NC State Extension Publications


Butterfly watching, though unlikely to match the widespread popularity of bird watching, has gained significant favor in recent years. Butterflies are colorful, diverse, abundant, and active during the day in warm months, making them an ideal pursuit for wildlife watchers (Figure 1). In fact, wildlife watching as a whole, given impetus by the increased awareness of regional and ecological diversity, has become one of this country’s fastest-growing outdoor recreational activities.

Butterflies and caterpillars (the larval stage in the butterfly life cycle) provide food for birds and other organisms, pollinate flowers, and are easy to attract to a garden or backyard landscape. Butterflies are found throughout North Carolina and will flourish within a well-designed landscape of native plants in both rural and urban areas. Planting a variety of both nectar plants for adults and host plants for caterpillars in a sunny location will ensure many hours of viewing pleasure as butterflies visit your garden.

Figure 1. Great Spangled Fritillary

Figure 1. Colorful butterflies, like this Great Spangled Fritillary, have made butterfly watching a popular pastime.

Photo courtesy of Thomas G. Barnes, University of Kentucky

Common Butterflies of North Carolina

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North Carolina’s diverse natural landscape includes coastal dunes, pocosins, sandhill savannahs, piedmont forests, wetlands, and mountain ranges. These different vegetation communities provide a home for more than 175 butterfly species. Some species are found statewide, while others are restricted to a specific habitat type or region. Scientists classify species into a series of genera and families, based upon similar genetics or similar physical characteristics. Here is a sampling of the butterflies you are likely to encounter in North Carolina:

Family Papilionidae (swallowtails)

Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor)
Zebra Swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus)
Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)
Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus)
Palamedes Swallowtail (Papilio palamedes)

Family Pieridae (sulphurs, whites, and yellows)

Cabbage White (Pieris rapae)
Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice)
Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme)
Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae)
Sleepy Orange (Eurema nicippe)

Family Lycaenidae (gossamer-wings)

Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus)
Red-Banded Hairstreak (Calycopis cecrops)
Eastern Tailed-Blue (Everes comyntas)
Summer Azure (Celastrina neglecta)

Family Nymphalidae (brushfoot butterflies)

American Snout (Libytheana carinenta)
Variegated Fritillary (Euptoieta claudia)
Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele)
Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos)
Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis)
Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma)
Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa)
American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis)
Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)
Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia)
Red-Spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis astyanax)
Viceroy (Limenitis archippus)
Monarch (Danaus plexippus)

Family Hesperiidae (skippers)

Silver-Spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus)
Long-Tailed Skipper (Urbanus proteus)
Southern Cloudywing (Thorybes bathyllus)
Juvenal’s Duskywing (Erynnis juvenalis)
Horace’s Duskywing (Erynnis horatius)
Least Skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor)
Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus)
Sachem (Atalopedes campestris)
Clouded Skipper (Lerema accius)

Figure 2. Spicebush Swallowtail.

Figure 2. Spicebush Swallowtail.

Illustration by Liessa Thomas Bowen

Figure 3. Orange Sulphur.

Figure 3. Orange Sulphur.

Illustration by Liessa Thomas Bowen

Figure 4. Eastern Tailed-Blue.

Figure 4. Eastern Tailed-Blue.

Illustration by Liessa Thomas Bowen

Figure 5. Common Buckeye.

Figure 5. Common Buckeye.

Illustration by Liessa Thomas Bowen

Figure 6. Least Skipper.

Figure 6. Least Skipper.

Illustration by Liessa Thomas Bowen

Life Cycle

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Butterflies and moths are unique because they change from a caterpillar to a winged adult through a process called metamorphosis (Figure 7). A typical butterfly’s life begins as an egg, generally laid on the leaf of a host plant. A host plant is a plant that caterpillars like to eat. Eggs soon hatch into caterpillars, which act as eating machines to devour leaves of the host plant. Caterpillars often have very specific food requirements that restrict them to just one or a few plant species (Figure 8, top). After a few weeks, the caterpillar molts into a mummy-like stage with a hard protective casing, called a pupa or chrysalis. While in the chrysalis, the caterpillar transforms into an adult. At the end of about 2 weeks, the adult emerges from the chrysalis, spreads and dries its wings, and begins searching for food and a mate (Figure 8, bottom). Following successful mating, the female begins her search for a host plant on which to deposit her eggs, and the life cycle begins again.

Figure 7. Metamorphosis stages of the Monarch.

Figure 7. A Monarch changes from an egg (top right) to a caterpillar to a pupa to a winged adult during a process called metamorphosis.

Illustration by Liessa Thomas Bowen

Figure 8. Monarch feeds (top) before turning into an adult (bot)

Figure 8. A Monarch caterpillar (top) feeds on the foliage of its host plant, milkweed, before changing into an adult (bottom).

Top photo courtesy of Thomas G. Barnes, University of Kentucky; bottom photo by Chris Moorman

Physiology and Behavior

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  • Butterflies and moths are insects in the order Lepidoptera, meaning “scaly-winged.” A person who studies these creatures is called a “lepidopterist.”
  • Moths may have whip-like, fern-like, or fuzzy antennae with no knobs at their ends. Butterfly antennae are smooth, thin, and whip-like with a terminal knob.
  • Butterfly wings are covered with thousands of tiny overlapping scales arranged like shingles on a roof. A butterfly can fly even if these scales are removed.
  • Colors such as blue, green, violet, gold, and silver on butterfly wings are not caused by pigment, but rather by light reflecting off the wing scales.
  • Depending upon the species, adult butterflies can live from 1 week to 9 months.
  • Butterflies (and other insects) have an exoskeleton, or structural support on the outside of their bodies, to protect them and keep in fluids so they don’t dry out.
  • Butterflies and caterpillars breathe through “spiracles,” which are tiny openings along the sides of their bodies.
  • Butterflies can smell with their antennae.
  • Butterflies have compound eyes that allow them to see the colors red, green, and yellow. Their eyes do not rotate to follow a predator’s movement; rather, they detect movement as the object moves from one facet of the eye to the next.
  • Butterflies use special nerve cells called chemoreceptors on the pads of their feet to “taste” food and identify leaves of their caterpillar’s host plant before they lay their eggs.
  • In some butterfly species, females and males look different. Their colors may vary slightly, and females generally are larger than males. But size cannot be used to distinguish between the sexes because individuals of any single species may vary in how big they are, depending on the amount and quality of food they ate as caterpillars.
  • Most butterflies lay their eggs on a specific type of plant, called their host plant, which their caterpillars later feed on (Figure 9). Exceptions include Harvester caterpillars, which eat woolly aphids, and a few other caterpillars that eat rotting leaves rather than living plant foliage.
  • Adult butterflies may feed on nectar from flowers, but some prefer rotten fruit or tree sap. They suck the liquid food through a straw-like “tongue” called a proboscis, which curls up under the head like a watchspring when not in use.
  • Male butterflies often congregate at “puddling” areas, which include mud puddles, moist soil along stream banks, and animal scat (Figure 10). There they ingest salts important in sperm production.
  • Different species of butterflies have characteristic behaviors. For example, some perch on leaves, guarding an area and flying out to investigate all intruders. Others appear to constantly patrol certain areas and rarely perch.
  • Butterflies bask in the sun to warm their bodies before they fly (Figure 11). Their wings act as solar collectors.
  • Butterflies are most active during the warmest parts of the day, but in temperatures of over 100°F, they may become overheated and seek shade.
  • Most species of butterflies survive the winter by hibernating as caterpillars, pupae, or adults. A few spend the winter as eggs. Fewer still migrate to warmer climates.
  • Those species that spend the winter as adults tuck themselves behind loose bark or in tree cavities. They emerge in search of sap or rotten fruit on warm, sunny days.
  • Eggs, caterpillars, and adult butterflies have many predators. To avoid them, females lay eggs in concealed locations on the host plant, and caterpillars often look inconspicuous. To scare away predators, some caterpillars have large eye-spots that resemble a snake’s head. Other caterpillars have protective spines, release obnoxious scents, or just plain taste bad.
Figure 9. The Great Purple Hairstreak

Figure 9. The Great Purple Hairstreak, like other butterflies, has a preferred host plant, mistletoe.

Photo by Chris Moorman

Figure 10. Pipevine Swallowtails gather at “puddling"

Figure 10. Pipevine Swallowtails congregate at “puddling” areas.

Figure 11. The Zebra Swallowtail basks in the early sunlight

Figure 11. Like this Zebra Swallowtail, many butterflies often bask in the early morning sunlight.

Photo courtesy of Thomas G. Barnes, University of Kentucky

Using Native Plants to Attract Butterflies

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Native plants generally are defined as those that occurred in North America before European settlement. Non-native, or exotic, plants are those that are not native. Plants native to your area grow well because they are specifically adapted to the climate, soils, temperature, and precipitation. Native plants are those to which regional butterflies have adapted, and therefore, they are ideal for butterfly gardening and for larger restoration projects (Figure 12).

Why focus on native plants for butterfly habitat?

  • These plants require relatively little maintenance, watering, or care because they are adapted to a particular area.
  • Native plants will attract butterflies native to the region. Caterpillars are very picky eaters and will eat only very specific host plants; native plants provide these specific food sources.
  • Some non-native plants grow with excessive vigor and compete for space with native plants. Because some non-natives could “escape” from your garden and threaten nearby wild habitat, they should be specifically avoided (see Landscaping for Wildlife with Native Plants, AG-636-03)
  • Most ornamental plants are bred for color and bloom size, not for nectar production. While these cultivars may be attractive to us, many provide little benefit to wildlife.
Figure 12. Passionflower and other native plants provide food

Figure 12. Passionflower and many other native plants provide an ideal food and cover for butterflies in your backyard.

Photo courtesy of Thomas G. Barnes, University of Kentucky

Creating a Butterfly Habitat

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An effective butterfly habitat provides everything a butterfly needs to complete its life cycle.

  • Provide a good diversity of host plants to attract a variety of butterflies and their caterpillars (see Table 1). Caterpillars are voracious but picky eaters, and many feed only on a particular species of plant.
  • Choose a variety of nectar plants that will provide food throughout the growing seasons, as different species of butterfly are active from early spring through late fall (see Table 2) (Figure 13).
  • Choose flowers with blooms of different sizes and depths (Figure 14). Smaller butterflies, such as hairstreaks and skippers, have shorter proboscises and are unable to reach the nectar in larger blooms. Larger butterflies, such as swallowtails, favor larger blooms.
  • Consider the moisture and light requirements of plants before introducing them to your butterfly habitat. Choose only the plants most appropriate for your area.
  • Visit butterfly gardens at local nature centers or botanical gardens and observe which flowering plants attract butterflies.
  • Do not get discouraged if a particular plant does not attract butterflies as anticipated. Experiment and find out which plants work in your butterfly habitat (Figure 15).
  • Peelings and cores of fruit (peeled, overly ripe bananas work well) can be discarded in partially shaded nooks in the garden where they will attract butterflies that eat rotting fruit.


Plan your butterfly habitat before buying and putting in any plants (Figure 16). Decide how much space you want to dedicate to your butterfly habitat.

  • Map the area in its current condition, then create a map for your projected habitat, making sure to provide for all the basic butterfly needs (sun, shelter, larval host plants, and adult nectar plants).
  • Your butterfly habitat will function best in a sunny location. Most butterflies are active only in the sun, and many butterfly larval and nectar plants require sunny spots.
  • Place taller plants and shrubs behind smaller plants and ground covers to maximize visibility and enjoyment of your design (Figure 17).
  • Concentrate flowering plants with similar blooming periods to allow butterflies easy access to seasonally abundant nectar sources without excessive movement and increased exposure to predators (see Table 2) (Figure 18).
  • Many nectar and larval host plants grow tall. Taller plants and shrubs provide butterflies with shelter from wind and rain.
  • Remember that many of your plants will grow larger and multiply each year as they mature. Be sure to leave room for each plant to grow and expand.
  • Do not dig plants from the wild unless you are part of an organized plant rescue. Select nursery-grown native species or cultivate your own from nursery-bred native seeds. By using nursery stock from a reputable dealer, you will help preserve your local environment and the native plant population.
  • Make “puddling” (ingestion of salts from watery or damp ground) easy for male butterflies by designing water puddles and wet, sandy areas into the habitat and by allowing animal feces to remain in the landscape.
  • Provide a few large flat rocks for butterflies to perch on while basking in the sun.
  • You can provide shelter for the butterflies in your habitat by leaving snags (standing dead trees) or a brush pile. There is little evidence to suggest that butterflies actually use butterfly houses.


  • Throughout the growing season, leave the dead flower heads and dead foliage on your plants or you may accidentally remove eggs or pupating butterflies.
  • If neatness is in your blood, consider allocating a few plants as butterfly host plants. Leave those plants alone, but remove and relocate caterpillars from individual plants, if you like.
  • Wildlife habitat, whether for birds or butterflies, is best left untidy. As native grasses and wildflowers grow, bloom, and set seed, they may grow fast, tall, and a bit scraggly. Nature is not always perfectly ordered, and the most effective butterfly gardens will follow in nature’s footsteps.
  • To keep your garden looking and performing its best requires research, planning, and annual maintenance. Although you’ll probably discover that many butterflies quickly find your new plantings, expect to wait several years before your butterfly garden becomes fully established and, therefore, fully appreciated by the butterflies.

Table 1. Some native host plants for North Carolina butterflies.
Scientific Name Common Name Butterfly Larvae
Betula alleghaniensis Yellow Birch Mourning Cloak, Dreamy Duskywing
Betula lenta Sweet Birch
Betula nigra River Birch
Carya glabra Pignut Hickory Banded Hairstreak
Carya tomentosa Mockemut Hickory
Celtis laevigata* Hackberry American Snout, Mourning Cloak, Question Mark, Hackberry Emperor, Tawny Emperor
Celtis tenuifolia Sugarberry
Chamaecyparis thyoides Atlantic White Cedar Hessel’s Hairstreak
Fraxinus americana White Ash Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Ilex opaca American Holly Henry's Elfin
Juniperus virginiana Eastern Redcedar Juniper Hairstreak
Liriodendron tulipifera* Yellow Poplar Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Persea borbonia Redbay Palamedes Swallowtail
Pinus echinata Shortleaf Pine Eastern Pine Elfin
Pinus taeda Loblolly Pine
Populus deltoides Cottonwood Viceroy, Red-Spotted Purple
Prunus americana Wild Plum Coral Hairstreak, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Red-spotted Purple, Spring Azure, Viceroy
Prunus angustifolia Chickasaw Plum
Prunus serotina* Black Cherry
Quercus spp. Oaks Banded Hairstreak, Edward’s Hairstreak, Gray Hairstreak, White-M Hairstreak, Horace’s Duskywing, Juvenal’s Duskywing
Robinia pseudoacacia* Black Locust Clouded Sulphur**, Zarucco Duskywing, Silver-Spotted Skipper
Salix caroliniana Carolina Willow Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Mourning Cloak, Eastern Comma**, Red-spotted Purple, Viceroy
Salix nigra* Black Willow
Sassafras albidum* Sassafras Spicebush Swallowtail
Ulmus alata Winged Elm Painted Lady**, Eastern Comma, Mourning Cloak, Question Mark, Red-spotted Purple**
Ulmus americana* American Elm
Small Trees
Alnus serrulata Alder Harvester (carnivorous larvae eat woolly aphids commonly found on alder)
Amelanchier arborea Serviceberry Red-spotted Purple, Viceroy**
Asimina triloba Pawpaw Zebra Swallowtail
Carpinus caroliniana Ironwood Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Red-spotted Purple
Cercis canadensis Redbud Henry’s Elfin
Cornus florida Flowering Dogwood Spring Azure
Crataegus spp. Hawthorn Gray Hairstreak, Red-spotted Purple**, Viceroy**
Myrica cerifera Wax Myrtle Red-Banded Hairstreak
Rhus copallina Winged Sumac Red-Banded Hairstreak
Rhus glabra Smooth Sumac
Symplocos tinctoria Sweetleaf King’s Hairstreak
Asimina parviflora Dwarf Pawpaw Zebra Swallowtail
Ceanothus americanus New Jersey Tea Mottled Duskywing
Gaylussacia dumosa Dwarf Huckleberry Henry’s Elfin
Gaylussacia frondosa Blue Huckleberry
Ilex glabra Inkberry Henry’s Elfin
Lindera benzoin Spicebush Palamedes Swallowtail, Spicebush Swallowtail
Phoradendron serotinum Mistletoe Great Purple Hairstreak
Vaccinium arboreum Sparkleberry Brown Elfin
Vaccinium corymbosum Highbush Blueberry
Vaccinium stamineum Deerberry
Aristolochia macrophylla Dutchman’s Pipe Pipevine Swallowtail
Passiflora incarnata Passionflower Gulf Fritillary, Variegated Fritillary, Zebra Heliconian
Herbs and Wildflowers
Agalinus spp. Gerardia Common Buckeye
Antennaria plantaginifolia Plantain-Leaved Pussytoes American Lady
Antennaria solitaria Solitary Pussytoes
Aristolochia serpentaria Virginia Snakeroot Pipevine Swallowtail
Aruncus dioicus Goat’s Beard Dusky Azure
Asclepias incarnata Swamp Milkweed Monarch
Asclepias syriaca Common Milkweed
Asclepias tuberosa Butterfly Weed
Asclepias variegata White Milkweed
Aster carolinianus Climbing Aster Pearl Crescent
Aster novae-angliae New England Aster
Baptisia tinctoria Wild Indigo Wild Indigo Duskywing
Boehmeria cylindrica False Nettle Eastern Comma, Question Mark, Red Admiral
Chamaecrista fasciculata Partridge Pea Cloudless Sulphur, Little Yellow, Sleepy Orange
Chelone glabra White Turtlehead Baltimore Checkerspot, Common Buckeye**
Cimicifuga racemosa Black Cohosh Appalachian Azure
Cirsium horridulum Yellow Thistle Little Metalmark, Painted Lady
Desmodium spp. Beggarlice Silver-Spotted Skipper, Hoary Edge, Northern Cloudywing, Southern Cloudywing, Gray Hairstreak, Eastern Tailed-Blue
Eupatorium fistulosum Joe-Pye-Weed Pearl Crescent
Gnaphalium obtusifolium Rabbit Tobacco American Lady
Helianthus atrorubens Sunflower Silvery Checkerspot
Laportea canadensis Wood Nettle Eastern Comma, Red Admiral
Lespedeza capitata Bush Clover Eastern Tailed-Blue
Lespedeza virginica Virginia Bush Clover
Linaria canadensis Blue Toadflax Common Buckeye
Penstemon laevigatus Smooth Beardtongue Common Buckeye
Ruellia caroliniensis Wild Petunia Common Buckeye
Tephrosia virginiana Goat’s Rue Southern Cloudywing, Northern Cloudywing
Thaspium barbinode Meadow Parsnip Black Swallowtail
Thaspium trifoliatum Hairy-Jointed Meadow Parsnip
Trifolium carolinianum Carolina Clover Clouded Sulphur, Eastern Tailed-Blue, Orange Sulphur, Gray Hairstreak, Northern Cloudywing
Trifolium reflexum Buffalo Clover
Urtica chamaedryoides Heartleaf Nettle Painted Lady**, Eastern Comma, Question Mark, Red Admiral
Urtica dioica Stinging Nettle
Viola spp. Violets Fritillaries
Zizia aptera Heart-Leaved Alexanders Black Swallowtail
Zizia trifoliata Golden Alexanders
Grasses and Sedges
Andropogon spp. Bluestem, Broomsedge Common Wood-Nymph, Various Skippers
Erianthus spp. Plumegrass
Panicum spp. Panic Grasses
Schizachyrium scoparius Little Bluestem
Tridens flavus Purple Top
Arundinaria gigantea Switchcane Southern Pearly-eye, Creole Pearly-eye, Various Skippers
Carex spp. Sedges Various Satyrs
Uniola latifolia River Oats Northern Pearly-eye

* Trees that can be pruned and kept at shrub size by cutting them to the ground every 2-3 years. In this way, people with small yards can increase tree species diversity.
** Rarely uses this host plant in North Carolina.

Table 2. Native nectar plants and their primary blooming period.
Scientific Name Common Name Blooming Dates
Aesculus pavia Red Buckeye March-April
Amelanchier arborea Serviceberry March-April
Gelsemium sempervirens Carolina Jessamine March-April
Cornus florida Flowering Dogwood March-April
Prunus americana Wild Plum March-April
Prunus angustifolia Chickasaw Plum March-April
Vaccinium corymbosum Highbush Blueberry March-May
Cercis canadensis Redbud March-May
Aquilegia canadensis Wild Columbine March-May
Ilex vomitoria Yaupon March-May
Halesia tetraptera Carolina Silverbell March-May
Symplocos tinctoria Sweetleaf March-May
Gaylussacia dumosa Dwarf Huckleberry March-June
Rhododendron periclimenoides Wild Azalea April-May
Rhododendron atlanticum Dwarf Azalea April-May
Gaylussacia frondosa Blue Huckleberry April-May
Houstonia caerulea Bluets April-May
Salvia lyrata Lyreleaf Sage April-May
Lyonia lucida Fetterbush April-May
Crataegus spp. Hawthorn April-May
Ilex decidua Possumhaw April-May
Ilex verticillata Winterberry April-May
Prunus serotina Black Cherry April-May
Prunus pennsylvanica Fire Cherry April-May
Rhododendron catawbiense Catawba Rhododendron April-June
Ilex opaca American Holly April-June
Kalmia latifolia Mountain Laurel April-June
Coreopsis lanceolata Lance-Leaved Coreopsis April-June
Geranium maculatum Wild Geranium April-June
Rubus spp. Blackberry, Dewberry April-June
Liriodendron tulipifera Yellow Poplar April-June
Coreopsis auriculata Eared Coreopsis April-June
Vaccinium stamineum Deerberry April-June
Silene virginica Fire Pink April-July
Vaccinium arboreum Sparkleberry May-June
Asclepias variegata White Milkweed May-June
Penstemon laevigatus Smooth Beardtongue May-June
Ilex glabra Inkberry May-June
Itea virginica Virginia Willow May-June
Ceanothus americanus New Jersey Tea May-June
Hydrangea arborescens Wild Hydrangea May-July
Phlox carolina Carolina Phlox May-July
Rudbeckia hirta Black-Eyed Susan May-July
Penstemon canescens Hairy Beardtongue May-July
Rhododendron calendulaceum Flame Azalea May-July
Apocynum cannabinum Indian Hemp (Dogbane) May-July
Coreopsis falcata Sickle Tickseed May-July
Coreopsis verticillata Threadleaf Coreopsis May-July
Passiflora incarnata Passionflower May-July
Asclepias tuberosa Butterfly Weed May-August
Heliopsis helianthoides Ox-Eye May-October
Tilia americana Basswood June
Cyrilla racemiflora Titi June-July
Clethra alnifolia Sweet Pepperbush June-July
Rhus glabra Smooth Sumac June-July
Oxydendrum arboreum Sourwood June-July
Rhododendron maximum Rosebay Rhododendron June-August
Cephalanthus occidentalis Buttonbush June-August
Asclepias syriaca Common Milkweed June-August
Echinacea purpurea Purple Coneflower June-August
Monarda fistulosa Wild Bergamot June-September
Hibiscus moscheutos Rose Mallow June-September
Aralia spinosa Devil's Walking Stick June-September
Impatiens capensis Jewelweed June-frost
Phlox paniculata Summer Phlox July-August
Pycnanthemum incanum Hoary Mountainmint July-August
Stokesia laevis Stoke's Aster July-August
Monarda didyma Beebalm July-September
Liatris spicata Blacking Star July-September
Rhus copallina Winged Sumac July-September
Asclepias incarnata Swamp Milkweed July-September
Vernonia noveboracensis Ironweed July-September
Lobelia cardinalis Cardinal Flower July-October
Eupatorium fistulosum Joe-Pye-Weed July-October
Helianthus angustifolius Swamp Sunflower July-frost
Monarda punctata Horsemint August-September
Rudbeckia fulgida Orange Coneflower August-October
Lobelia puberula Blue Lobelia August-October
Helianthus atrorubens Sunflower August-October
Solidago spp. Goldenrod August-October
Ipomoea coccinea Red Morning Glory August-frost

Figure 13. Goldenrod (top) and ironweed (bot) provide nectar

Figure 13. Goldenrod (top), ironweed (bottom), and other late-flowering plants provide important nectar sources for butterflies like the Viceroy (top) and Gulf Fritillary (bottom) during a time of the year when many popular ornamentals are not in bloom.

Top photo courtesy of Thomas G. Barnes, University of Kentucky; bottom photo by Chris Moorman

Fig 14. Red-banded Hairstreak (top) and Eastern Tiger Swallowtai

Figure 14. Smaller butterflies, like this Red-banded Hairstreak (top), have short proboscises and are unable to reach the nectar in large blooms. Larger butterflies, like the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (bottom), favor larger blooms.

Photos by Chris Moorman

Figure 15. Zebra Swallowtail caterpillars feed on pawpaw plants

Figure 15. Zebra Swallowtail caterpillars feed almost exclusively on pawpaw plants.

Illustration by Liessa Thomas Bowen

Figure 16. Use these designs as ideas for your butterfly landsca

Figure 16. Use these designs as ideas for your butterfly landscape. You can attract butterflies from spring through fall by including plants with different blooming periods and caterpillar host plants. Taller plants should be clustered in the back.

Illustrations by Liessa Thomas Bowen

Fig 17. Tall plants like joe-pye-weed are great nectar sources

Figure 17. Taller plants like joe-pye-weed can be great nectar sources for butterflies, but they should be placed behind lower-growing plants.

Photo by Chris Moorman

Figure 18. A cluster of orange coneflower plants

Figure 18. A cluster of orange coneflower plants with taller purple coneflowers growing in the background allows butterflies easy access to abundant nectar without excessive exposure to predators.

Photo by Chris Moorman

Butterfly Conservation

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  • Encourage your neighbors and local school officials, businesses, or parks officials to put in butterfly plantings of their own so you all can create a network of butterfly gardens throughout your community.
  • Gardening with native plant species can increase critical habitat for both larvae and adult butterflies.
  • Minimize the use of pesticides. Chemicals that kill insect pests also kill butterflies and beneficial insects. Pesticides can be toxic to birds, too, and runoff can contaminate streams and water systems.
  • Butterfly-releases at weddings or other occasions have become popular, but are not recommended for a number of reasons. These butterflies can spread diseases to the native butterfly population. They may interbreed with the native population, causing genetic problems or interfering with natural migration patterns. They also generally die quickly because they are released during an inappropriate season or are not equipped to handle the particular environment where they are released.

Email Forum

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CarolinaLeps is a listserve-style email forum for butterfly enthusiasts to discuss all aspects of butterfly life in the Carolinas, including butterfly finding, butterfly identification, trip reports, butterfly counts, butterfly behavior, backyard butterflying, butterfly gardening, butterfly photography, and butterfly club information. To subscribe, send the message text “subscribe carolinaleps” (without the quotation marks) to Leave the subject line blank, and do not write anything else in your message text. You will receive an automated confirmation, which includes a file of information. For more details, visit CarolinaLeps.

Additional Resources

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Ajilvsgi, G. 1990. Butterfly Gardening for the South. Dallas, Texas: Taylor Publishing Co.

Barnes, T. G. 1999. Gardening for the Birds. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky.

Brock, J. P., and K. Kaufman. 2003. Butterflies of North America. Singapore: Hillstar Editions L.C.

Glassberg, J. 1999. Butterflies Through Binoculars, The East. New York: Oxford University Press.

Glassberg, J. 2012. A Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America. Sunstreak Books.

Opler, P. A., and R. T. Peterson. 1992. Field Guide to Eastern Butterflies (Peterson Field Guides). New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Pyle, R. M., and S. A Hughes. 1992. Handbook for Butterfly Watchers. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Wasowski, S., and A. Wasowski. 1994. Gardening with Native Plants of the South. Dallas, Texas: Taylor Publishing Co.

For more information, click the resources below or request the following Working With Wildlife (WWW) and Urban Wildlife (AG) publications from your local Cooperative Extension Center.


Funding for creation of this publication was provided in part through an Urban and Community Forestry Grant from the North Carolina Division of Forest Resources, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, in cooperation with the USDA Forest Service, Southern Region.


Forestry and Environmental Resources
Ecologist and Director of Lepidoptera Monitoring
MPG Ranch
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
Applied Ecology
Operations & Program Supervisor
Stevens Nature Center at Hemlock Bluffs
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

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Publication date: May 3, 2016

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