I was an extremely picky eater as a kid, as was my husband. Occasionally I give him grief if he turns his nose up at green things, and then he reminds me I’m probably the only millennial that doesn’t eat sushi. But for the most part we’ve expanded our culinary tastes.
In the insect world. there are a lot of picky eaters; insects that are specialists only eat a few plants, kind of like that super picky kid that only eats chicken nuggets.
Some specialists are pests, which makes it easier to identify them when they are on your vegetables.
“Oh yea, fat green caterpillar on tomato? Probably tomato hornworm, that guy is obsessed with tomatoes.”
My favorite group of specialists though are butterflies; like many of us, they are only really picky as kids (or for butterflies, caterpillars). As adults, butterflies sip nectar from a multitude of plants, but caterpillars only eat leaves from a few plants. Monarchs are a great example. Monarchs only lay eggs, and caterpillars only eat, milkweed. Swamp milkweed, whorled milkweed, clasping milkweed, butterfly weed, red-ring milkweed, they like them all (don’t plant tropical or common milkweed though — those are both no-no’s for Georgia).
Planting nectar-rich flowers from spring to fall will attract butterflies, but if you want to up your butterfly garden game, plant host plants. With host plants, you get to witness the whole cycle. It is exciting when you first notice tiny caterpillars crawling around your host plant. We had monarch and gulf fritillary caterpillars last year, and once they arrived we had to do a family check on them at least once a day mark their progress. It won’t take them long to grow. Your plants will be nibbled. Actually, at close to full maturity these caterpillars are comparable to bottomless pit teenagers, so it is likely they will nibble your host plant to the ground. But, that’s kind of the point, and it will grow back. Meanwhile, the caterpillars will transform, provided they don’t get eaten by birds, into butterflies that you can enjoy flitting over your blooms the rest of the season.
Here are some butterflies and their host plants to consider introducing to your garden this year.
Zebra swallowtails have vertical black and white stripes. This butterfly looks exotic to me, but its host is our native pawpaw tree. Pawpaws are a good understory tree; they occupy space beneath larger trees, like a large shrub, and have the added benefit of providing fruit.
Passionflower, known in my neck of the woods as Maypop, is a fantastic native vine. Its flowers are purple and frilly. or maybe frizzy? The bloom of this plant is a little wild, but so is the caterpillar it supports. Gulf fritillaries begin life as bright orange caterpillars covered in black spikes. The adult butterfly is mostly orange, with some black flecks on the wings.
Black swallowtail is familiar to many gardeners. Parsley and dill are both in the preferred plant family for these black and yellow beauties. I don’t eat that much parsley, so I’m not particularly bothered if the swallowtails get to it first, but if you are looking for a native option to distract them from your herbs, try golden alexander. Also called Zizia, this perennial has yellow blooms that look like a cross between Queen Anne’s lace and yarrow. It is a beautiful herbaceous perennial, and makes a good cut flower.
All living things need food, water and a place to raise their young. By accommodating nature’s picky eaters, host plants can complete your backyard habitat while adding interesting native plants to your landscape.
There are many more options to add to your garden this year. For more host plant ideas, check out the Georgia Butterflies Brochure from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources at georgiawildlife.com. This brochure has photos of the adult, larva and host plant, and is frequently referenced during the summer in my household. If you are interested in planting milkweed for monarchs, check out the State Botanical Garden’s Monarch Butterflies and Georgia’s Gardeners brochure at botgarten.uga.edu. It has information about monarchs, the best milkweeds for our part of Georgia, and information about the milkweeds you should avoid.