I am seeing more butterflies this summer than I have in recent years. As I walk my property, I see monarchs, swallowtails, buckeyes, hackberry, painted ladies, cabbage whites, and more. This year I even saw a viceroy while mowing!
Although there are many reasons for the increase in butterflies this year, I'd like to think that my choice of plants has helped. Adult butterflies suck nectar from many different types of flowers, though I do find that they frequent my butterfly bushes (Buddleia sp.) most. I also have many plants that butterflies caterpillars like to eat. Butterfly larvae are picky eaters, and most need a particular type of plant in order to survive.
Monarch caterpillars eat only milkweeds. Although I haven't purposely planted any milkweed, I commonly see monarch adults flying among several large patches of common milkweed growing in unmown grass and prairie areas.
Viceroy butterflies look a lot like monarchs, but they are smaller and have an extra black line along their bottom wings. Although Viceroy mimics the toxic monarch to avoid predators, their larvae do not eat milkweed. Their preference is willow, which causes the butterfly to taste bad.
Several types of large swallowtails are common in my yard. Black swallowtail females lay eggs on plants in the carrot family for their larvae to eat, including dill, parsley, carrot, parsnip, and other natives in that plant family. If you see giant swallowtails, there must be a source of wafer ash or prickly ash nearby. Tiger swallowtail larval hosts include wild black cherry, tulip poplar tree, as well as apple, maple, ash, and others. Finally, spicebush swallowtail caterpillars eat spicebush and sassafras.
Fritillary butterflies are one of my favorite. Most fritillaries larvae feed on violets. The common violet is our state flower and is very beautiful in bloom. I've started using common violet more in my landscape in hopes of seeing more fritillary butterflies in my neighborhood.
To learn more, I recommend the Butterflies of Illinois: A Field Guide by Michael Jeffords, Susan Post, and James Wiker. I also encourage you to visit the Kim St John Butterfly Habitat at Wildlife Prairie Park. The house showcases native Illinois butterflies using a modest structure of metal hoops covered with netting. The 2,600 square feet house is filled with larval and nectar plants.
You can also learn how to distinguish butterflies in Illinois from Horticulture Educator Kelly Allsup during her What's That Butterfly in my Garden webinar. It is presented for live home viewing on September 5 at 1:30 p.m. and again on September 7 at 6:30 p.m. Following the session, a taped version is available on YouTube. Registration and YouTube information are found at go.illinois.edu/4seasons_webinars.
I like to think of butterflies as magical creatures that spread cheer. For no matter my mood, watching a beautiful butterfly gather nectar from flowers always makes me smile.