawns, watered by in-ground irrigation systems, cared for by lawn services with lots of big noisy machinery, and decorated from time to time with herbicide flags. They would not be happy if my weeds infringed on their expensive suburban lawns. So, I have to strike a balance between keeping a neat garden and attracting butterflies. That’s life. I think I’m safe introducing more milkweeds along the back fence, and taking care of them. I’m not talking about acres of land after all. Only small beds that can be managed.

I should mention that milkweeds also spread by rhizomes.


Goldenrods (Solidago spp.), seen above, get a bad rap because they get confused with ragweed. Look at the bumblebee. That bumblebee is out late in the season, and the goldenrod is the only available flower. I didn’t plant these goldenrods. They just showed up. Goldenrods are a good autumn flower for butterflies, and bees, after summer flowers are gone. They have beautiful yellow blooms and are pollinated by insects, as is evident in the photo. Ragweed blooms are an inconspicuous green since they are pollinated by the wind and have no need to attract insects. Goldenrods spread by rhizomes. That’s worrisome. Rhizomes are super hard to get rid of. Think of mugwort and Japanese knotweed. Ugly. So, maybe goldenrod, but keep it confined, if possible. However, it does seem to grow wherever it pleases.

I draw the line at stinging nettles, also spread by rhizomes, since they can cause itching and swelling if their stinging hairs come in contact with your skin. Those red admirals just have to find their larval food plant elsewhere. I would be interested in finding stinging nettles in the parks. I’m probably walking by some every day and just not identifying them.

Larval food plants in the form of trees are harder. Tuliptrees, for example, are large trees, probably not appropriate for a small area. Fortunately, the gardens are surrounded by municipal parks that perhaps contain some of the needed trees. I have to find out. Black cherries are native to eastern North America. They also grow to 80 feet or more, so probably not a good tree for my small space. Again, what a great thing it would be to find them in the parks, or in other people’s yards. I hope so.

Finally, if butterfly pupa overwinter in New Jersey, do they overwinter on leaves. I guess so. When all the leaves are blown to curbside for municipal pickup, and disposed of, including in most of the parks, what chance do the pupa have to survive. Although the NABA-North Jersey website names tuliptrees and black cherries as larval food plants for the eastern tiger swallowtail, the website also has a photo of eastern tiger swallowtail eggs on an ornamental magnolia leaf. We have a magnolia tree in the garden. It has huge leaves that I usually mow with a mulching mower and put into the compost pile. This fall, I raked some magnolia leaves and started a pile for leaf mold. I wonder if butterfly pupa, if there are any, can survive in a pile of leaves inside a circle of wire fencing.

On September 18, I got photos of a black swallowtail in a bunch of dill that had fallen over. I wrote about this in the post September renewal. The photos, seen above, aren’t good, but to me they seem to catch the butterfly’s frantic search for something. She soon flew away. The dried up dill is still on the ground. Is it harboring black swallowtail pupa. I can’t find any. I don’t know.

So, I guess since I don’t know and I can’t tell, I should just do my best to provide appropriate flowers over an extended period of time, as well as some larval food plants, and leave the rest to nature. Here’s hoping for lots more butterflies in the garden next summer.


One Comment on “Planning for butterflies

  1. Pingback: Home-grown monarchs and milkweed – daysingarden

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