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Jessica Walliser

Launch your wildlife garden with butterflies

Jessica Walliser
| Friday, Feb. 27, 2015, 8:57 p.m.
The Milbert's tortoiseshell butterfly the author found in her garden last summer
Jessica Walliser
The Milbert's tortoiseshell butterfly the author found in her garden last summer

Gardening for wildlife is a huge trend for the 2015 season, and hopefully, for many more years to come. Gardeners all across the country are planting specialized gardens in hopes of supporting native pollinators, like bees and butterflies. They're also planting for songbirds and hummingbirds, and for beneficial insects like ladybugs, lacewings and praying mantids. It's a win-win for all involved.

Many of these creatures have declining population numbers due to habitat loss and pesticide exposure. Thankfully, wildlife gardening is enabling them to find some small patches of welcoming habitat as thousands of gardeners across the country are discovering the satisfaction of gardening for something other than themselves.

If you're interested in starting a wildlife garden of your own, butterfly gardening may be one of the easiest ways to start. The United States is home to some 500 to 600 species of butterflies, and many of the plants that support adult butterflies in their quest for nectar are gorgeous garden flowers that may already be at home in your garden.

Some of my favorites include zinnias, coneflowers, cosmos, Shasta daisies, bee balm, agastache, liatris, milkweeds, goldenrod, ironweed, Joe-Pye weed, sunflowers, tithonia, yarrow, butterfly bush and verbena. Be sure to include lots of these plants in your landscape.

But nectar sources aren't the only thing the butterflies need. Nearly all species of butterflies are very specific about which plants their growing caterpillars can eat.

Because of this, it's extremely important that your garden include as many larval host plants as possible.

Most gardeners are aware of the importance of milkweed to the monarch butterfly. It is their sole larval food source; meaning, monarch caterpillars can eat nothing else. But monarchs aren't the only butterflies that require very specific plants to survive.

Pipevine swallowtails, for example, can only feed on less than a half-dozen different species of plants, including Dutchman's pipe (Aristolochia). And the black swallowtail, a common butterfly here in Western Pennsylvania, requires members of the carrot family, such as dill, carrot, parsley and fennel for its young.

To support Eastern tiger swallowtails, who have a broader caterpillar host-food range, you'll want to plant plum and cherry trees, as well as willows, birches, elms and maples, to name a few. The red-spotted purple needs serviceberries, hawthorns, oaks and other trees. But the meadow fritillary can use only violets as a host plant for its caterpillars. That's a good enough reason for me to stop trying to rid my lawn of these little, purple flowers.

Last year, for the first time ever, I found a Milbert's tortoiseshell butterfly in my garden. I was surprised to learn that, like the monarch and the meadow fritillary, it is extremely host-specific in its larval stage. The caterpillars can feed only on stinging nettles, a weed I have pulled out more times than I can count due to its painful sting. But I think from now on, I will let the nettles be and cross my fingers in hopes of seeing a few more Milbert's tortoiseshell butterflies in my life. It will be worth it.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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