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Butterflies are some of our most beautiful pollinators. There is something romantic and magical about them fluttering in your flower bed or the prairie.

Most adult butterflies can nectar on many different garden flowers. They need a plant that they can land on so they have time to uncurl their long mouth parts (proboscis) to sip nectar.

It is easier for the butterflies to find the nectar plants if you plant multiples of the same plant in your garden area. In a clump would be nice, or several species over a small area intermixed with each other. A mix that will bloom summer through fall.

Some of my favorite native plants with nectar for butterflies are Agastache foeniculum (Anise hyssop), Asclepias spp. (milkweeds), Aster spp. [for fall], Echinacea pallida or E. purpurea (pale purple and purple coneflowers), Eupatoriadelphus purpureus (Joe-Pye weed), Liatris spp. (blazing stars), Lithospermum canescens (Hoary Puccoon) [love that name], Lobelia spp., Monarda fistulosa (wild bergamot or bee balm), Phlox spp., Pycnanthemum spp.(mountain mint), Rudbeckia spp., Solidago spp. (showy and stiff goldenrod) and Verbena stricta (Hoary vervain).

Add several to your garden for the beauty and to feed the pollinators.

Caterpillars are young butterflies or moths and are as different from the adults as they can be.

They don’t eat the nectar of the flowers. They eat the foliage of the plant. They chew and chomp.

We don’t always like this part, but without caterpillars, there are no butterflies.

Some of the caterpillars will accept several host plants, and some of them are paired couples and have a favorite host plant.

They are more specific in the plants they need. For these caterpillars and butterflies, the native plant is critical. They have a longstanding ecological association. The monarch is the best-known example of this.

The caterpillars eat only milkweeds. The most common species planted for them are (common milkweed) Asclepias syriaca, (prairie milkweed) A. sullivantii and (butterfly weed) A. tuberosa.

The butterfly weed fits better in an ornamental garden with its shorter habit, bright orange flowers and smaller leaves.

The caterpillars seem to like the common and prairie milkweeds better with their large oval leaves.

When the caterpillar reaches its last instar, it needs a lot of leaf area to grow to its final size before pupating to become the butterfly.

Another native butterfly with a close host association is the zebra swallowtail butterfly, found more in the southern part of our state, where there are more pawpaw trees, its caterpillar host plant.

The next example has its host plant right in its name, spicebush swallowtail. It can also feed on sassafras trees.

Sometimes you can find the “cute” chubby caterpillars rolled up in a leaf. It has eye spots on its back that make it look like a snake.

If you want to bring swallowtails to your own garden, the black swallowtail will lay its eggs on dill, fennel, parsley and carrots (wild-Queen Anne’s lace and garden).

You may have to protect the caterpillars from the birds as they get larger.

Welcome some new companions to your garden. Get out your catalogs and make some plans.

Dr. Lesley Deem is director and teacher at the University of Illinois Pollinatarium and Department of Entomology. For more information about scheduling a visit to the Pollinatarium virtually or in person, email

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