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What plants should I have in my garden to attract butterflies? What are "host plants" and "nectar plants"?

The butterfly life cycle starts with an egg, which the butterfly lays on a host plant. The egg hatches into a caterpillar, which feeds on the host plant. Eventually the caterpillar pupates (forms a chrysalis, or cocoon in the case of a moth). The cycle is complete when a butterfly emerges from the chrysalis and lays eggs.

During its butterfly stage, the insect only drinks nectar (and water) — it cannot “eat,” and for this reason it can’t grow larger or repair injury. When it emerges from the chrysalis, it’s everything it’s going to be. From that point on, it only “refuels” on nectar.

Eating and growing happens during the caterpillar stage. While most butterflies will feed on almost any necatr source, the host plants that the caterpillars consume are very specific to each species. Most species have one, or at best a few, species that they can eat. The adult butterfly lays its eggs on the host plant, and the caterpillar eats the host plant material until it pupates. If you only want feeding butterflies, you can plant your garden with only nectar plants, but if you want to have laying butterflies, eggs, and caterpillars for a species, you must provide the host plant for that species.

The table below is not meant to be an exhaustive list of species and their host plants — it only represents my own experiences in my gardens. The information is based on my own observations, and what I know works. Although most butterflies will feed on most nectar sources, I’ve also provided comments on specific nectar plants if I’ve moticed that certain species seem to favor or avoid them.

My Experiences with Host (and some Nectar) Plants
Species Host Plant(s) Nectar Plant(s)
Cloudless Sulfur Various members of the Cassia family — I’ve seen eggs and caterpillars on Candlestick/Popcorn Cassia, Privet Cassia, Bahama Cassia. Different types of Cassia have different appearances and growth habits, so you can pick one that fits into your garden.
Zebra Longwing Passion Vine, preferably in the shade
Giant Swallowtail Wild Lime is their favorite. I have raised caterpillars on Hercules Club, but have not observed them laying on Hercules Club in my Gardens. It’s commonly said that they will also lay on other citrus, but I have other citrus trees in my Gardens, and have never seen them lay on anything but Wild Lime. Wild Lime, which is a Florida native plant, is your best bet. I’ve seen them feeding disproportionately on Dianthus, especially Amazon Dianthus, and on Buddiliea.
Gold Rim Swallowtail Pipevine. There are lots of different kinds of Pipevine; I have Dutchman’s Pipe and Dwarf Pipevine, and the butterflies lay prolifically on both. My experience has been that Gold Rims, like other Swallowtails, are especially fond of Buddiliea.
Black Swallowtail Fennel, Parsley, and Dill, though in my experience Dill is their least favorite. Also, my experience has been that they prefer flat-leafed Parsley to the curly-leafed kind. And green Fennel over bronze, though I have seen eggs laid, and raised caterpillars, on the bronze. If you have a choice in your garden, you’ll find that it’s a lot easier to spot eggs and caterpillars on Fennel than it is on Parsley.
Gulf Fritillary Many Passion Vine species (though not all — I’ve had no luck with the red-flowered ones), preferably in full sun. In my Gardens they especially love Zinnia, Lantana, and Penta.
Queen Milkweed. I have noticed that in my Gardens the Queens have a strong preference for laying on White Milkweed, if given the opportunity, though they will also lay on the more common Tropical Milkweed. I’ve never observed them laying on Giant Milkweed, but that could be because they have other choices. I’ve heard that they will lay on White Milkweed Vine, which is a native Florida plant, but I don’t have this in my Gardens (yet). Queens (and Monarchs) definitely show a preference for flowering milkweed, which most other butterflies, by contrast, pass up.
Monarch Milkweed. I’ve noticed that in my Gardens the Monarchs will lay prolifically on Tropical Milkweed, White Milkweed, or Giant Milkweed. They don’t seem to have a preference. Monarchs (and Queens) definitely show a preference for flowering milkweed, which most other butterflies, by contrast, pass up.

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