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Gardening: Plant delicious choices for caterpillars — and the butterflies they become

Plants like echinacea produces large quantities of nectar, which attracts frittilaries and many other butterflies. Photo by Mary Stickley-Godinez. #nosale

Mary Stickley-Godinez

Early in my life, I started a love affair. My mother found some black- and green-striped caterpillars.

They were on the dill, and so she brought them in and put them in a broken aquarium. Each day, we gathered more plants for them to eat and watched them chow down.

They grew and grew. And then, one day, they tied themselves to a branch and died. But Mom left them in the window and waited. And one day, one of the dried, shriveled mummies split down the back, and a wet, bedraggled creature pulled itself from the skin. He hung there, slowly pumping fluid into his wings, carefully stretching and slowly fluttering them as they dried into black velvet. We took him outside and lifted the lid, and he crept to the rim of the tank. And once he felt a light breeze, he flew out and into the sunlight.

I watched as he circled the yard, testing his new wings, and then once more as he settled on various flowers to feed on their sweet nectar. And I was hooked.

If we could plant dill to attract the Eastern black swallowtail, what would it take to get other butterflies? Unfortunately, my parents were not too thrilled at the idea of adding new plants to established beds. So I was just going to have to be content with the butterflies we already had. But once I started my own gardens? Well, then the game turned into just how many species I could make a home for.

To start, I planted plants that produced the nectar they fed on — butterfly bush, agastache, Shasta daisies, gaillardia, echinacea, asclepius, solidago, asters and eupatorium, just to name a few. But then I learned that though each type of butterfly will eat nectar from a number of different plants, its caterpillars can only eat one or two specific types. So if I fed the adults, they would eat and then leave to find plants on which to lay their eggs. But if I planted masses of the food plants for their babies, they would stay longer.

So in went violets for the great spangled fritillaries, pipevine for the pipevine swallowtails, milkweed for monarchs and spicebush for spicebush swallowtails. Tulip poplars, sassafras, hackberries and willows are all host to several different species. Clover also feeds a bunch of different babies. And, of course, dill for the Eastern Blacks. Yes, my plants have a few holes and chew marks on them. But never have any of my plants been killed by butterfly larvae.

I also found that many butterflies migrate. The most famous are the monarchs, which somehow find their way to Mexico each year — and their offspring find their way back the following spring. But many others also travel north or south, depending on the season. Others also will hibernate through the winter, waking up on warmer days to come out for a quick bite