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What Do Caterpillars Eat? Host Plants

Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillar eating on Camphor Tree
Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar
eating a Camphor leaf

The plants that caterpillars eat are called host plants while the plants that adult butterflies eat (actually they "drink" nectar from the flowers) are called nectar plants. Each species of butterflies has specific host plants on which the adult butterflies lay their eggs.

The butterflies are particular about the plant on which they lay eggs because their caterpillars must have that distinct host plant to survive. The caterpillar will not eat if it does not have access to one of its specific host plants and thus it will die.

Listed below are several popular butterfly species and the host plants that their caterpillars eat. Some caterpillars are so picky that there is only one plant type that will support them. Many caterpillars will eat from a few plant types.

You may find that in one region of the country the butterfly caterpillars may prefer to eat a specific variety of their host plant more so than in another region. I've read that this can even vary from garden to garden and may be due to changes in soil types, pH, etc. So it is hard to say in most cases which is the "best" host plant for a certain butterfly.

If you are raising caterpillars indoors and you happen to run out of caterpillar food, you will probably be successful in changing their food source as long as it is in their group of host plants. Many caterpillars will easily eat from several food plants within their normal host plant range.

For example, we have had success with switching between fennel, parsley, dill or rue for a Black Swallowtail caterpillar. We have also had success in raising a Monarch caterpillar while switching out different milkweed varieties. Hopefully the table below will help you find something to feed your caterpillar if you happen to run out of food.

A great book about what caterpillars eat and how to raise them
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For an excellent book that will help with choosing what caterpillar food plants to grow in your area, check out The Family Butterfly Book by Rick Mikula. It has a section about best butterflies, host plants and nectar plants broken down by regions of the US including Hawaii, Alaska and parts of Canada. It is well illustrated with a lot of good information about raising butterflies. I own this book plus a book that is specific to my region (Butterflies of the East Coast by Rick Cech and Guy Tudor) which is very good as well.

The Family Butterfly Book is easy to read with alot of practical advice for raising butterflies while the Butterflies of the East Coast book is a bit more scientific but is a great reference book for East Coast butterflies as well as having alot of general butterfly information.

Here is a list of some common and/or popular backyard garden butterfies and what their caterpillars eat. Joyful Butterfly sells many of these caterpillar host plants (as well as nectar plants). All of our plants, and of course, seeds are grown to be safe for caterpillars and butterflies. Some of the plants listed below can be found at various nurseries online and some in local nurseries. Click on the linked plants below for pictures, information and sources.

What Caterpillars Eat:

Anise Swallowtailanise, parsley, carrot, dill, fennel, rue
Eastern Black Swallowtailparsley, carrot, dill, fennel, rue
Giant Swallowtailcitrus, hop tree, prickly ash, rue
Pipevine Swallowtaildutchman's pipe, pipevines (not the exotics), Virginia snakeroot
Spicebush Swallowtailspicebush (primarily), sassafras, camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora), various bays (Persea spp.)
Eastern Tiger Swallowtailmany broadleaf trees and shrubs, lilac, willow, birch, tuliptree, cherry
Zebra Swallowtailpawpaw
MonarchMilkweed (Asclepias)
Viceroywillow, poplar, aspen, apple, cherry, plum
Red-Spotted Purpleapple, aspen, cherry, hawthorn, hornbeam, poplar, willow
Great Spangled Fritillaryviolets, (Viola tricolor)
Variegated FritillaryViolets, (Viola tricolor), pansies, stonecrops, passionflowers, plantains
Meadow Fritillaryviolets (Viola sororia, Viola pallens)
Mourning Cloakelm, poplar, willow
Question Markelm, hackberry, hop, nettle, false nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica)
Green Commarhododendron, azalea, birch, willow
Red Admiralnettle, false nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica), hop
Painted Ladymembers of the mallow family, Malva sylvestris, Tree mallow (Lavatera), thistles, goosefoots
American Painted Ladydaisies, everlastings, other composites, Hollyhock (Alcea rosea)
Buckeyeplantain, snapdragon, stonecrop, verbena, (Verbena bonariensis), other garden flowers
Baltimore Checkerspotturtlehead, false foxglove, plantain, white ash
Pearly Crescentspotasters New England Aster (A. novae-angliae)
Great Purple Hairstreakmistletoes
Gray Hairstreakcotton, mallows, strawberry, legumes, mints
American Coppersheep sorrel, curly dock, mountain sorrel
Tailed Blueclovers, beans, peas
Spring Azureblueberry, California lilac, dogwoods, meadowsweet, viburnums
Cloudless Sulphursenna, clovers, other legumes
Clouded Sulphurclovers and other legumes
Orange Sulphurwhite clover, alfalfa, vetch, lupine
Dogfacefalse indigo, clovers, lupine, vetch, leadplant
Checkered Whitecrucifers, Cleome
Cabbage WhiteCabbage, Mustards, other crucifers, nasturtium
Zebra Longwingpassionflowers
Gulf Fritillarypassionflowers, (Passiflora caerulea)
Malachiteyerba papagayo

Monarch butterflies and Black Swallowtail butterflies (Anise Swallowtail butterflies in the West) are popular, easy, and beautiful caterpillars/butterflies to raise indoors. They are found throughout most of the US and beyond. If you are new to raising butterflies then you may want to start by planting what these caterpillars eat. Parsley (curly or flat leaf) and common rue are my personal favorites for Black Swallowtail caterpillars in my Southeast area and Tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) is my current favorite for the Monarch caterpillars.

These plants are attractive and well behaved in a garden setting and the Milkweed has the added advantage of being a popular nectar plant as well. Parsley can be found in most local garden centers (but ask around about pesticides that may have been used on the plants - it will kill the caterpillars). The common rue plant is a perennial and will start easily from seeds or cuttings. Tropical milkweed starts easily from seed and is a quick growing annual. You can harvest the seed in the Fall to start your new plants next Spring.

Many people already have nectar plants in their gardens that attract some butterflies. By adding what the caterpillars eat you will greatly increase the number and duration of butterflies and this gives you the opportunity to watch the amazing life cycle of a butterfly in your own garden!

Live Butterfly Garden

Live Butterfly Garden
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