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)

What Do Butterflies Eat:

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. In fact, butterflies are not as specific in their food source as their caterpillars are. A few adult butterfly species even prefer rotting fruit and dung as opposed to nectar.

How to Find What Butterflies Eat?

Below you will find a list of several popular butterfly species and their preferred nectar plants. 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, while in another area, they may prefer a different nectar plant. Butterfly 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 butterflies, host plants and nectar plants. In addition, it is broken down by regions of the US including Hawaii, Alaska and parts of Canada. It is well illustrated with a lot of 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 also very good.

Nectar Plants

Following is a list of some common and/or popular backyard garden butterflies and their favorite nectar plants. In my experience, I 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. It 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. Similarly, lantana is not listed as one of their preferred nectar plants. The point is that these are only guidelines below. You will find many variations of plants and colors that the butterflies like best in your yard. Enjoy the diversity and experiment!

Do All Flowers Provide Nectar?

Butterflies can’t access nectar from every flower.  As a result, only certain plants are used for nectar.  Another point to consider is the quality of nectar.  As powerhouses of nectar, native thistles and goldenrods provide the nectar that migrating Monarchs need.  Providing nectar throughout the season is also important.  Consider a variety of plants so that some bloom in spring, while others bloom in summer or fall.

Butterfly nectar plants and seeds 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.

Butterflies with Favored Nectar Plants

BUTTERFLY SPECIESFAVORED NECTAR PLANTS
Anise Swallowtailcolumbine, Hall’s lomatium, leichtlin’s camas, New England Aster, lantana
Eastern Black
Swallowtail
Blue Mistflower, Milkweed, phlox
Giant Swallowtaillantana, orange, Pale Purple Coneflower, Purple Coneflower
Pipevine Swallowtail_______azalea, Common Butonbush, honeysuckle, orchid, Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia)
Spicebush Swallowtail         .Joe-Pye Weed, Sweet Joe Pye Weed, jewelweed, lantana, honeysuckle, Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia)
Eastern Tiger
Swallowtail
Bee Balm (Monarda), Common Buttonbush, 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
Red-Spotted
Purple
rotting fruit, dung, Purple Coneflower, small white flowers such as a white buddleia
Great Spangled
Fritillary
MilkweedNew England Aster, red clover, Zinnia, Cosmos sulphureus, lantana, pentas, daisy
Variegated FritillaryJoe Pye Weed, hibiscus, red clover, Milkweeds, composite family
Meadow Fritillarydandelion, daisy, black-eyed susans, Purple Coneflower
Mourning Cloakrotting fruit, dung, New Jersey Tea, lilac
Question Markrotting fruit, dung, New England Aster, sweet pepperbush
Green Commadung, carrion, rotting fruit, puddles
Red AdmiralCosmos sulphureus, rotting fruit, gaillardia, Butterfly Milkweed
Painted LadyLance-Leaf Coreopsis, buckwheat, red clover, lantana, Giant Ironweed
American Painted
Lady
burdock, daisy, everlastings, mallows, Malva sylvestris, yarrow, Zinnia, heliotrope
BuckeyeGaillardia, lantana, Cosmos sulphureus, clovers
Baltimore
Checkerspot
Lobelia, Coneflower, Gaillardia
Pearl CrescentZinnia, daisies, clovers, Showy Goldenrod
Great Purple
Hairstreak
daisy, Purple Coneflower, Pale Purple Coneflower, clovers
Gray Hairstreakyarrow, mint, Goldenrod, white sweet clover
American Copperdaisy, dandelion, clovers, Milkweed
Tailed Bluedaisy, dandelion, clovers, Milkweed
Spring Azurecoltsfoot, daisy, Milkweed, Coreopsis, privet, New Jersey Tea
Cloudless Sulphurhibiscus, cassia, pentas, bougainvillea, Cardinal Flower
Clouded Sulphurclovers, dandelion, phlox, Milkweed
Orange Sulphurclovers, dandelion, ParsleyZinnia, composite family
Dogfaceclovers, Coreopsis, Thistle, Verbena
Checkered Whitedandelion, GaillardiaPurple Coneflower
Cabbage Whitemustards, Asters, dandelions, clover, Blazing Star, mint
Zebra Longwinghibiscus, pentas, lantana, Mistflower
Gulf Fritillaryhibiscus, Common Buttonbush, pentas, lantana
Malachiterotting fruit, dung, mud

My Favorites

There are a few nectar plants that attract so many butterflies in my garden! Therefore, 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. In addition to nectar plants, plant host plants for the caterpillars. With both, the butterflies will stay around longer and will lay eggs. Before long, you will have eggs/caterpillars to watch as they go through the incredible journey to become butterflies.