Selecting Caterpillar Host Plants

Selecting Caterpillar Host Plants

Did you know that caterpillars are very fussy eaters? This may come as a complete surprise to you. If you are bent on creating a true butterfly garden, you should familiarize yourself with the food needs of caterpillars.

The impassioned butterfly gardener will want to provide plants that support the butterfly in all of its life stages, including food sources the caterpillar likes. Also, the gardener should be aware that the food plants the butterfly larvae need as opposed to the nectar sources the adult butterfly requires are not necessarily the same.

In spite of how selective caterpillars are about their host plants, it is remarkable that their butterflies instinctively recall the appropriate plants on which to lay their eggs. It is not difficult to choose plants that will satisfy the needs of both the butterfly and the caterpillar once you learn which ones they each prefer.

The rewards of following this plan will be threefold. First, you will be providing both the caterpillar and its magical butterfly a lifelong home. Second, this will greatly increase the chance for butterflies to mate and reproduce right in your garden. Third, you will have the delightful opportunity to observe this fascinating process.

Keep in mind also that the female butterfly is very discriminating about where she lays her eggs, and will often spend hours choosing one specific leaf. She is very conscientious about this selection process, knowing her newborn caterpillars will depend on that particular leaf to be their food source.

So, which flowers can you begin with that will satisfy the persnickety caterpillar’s appetite, and also provide the exquisite butterfly with a bountiful nectar source?

Since most caterpillars love to feed on green leaves, you may think that planting any type of green leafy plant will suffice. Not so! It is a well known fact that butterfly caterpillars have a very limited range of host plants on which they like to feed. Most, in fact, will feed on only one or two host plant species in their lifetime. There are also some species of caterpillars that depend on just a single plant for their food source. For instance, the beautiful Monarch larvae prefer only milkweed!

Listed below are three suggested plants to give you a start in creating your first true butterfly garden.

Common Heliotrope - (Heliotropium arborescens)

Heliotrope is really a very old-fashioned plant, but one that both butterflies and caterpillars love. It grows well in partial shade if you live in a hot climate. If you are in a fairly mild climate, this delightful plant grows up to four feet in height, and has a shrubby appearance. Its leaves are veined and have a darkish purple cast, making them very appealing to the caterpillar. The lush, fragrant flowers of the heliotrope range from dark violet to white in color. “Black Beauty” and “Iowa” each produce deep purple flowers. Both the vibrant colors and the nectar supply of the heliotrope are excellent attractants for the butterfly.

Aster - (Asteraceae)

There are over 600 species of true asters, offering the butterfly gardener an almost unlimited choice of which ones to plant. Asters vary greatly both in color and shape, ranging from alpine varieties only six inches high to open branching plants of six feet. The tall species are ideal for back borders, whereas the compact varieties make very showy front borders for flower beds. Asters also thrive in all planting zones. Their flowers are either white or shades of red, pink, lavender, purple or blue, with most having yellow centers. Asters are resistant to most insects and plant diseases. This is a real plus, since the use of chemical pesticides is not appropriate for butterfly gardening.

Penstemon - (Beard Tongue or Scrophulariaceae)

This unique flower attracts both caterpillars and butterflies. Another good reason to choose the penstemon is that it also attracts the beautiful hummingbird! There are about 250 species of penstemon, with most being native to the western part of the United States from Canada to Mexico. They all have tubular flowers with the most common colors being red and blue. Others can be deep purple, lilac, white, pink, and also salmon and peach to deep rose in color. Penstemon grow in a variety of areas including high mountains, hot deserts, foothills and plains, and also in shady forest glades. They require good drainage and do best in loose soil with a bit of gravel. Penstemon are usually available at your favorite nursery during the planting season in your area, as most are sold as specialty plants.

One thing you should keep in mind if you want to be a true butterfly gardener is that you must be tolerant of caterpillars munching on the leaves of your lovely host plants. But remember, you can always plant a few extra plants for them to dine on. The results of doing this will be twofold; you likely won’t notice the missing leaves, and the caterpillars will thrive until it’s time for their beautiful butterflies to emerge.

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