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Butterflies can eat to live, live to eat in a balanced garden

Monarch caterpillars crawling around milkweed plants.

URBANA, Ill. — A favorite thing about visiting gardens in the summer is catching sight of a butterfly enjoying nectar from a brightly colored zinnia or a monarch caterpillar munching on a milkweed leaf. When designing a butterfly garden, expand and balance plant selection to provide more than nectar plants for adult butterflies.

As the growing season winds down, pollinators are busy feeding and laying eggs in preparation for winter. Most butterflies overwinter locally, but several generations of monarch butterflies migrate thousands of miles to Mexico for the winter and need fuel for the journey.

A nectar plant has flowers that create a carbohydrate-rich food source for pollinators in exchange for pollination services by adult butterflies. A larval host plant allows caterpillars, or larvae, to feed on this plant. Because of the integral relationship between host plants and butterflies, gardeners must be strategic when picking a caterpillar host plant to attract a particular butterfly species.

It is helpful to remember that a female butterfly can travel long distances, but their caterpillars cannot. This balance tip lets you observe a garden where butterflies can feed, lay their eggs, and provide food for their newly hatched larvae, that then pupate and create their cocoons, emerge, and begin a lifecycle or migrate to a new region.

Planting important pollinator larva and nectar plants creates a fun and colorful buffet for your butterfly garden.  With good selections, hungry caterpillars will eventually devour parts of these plants, but no worries, the larva host plants will grow back.

Consider these selections to add and balance a butterfly garden. More resources about pollinators and starting a pollinator garden are available from University of Illinois Extension at For questions, connect with a local Extension office at


Christina Lueking is an Illinois Extension horticulture educator for Bond, Clinton, Jefferson, Marion, and Washington counties. Gardeners Corner is a quarterly newsletter from gardening experts around the state. Each issue highlights best practices that will make your houseplants, landscape, or garden shine in any season. Join the Gardener’s Corner email list at for direct access to timely tips. 

PHOTO CAPTION: When designing a butterfly garden, expand and balance plant selection to provide more than nectar plants for a butterfly’s entire lifecycle. The photos in this article are available to download for media use. Photos by Christina Lueking, Illinois Extension.

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Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities. Illinois Extension is part of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.