What Do Butterflies Eat? Nectar Plants

Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly on Common Buttonbush Plant (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
Tiger swallowtail butterfly feeding on milkweed nectar plant
Tiger Swallowtail
sips nectar from
Tropical milkweed through
its long “straw” (proboscis)

Most butterflies eat (actually they “drink”) from nectar plants (while the plants that caterpillars eat are called host plants). Each species of butterflies has nectar plants that they prefer but many adult butterflies will feed from a wide variety of nectar sources. Butterflies are not as specific in their food source as are their caterpillars. A few adult butterfly species even prefer rotting fruit and dung as opposed to nectar.

Below you will find a list of several popular butterfly species and their preferred nectar plants but keep in mind that butterflies will eat from many different nectar sources. In fact, you may find that in one part of the country the butterflies may prefer to eat from one type of nectar plant and in another area they may prefer a different nectar plant. Butterfly nectar plant preferences can even vary from garden to garden which may be due to changes in soil types, pH, etc.

The Family Butterfly Book, by Rick Mikula, is a great book to help in deciding what butterfly nectar plants perform best in your area. 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 a lot 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 a lot of general butterfly information.

Following is a list of some common and/or popular backyard garden butterflies and their favorite nectar plants. In my experience I have found that butterflies are not terribly specific about their nectar plants. For example, one of the main plants I have seen Black Swallowtails visit in my yard is purple Homestead Verbena which is not listed anywhere (that I have found) as a favored nectar plant of Black Swallowtails. Another example of varied behavior is that my lantana stays constantly populated with sulphurs (as well as many other butterflies) even though lantana is not listed as one of their preferred nectar plants. The point is that these are only guidelines below and you will find many variations of plants and colors that the butterflies like best in your yard. Enjoy the diversity, and experiment to your liking.

Butterfly nectar plants/seeds (as well as the caterpillar host plants) can be found at various nurseries online. Click on the linked plants below for pictures, information and sources. Some plants like lantana will probably be easier to pick up from your local nursery.

Anise Swallowtailcolumbine, Hall’s lomatium, leichtlin’s camas, New England Aster, lantana
Eastern Black
Milkweed, Phlox
Giant Swallowtaillantana, orange
Pipevine Swallowtail_______Azalea, Honeysuckle, Orchid, Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia)
Spicebush Swallowtail         .Joe-Pye Weed, Sweet Joe Pye Weed, Jewelweed, Lantana, honeysuckle, Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia)
Eastern Tiger
Bee Balm (Monarda), Butterfly Bush, Honeysuckle, Sunflower, Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia)
Zebra SwallowtailMilkweed, Joe-Pye WeedSweet Joe Pye Weed, Red Clover, Zinnia, Cosmos sulphureus, Lantana,Pentas, daisy
MonarchMilkweedNew England Aster, Red Clover, Zinnia, Cosmos sulphureus, Lantana, Pentas, daisy, Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia)
ViceroyMilkweedNew England Aster, Red Clover, Zinnia, Cosmos sulphureus, Lantana, Pentas, daisy, rotting fruit
rotting fruit, dung, small white flowers such as a white Buddleia
Great Spangled
MilkweedNew England Aster, Red Clover, Zinnia, Cosmos sulphureus, Lantana, Pentas, daisy
Variegated Fritillarymeadow flowers, Hibiscus, composite family
Meadow Fritillarymeadow flowers, composite family
Mourning Cloakrotting fruit, dung, meadow flowers
Question Markrotting fruit, dung, meadow flowers
Green Commadung, fruits, puddles
Red AdmiralCosmos sulphureus, fruit, Gaillardia
Painted Ladyvariety of garden and field plants
American Painted
Burdock, daisy, everlastings, Mallow, Malva sylvestris, Yarrow, Zinnia, Heliotrope
BuckeyeGaillardia, Lantana, Cosmos sulphureus, clovers
LobeliaPurple Coneflower, Gaillardia
Pearly CrescentspotZinnia, daisies, clovers, Goldenrod
Great Purple
daisy, Purple Coneflower, clovers
Gray HairstreakYarrow, meadow and edge flowers
American Copperdaisy, dandelion, clovers, Milkweed
Tailed Bluedaisy, dandelion, clovers, Milkweed
Spring AzureColtsfoot, daisy, Milkweed, other meadow flowers
Cloudless Sulphurhibiscus, cassia, Pentas, bougainvillea
Clouded Sulphurclovers, dandelion, Phlox, Milkweed
Orange Sulphurclovers, dandelion, Parsley, Zinnia, other meadow flowers, composite family
Dogfaceclovers, thistles, most composite flowers
Checkered Whitedandelion, Gaillardia, Purple Coneflower
Cabbage Whitemany garden and meadow flowers
Zebra LongwingHibiscus, Pentas, Lantana
Gulf Fritillaryhibiscus, Pentas, Lantana
Malachiterotting fruit, dung, mud

There are a few nectar plants that attract so many butterflies in my garden that I will always make sure I have them every year. They are: ZinniaTithonia, Butterfly Bush, Lantana, and Milkweed(which doubles as a host plant for Monarchs).

If you are interested in raising caterpillars to butterflies then you will also want to plant what the caterpillars eat. By planting host plants for the caterpillars as well as nectar plants for the butterflies you will not only attract the butterflies but they will stay around longer and will soon be laying eggs. Before long you will have eggs/caterpillars to bring indoors or watch in your garden as they go through the incredible journey to become butterflies.