Enticing North Texas Butterflies

Enticing North Texas Butterflies to Your Yard by Nancy Collins

Just about everyone on the planet (north Texas included) likes butterflies. So we should know that all butterflies are attracted by certain, specific plants. Two kinds of plants! The plants they look for are the “host plants” they lay eggs on, and the nectar-producing plants that the adult butterflies need for food. This is the way it’s been for millions of years.

Attracting butterflies is always a gamble. You must begin, however, with the host plants they need. These are the only plant species that the mother lays eggs on, since the larvae can only eat these specific plants. An example is the Monarch butterfly, and their host plant – milkweed (including butterfly weed). Milkweed contains a mild toxin to which the young caterpillar is immune. He ingests it, however; and so does any predator who eats the caterpillar. So predators, such as large insects, mice and birds have learned not to dine on Monarch caterpillars.

Unfortunately, many of the host plants that butterflies need are being mowed down or sprayed with weed killer. Host plants that are unknowingly in danger of disappearing include passion-vines, milkweeds, asters, hackberries, frogfruit, sunflowers and partridge peas. This happens when a host plant is considered a “weed”. The female butterfly may then choose death if a suitable host plant can’t be found.

Indiscriminate use of pesticides is also responsible for the demise of many butterfly eggs and caterpillars as well as mature butterflies. They are insects, after all! So if you spray a pesticide even once, it’s likely you’ll have NO butterflies.

In a period of just a week or two, a female butterfly can lay hundreds of eggs on a host plant. Yet only a few of them will become adult butterflies. On average, out of 500 eggs, only five survive the typical backyard living conditions in Texas. Butterflies-to-be are most vulnerable to predators and disease during this period – the caterpillar (larval) stage in the spring. During this time they’re still totally flightless, clinging to the host plants where they were born.

This pathetic survival rate can be frustrating to gardeners who are intent on luring these beauties by planting the host plants and nectar plants necessary for laying eggs and feeding larvae.

Throughout our hot, dry summer (when must butterflies grow up) and into the fall, nectar plants are vital to an adult butterfly’s survival, particularly for migrating butterflies such as Monarchs, as they “bulk up” for a long flight. They also need a water source – and they prefer one that’s very shallow. Some even prefer mud.

Many butterflies migrate. The attractants to a butterfly searching for a home are an abundance of the right kind of host plants for their eggs, nectar-producing plants, and places to hide from predators. Our environment supplies many of their favorite plants natively, Additionally, butterflies often get nectar from tree sap and rotten fruit. Texas is also an “aerial highway” for spring and fall butterfly migrations as they make their way to and from their wintering home. Monarchs are most notable in this respect, but every spring north Texas is treated to large clouds of Gulf Fritillaries.

All plants produce nectar, but some more than others. Butterflies know instinctively which ones to look for. The “right kinds of plants” for attracting butterflies here include mistflower, verbena, lantana, Turk’s cap, milkweed, butterfly weed, scarlet sage/salvia, alyssum and yarrow. Other climatic regions certainly have other native plants that attract butterflies, too. I’d also recommend passion vine, Mexican plum, hop ash, clover, sunflower and sumac. Most tall, native grasses (like bluestem, switchgrass, muhly, indiangrass etc.) are good too. Most are native to Texas, and those that are not are native to an adjoining state.

If you’re serious about attracting butterflies, nothing should be sprayed on your landscape that’s artificial, man-made or poisonous. Caterpillars (which become pupae, which become adult butterflies) are often confused with more destructive bugs and are squashed or sprayed on sight. For example, a homeowner will kill a green, yellow and black caterpillar on a parsley plant without realizing it would soon become a gorgeous Black swallowtail.

There are hundreds of butterfly species (and attractive moths) that visit Texas. A few of the more popular species in this area, their host plants and their favorite nectar sources are:

BUTTERFLY

HOST (LARVAL FOOD)

ADULT NECTAR SOURCES

Tiger swallowtail Mexican plum, green ash, camphor tree, blackberry, cottonwood. Butterfly weed & other milkweeds, abelia, butterfly bush. salvias
Black swallowtail Parsley, dill, wild carrot, Dutchmans breeches, fennel Lantana, milkweed, clover, fruit tree blossoms, clover, mistflower, aster
Pipevine swallowtail Dutchman’s pipe Thistle, lantana, frostweed, phlox, cardinal flower, sand-verbena
Giant swallowtail Hop ash, trifoliate orange, Hercules’ club, black cherry Lantana, milkweed, coral honeysuckle, butterfly bush
Monarch All milkweed species, inc. butterfly weed Mistflower, lantana, sunflowers. frostweed, goldeneye
Cloudless giant sulpher Partridge pea, senna Turks cap, salvia, lantana, cardinal flower, hibiscus
Hackberry Hackberry, sugarberry Varied
American lady Thistle, composites Thistle, gayfeather, aster, clover
Painted lady Thistle, milfoil, mugwort and mallow Thistle, gayfeather, aste
Gulf fritillary Passion-vine, passion-flower, violets Mistflower, lantana, aster, goldeneye, butterfly bush
Variegated fritillary Violet, pansy, passion-flower, purslane All flax species, mistflower. clover
Great purple hairstreak Cottonwood , mesquite, sycamore Mexican plum, creek plum. goldenrod, ragweed
Red admiral Nettle, false nettle Mistflower, milkweed, aster
Buckeye frog fruit, plantain, snapdragon, flax, ruellia, paintbrush Same – plus purple gerardia and composites
Queen All milkweed species, inc. butterfly weed Boneset, mistflower, milkweed, frog fruit
Viceroy Cottonwood , willow, some fruit trees Most nectar-producing plants
Question mark All elms (inc. cedar), hackberry, nettle Aster, milkweed, inc. butterfly weed
Common skipper Hibiscus, mallow, hollyhock Fleabane, dandelion, milkweed, aster, frog fruit
Fiery skipper Native grasses Most nectar-producing plants
Zebra longwing Passion-vine, passion-flower Lantana, mistflower, boneset, goldeneye
Checkered white Mustards Most nectar-producing plants

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