Larvae Love

Black Swallowtail Caterpillar on Fennel

Black Swallowtail Caterpillar on Fennel



In a recent conversation a man mentioned how caterpillars were devastating his trees. He had no idea what they were but just knew that no good could come of the chewed leaves and other evidence of life he was finding in his trees.  Now it is true that there are some truly destructive caterpillars and caterpillar-like larvae that will do a number on trees, shrubs and perennials.  (Anyone else remember running around in the backyard as the chemical-dropping planes worked to control the gyspy moths on oaks in South Jersey after years of defoliation?)

In the same conversation, the gentleman discussed Monarchs and his want to protect butterflies and plant milkweed to help these familiar orange and black winged wildlife. When it was suggested that monarch caterpillars eat leaves of plants, that was just fine with him.

Curious – unknown caterpillar = bad, milkweed caterpillar = good.  Though his concern for the plight of the Monarch is noble, perhaps a broader view of the benefits of embracing the caterpillars in the garden would benefit butterflies and pollinators of all sorts.

Monarch Butterfly on Solidago Sp.

Monarch Butterfly on Solidago Sp.

When planting the oft sought after “Butterfly Garden” or “Pollinator Garden” many folks forget about the creepy crawly stage of the insects they are trying to attract and support. The gardener’s eyes are filled with visions of jewel-toned butterflies hovering in the garden sipping nectar from equally stunning floral displays. The wonderful thing is that when we welcome caterpillars into the garden we also put out the welcome mat for a great diversity of birds and other wildlife. In a recent article about gardening for wildlife, Douglas Tallamy explains 6,000 – 9,000 caterpillars are required raise a clutch of chickadees. While monarch caterpillars are known to be toxic to birds because they solely ingest the toxic sap of milkweed ( like that in the 5 types we have) and therefore not necessarily a food source for birds, many other caterpillars are less picky and more tasty.

While we carry a tremendous variety of nectar plants suitable for any ‘butterfly’ or ‘pollinator’ garden, we have a terrific number of plants just right for caterpillars, known as larval host plants. And we know you may not want to plant these simply to create a buffet for the local songbird population but, don’t worry, these plants will ensure the garden will have a diversity of plant species, colorful blooms, insects and birds.

Some plants are equally good larval hosts and nectar plants. Others, like many grasses and sedges, are perfect larval host plants, supporting the caterpillars until they are ready to transform into their flying selves and float off to the more colorful nectar plants.

Perennials

White Wood Aster

White Wood Aster

  • Milkweeds – it is unfortunate that the word ‘weed’ is in the name of this plant because some people treat it as one. Some species of this native perennial can be aggressive and Common Milkweed has been known to colonize an area where it is happy, but there are many other types of milkweed. In fact, there is a milkweed for any garden. The leaves are enjoyed by Monarch Caterpillars but the flowers are visited by many butterflies, bees, beneficial wasps, flies and beetles. Try Asclepias incarnata in your Wet Meadow. For drier sites and nutrient poor soils try the bright orange Asclepias tuberosa. For a drier meadow try Asclepias vericillata.
Asclepias tuberosa

Asclepias tuberosa

Baptisia 'Screaming Yellow'

Baptisia ‘Screaming Yellow’

Hibiscus coccineus

Hibiscus coccineus

  • Goldenrods – often maligned as the summer blooming plant that causes allergies (they’re not…read more here) these native perennials are caterpillar magnets! Great late pollen and nectar source for many types of insects, earlier in the year you will find Baltimore Checkerspot Caterpillars on Blue-Stem Goldenrod and Wrinkle-leaf Goldenrod.
  • Ironweeds – Ladies love a Vernonia – Painted Ladies, that is. Both the American Painted Lady and the Painted Lady will use the rough, dark green leaves of Ironweeds.
New York Ironweed

New York Ironweed

  • Violets – A list of butterfly larval host plants wouldn’t be complete without mention of the violet. The amethyst spring flowers are surrounded by heart-shaped leaves favored by Frittilaries.
  • Golden Alexanders – Like other members of the Apiaceae family, Giant green Black Swallowtail caterpillars can be found feasting on the leaves of both Heartleaf Alexander (Zizia aptera) and Golden Alexander (Z. aureus)
Heart Leaved Zizia

Heart Leaved Zizia

Sedges

Palm Sedge

Palm Sedge

Grasses

Little Bluestem

Little Bluestem

Vines

Trumpet Honeysuckle Buds

Trumpet Honeysuckle Buds

Trees and Shrubs – A discussion of plants for caterpillars would be incomplete without mention of the valuable native trees and shrubs that support caterpillars of many butterfly and moth species. As you plan your insect-friendly landscapes do not forget to include trees and shrubs as larval host plants. Some of the most valuable to a large variety of insect species include: Quercus sp., Prunus serotina, Salix sp., Lindera bezoin, and Rhus sp. 

American Painted Lady Caterpillar on Field Pussy Toes

American Painted Lady Caterpillar on Field Pussy Toes

We plant natives to support wildlife. We know in many cases there needs to be a balance between aesthetics and faunal value. This means we plant natives to support the complete life cycles of the wildlife we value and we accept holes chewed in leaves, We know that eventually our reward for tolerating some imperfections will be a glorious display of vibrant butterflies, dusky moths and warbling songbirds.

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