Use these edible & medicinal host plants to create thriving butterfly garden and visual feast for the naturalist’s eye. Gardening with plants that attract butterflies and host butterfly larvae are excellent way to craft a thriving pollinator community in your landscape.
I dare you not to smile when butterfly gently flits down on a nearby flower. I double dog dare you.
I think it is impossible to not feel even the slightest bit of childhood delight when butterflies are nearby — except maybe if you are terrified of things that flutter (I knew somebody once that was) or if you are a dark and despicable being incapable of joy. Butterflies are steeped in symbolism, of resurrection, reemergence, and rebirth. Perhaps it is fitting that these delicately winged creatures are great garden allies. Like a garden that sends out new life each spring after a bleak winter, butterflies emerged from their chrysalis, transformed and beautiful.
By using edible and medicinal plants that attract butterflies, we turn our landscape into a colorful oasis of fluttering wings and extraordinary blooms. But in order to keep butterflies nearby, we need to grow host plants in our butterfly garden so that successive generations of these beloved pollinators will share our space.
What is a host plant?
A host plant is a plant on which a butterfly will lay their eggs and the resulting caterpillars will feast upon while maturing, until the time comes for them to form a chrysalis and undergo metamorphosis before transforming to a full fledged butterfly. While butterflies may be attracted to many plants, it is only a few select host plants that are suitable for the rearing of butterfly young.
It is important to understand that while butterflies are beautiful, caterpillars are hungry little eating machines. Their only role at this stage is to grow and EAT in preparation for metamorphosis. Which means — caterpillars are going to munch away at your host plants. The plants are there primary to feed the ravenous appetites of the caterpillars, and our own uses and landscape beautification are secondary and tertiary objectives in a butterfly garden.Therefore, plant an abundance of edible and medicinal host plants if you intend to be sharing the crop. Hungry caterpillars may also leave foliage less than lovely, so position these edible and medicinal host plants in mass or near the back of a border/bed so that the damage is not as visible. When harvesting the host plants for your own use, inspect each cutting for eggs, caterpillars and chrysalises to promote an abundant butterfly population.
Host plants for a butterfly garden
Milkweed (Asclepia sp.): The ubiquitous butterfly of North America is the glorious monarch butterfly. Milkweed is the obligate food source for monarch caterpillars and this valuable medicinal plant is vital habitat for this declining pollinator species. Plant milkweed in sunny locations; the soil conditions required for particular types of milkweed will vary with some requiring boggy, swamp-like conditions while types thrive in drier, semi-arid spots. Medicinally speaking, milkweed, also known as pleurisy root (specifically A. tuberosa), is used for lung complaints, while the milky-white latex exuded from the hollow, hairy stems can be used to combat warts, ringworm and other skin complaints.
Check out the best milkweed seeds for your region here.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata): It seems the the various fritillary species (including the gulf, variegated, and Mexican varieties) of butterflies and herbalists have a shared interest is the gorgeous passionflower vines. These showy climbers with five petals, five sepals, and many thread-like projections, in shades or white, lilac-blue to deeper violets (and even a few red-orange varieties) play host plant for many fritillary species. In your butterfly garden, plant passionflower vines in full sun, in well drained soils with trellising and lots of room to grow; although there are some tropical species, many passionflowers are hardy in zones 5-9 (it is recommend to bring the plant inside during cold winters in marginal zone 5). P. incarnata cultivars are the most prized by herbalists and wild food enthusiasts, producing fragrant, gently sedative flowers and leaves, and edible, tasty fruit (sometimes called maypops).
Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea): Adaptive beauty is a phrase that I would use to describe both the American lady butterfly and the lovely wildflower known as pearly everlasting. This winged and botanical pairing can be seen across of North America with the exception of the humid and sub tropical regions of the southeast. Pearly everlasting is characterized by fragrant, silvery foliage and long lasting white blooms. Unlike many wildflowers, pearly everlasting hardy in zones 3-8, thrives in both full sun and part shade and is tolerant of a variety soil conditions making it an excellent choice for a carefree butterfly garden. Pearly everlasting has a deep traditional use among Native American cultures, and can be helpful for common cold and fever complaints, allergies, and headaches.
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin): Fragrant spicebush is the chosen host plant for the striking black and iridescent blue (aptly named) spicebush swallowtail and the eastern tiger swallowtail, common in the south and eastern parts of the US. Although native to the southeast, spicebush is hardy in zones 4-9 and adaptive to a variety of soil conditions and sun exposures making easy to grow throughout the continental US and the milder climates of Canada. All parts of the fragrant spicebush are considered edible, exuding an allspice like fragrance. Spicebush is also considered medicinal, and is sometimes used to address fever, pain, and respiratory complaints.
For more information about foraging for spicebush, see this post from the BackyardForager.com
Willow (Salix sp.): The many and varied species of willow play host to the viceroy and swallowtail butterflies throughout most of North America. Willows thrive near waterways and damp soils like few trees do, making this the perfect addition to a butterfly garden where damp and boggy conditions persists. Not only does willow provide food for caterpillars, but in eating the willow leaves, caterpillars become bitter and repugnant to predatory birds — an excellent adaptive trait! Willow bark is a potent pain reliever owing to the same constituent that give aspirin its pharmaceutical potency. Cottonwood is another host plant option for these butteries as well.
Hollyhock (Alcea rosea): This favorite of cottage gardens and this gardener in particular, hollyhocks are a host plant for gray and common hairstreak and checkered skipper butterflies. Tall, multi-hued hollyhocks offer a lush feast for maturing caterpillars, so I usually position these plants near the back of a border so the caterpillar carnage is out of sight. Once the tall wands of blooms ranging from white to yellow to coral to black-purple, one can easily forget about the munched-on foliage below. Hollyhocks, members of the mallow family, produce a mucilage perfect for cooling inflamed skin and sore throats.
Grab some glorious hollyhocks colors and assortments here.
Thistle (Cirsium, Cynara & Silybum sp.): Despite their delicate appearance, the painted lady thrives among the prickliest botanicals of the plant world – thistles. From edible artichoke, to the medicinal milk thistle, to more pesky species, the thistle family serves as host plants to ravenous painted lady caterpillars. While neighborhood associations and nearby farmers may frown upon adding thistles to your butterfly garden, a stately artichoke shouldn’t draw the irk and ire of less enthusiastic naturalists and offer you plenty of artichokes to satiate your appetite too!
Try these varieties of artichoke seeds!
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum): More that just a garnish – the free spirited swallowtails of many varieties just love parsley as much as herbalists, chefs, and home cooks do! You may also find swallowtail caterpillars feasting on your dill, fennel, and carrot tops. Although typically grown as an annual, parsley is a biennial and will bloom and set seed in its second year if left to its own devices. Parsley is a fresh tasting herb that encourages good cardiovascular and renal health.
Choose from an assortment of parsley varieties here.
Pipevine (Aristolochia sp.): Also known as Dutchman’s pipe, pipevine is the obligate host to the striking, iridescent blue pipevine swallowtail. Pipevine is hardy in zones 4-8, and prefers semi-moist soils in full sun to part shade. Due to the presence of constituent called aristolochic acid (read more about this constituent as it pertains to pipevine’s “birthwort” plant family cousin wild ginger in my book The Backyard Herbal Apothecary), pipevine is recommended for external use only for complaints such as excessive fluids in feet and legs.
Red Clover (Trifolium pratense): Pretty, pretty red clover is a preferred host to the equally ethereal clouded sulphur butterfly (who also love the also medicinal baptisia and alfalfa). Red clover grows well in full sun and well drained soils, improving soil health by fixing nitrogen. Red clover is a often used to address menopausal complaints due to its isoflavones constituents, is considered highly nutritive being rich in minerals, and also makes a tasty tasty jam in this wildflower jam recipe.
Grab some red clover seeds here.
Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis): I am not sure if there has every been a happier set of names in combination: the checkered skipper and marshmallow. Just sounds like what summers should be made of, right? Plant marshmallow in damp but not saturated soil, in part or full sun if conditions are cool and moist (read more about growing marshmallow here). Marshmallow is energetically moist and cool, making it ideal for complaints of heat and dryness in the respiratory and digestive systems.
More plants that attract butterflies
Now that you have cultivated a habitat and feasting ground for hungry caterpillars with these edible and medicinal host plants, try these showing plants to attract mature butterflies with glorious blossoms and tasty nectar:
It should be noted that to create a thriving butterfly garden, it is important to keep your landscape free of pesticides and herbicides that could pose a significant threat to our pollinator friends. Additionally, it bears repeating that butterflies mean hungry caterpillars — so you WILL be sharing your crop of medicinal and edible plants with those butterfly babies. Furthermore, there is debate on encouraging host plants outside of their appropriate zone and region as it can attract butterflies that are not well suited to particular area and disrupt the migratory patterns of these delicate insects. It is vitally important to research the common butterflies to your particular region and choose the appropriate, preferably native, host plants for your butterfly garden to ensure and thriving pollinator habitat.
Landis, T., Horning, M., & Dumroese, R. (2014). Create a pollinator garden at your nursery: An emphasis on monarch butterflies.[PDF]. USDA Forest Service.