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Tantalize Your Butterflies (or How to Make a Container Garden a Habitat)

by Nanette Masi

Invited to submit an entry for the Container Garden Invitational Display at the 2011 Boston Flower & Garden show, ELA put out a call to members for designs. A committee selected Nanette Masi’s native habitat garden design to represent ELA. ELA wants to thank Cavicchio Greenhouse for the loan of pots for the container garden and to express great appreciation to Van Berkum Nursery for donated plant material, forcing blooms, and expert advice.

Black Swallowtail on parsley

When I began designing wildlife habitats, little did I know that the graceful black butterfly, with its delicate long black “tails” and bright blanket stitch of yellow, blue, and red, first hatches from its egg disguised as bird poop. It may be rather ugly, but the larva certainly has effective camouflage. No self-respecting bird is likely to eat its own poop. So, safely under cover, the Black Swallowtail larva begins munching one of its favorite dinner leaves: a beautiful native, Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), and a member of the carrot family. Mother butterfly planned ahead for this moment, laying her eggs on a plant that provides the perfect diet for her fussy offspring.

Black Swallowtail caterpillar

I’ve since learned that a butterflies’ preference for particular plant foliage signifies a deep connection between insects and plants with great implications. In fact, facilitating proper plant-insect interactions may be key to our survival as a species. Since we humans depend on specific insects to pollinate our crops and begin the food chain, plant-insect interaction is truly critical to our survival.

A Meal for Everyone

This fascinating interplay of insect and plant dependence can make compelling reading. In Bringing Nature Home, Douglas Tallamy brings this principle of ecology to life. Amazingly, each and every plant species has its own unique chemical makeup. Plants evolve to be as deadly or unappetizing as possible to the greatest range of insects lining up to devour them. Hungry insect species evolve over eons to overcome those unique plant defenses. They compete with other insects by specializing to find their own niche. Approximately 90% of all insect species depend on a specific host plant (Tallamy, p45).

Green Comma butterfly enjoys leaf litter.

Thus most butterflies, like most insects, can survive only with their specific plant “partners”. The monarch butterfly larva, for instance, must feed on milkweed species to live. Consequently, if I want to draw many different types of butterflies to a garden, I must provide a diversity of plants with which they have co-evolved. Plants native to the local region serve as “partners” to the local butterfly populations and other organisms. In addition to attracting colorful visitors, native plantings add regional character to the garden.

A Container Garden Challenge

Influenced by Tallamy’s principles and offered the challenge to create a 5’ x 5’ container garden for the 2011 Boston Flower and Garden Show (one of ELA’s outreach programs), I chose to design a container garden of native habitat plants that attract butterflies. The final design is an early-blooming woodland garden filled with native plants that host and attract butterflies along with other pollinators and birds.

Highbush blueberry host many butterfly caterpillars.

Two native shrubs included in the planting serve as host to a dazzling array of butterfly caterpillars. Blueberry sulfur, Pink-edged sulfur, Zigzag fritillary, Cranberry bog copper, and Brown elfin are some of the butterflies that rely on highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) for their first meal. Black willow (Salix nigra) offers larval food to Tiger Swallowtails, Mourning cloaks, Viceroys, Red-spotted Purples and Acadian Hairstreaks, among others.

A hollowed stump provides a natural container for woodland plants.

The containers’ woodland wildflowers please various caterpillars and adult butterflies, pollinators, and birds. The leaves of wild columbine (Aquiligia Canadensis) are the only food for the larvae of the Columbine Duskywing. In Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines, Bill Cullina points out that “the caterpillars may totally defoliate the plants in late spring but will leave the flowers alone.” When the wild columbine blooms, expect to see the first arrival of Ruby Throated Hummingbirds. The Roadside Skipper may be found sipping from the wild fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia) along with hummingbirds and bumblebees. The delicate and often overlooked birdfoot violet (Viola pedata) is a required host for many kinds of caterpillars, including various fritillaries such as the Great Spangled Fritillary and Meadow Fritillary, as well as the Appalachian Brown Butterfly and Giant Leopard Moth. Female Fritillary butterflies seek out patches of violets and lay their eggs nearby. After hatching, the caterpillars crawl near the violets and spend the winter in the leaf litter below them. This is a great excuse for not raking leaves in a woodland garden.

Native ferns and grasses provide form and texture a well as habitat.

Although ferns and grasses may not be as important to butterflies as are wildlflowers and shrubs, a woodland garden is not complete without their contrasting forms and textures. The lovely Appalachian sedge (Carex appalachica) is a great choice for a container garden. It not only adds fine texture and a fountaining, clumping habit, it also provides the larval food source for the Appalachian Brown Butterfly. For coarse texture and dark green contrast year-round, the Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) shines. Grouse also love to munch its fronds and frogs dive under it for cover.

Design Your Own Container Habitat

Where to start when planning your own butterfly garden? Follow some general principles. Entice the butterfly throughout its entire lifecycle. Include larval host plants and nectar-rich flower sources to attract and sustain the adult butterflies so they can mate and lay eggs on the host plant. Leave the host plant undisturbed to shelter the overwintering chrysalis. Include a variety of flowers that will supply nectar from spring through autumn. Make the nectar easier to find by clustering plant species for big splashes of color. Butterflies are particularly attracted to red, orange, yellow, and purple flowers. Beware cultivars with outsized showy flowers; there’s often a trade-off in quantity of nectar and accessibility.

Nanette and Trevor Smith, Land Escapes, add finishing touches to habitat containers.

Allowing caterpillars to eat your plants can take some getting used to. Since you’re planting host plants specifically for caterpillars to munch, you’ll need to develop a tolerance for ragged leaves and leaves with holes chewed out. In addition, you must avoid pesticides; they kill caterpillars and butterflies along with any pests. Instead of spraying chemicals, plant a diversity of plants and maintain a healthy ecosystem through organic methods. You’ll find that beneficial insects, birds, and toads will help keep insect pest populations under control.

A bird feeder hangs from a snag within the habitat garden.

Research the butterflies you hope to attract. I recommend “The Family Butterfly Book” by Rick Mikula, for the section on the most common butterfly species; each page includes a photo of the butterfly; caterpillar & chrysalis illustration, with description, background and list of host and nectar plants. The Monarch Watch website presents a handy table listing the host and nectar foods for the most common butterfly species. For identification of less common species, “A Pocket Guide to Butterflies & Moths” by Elizabeth Balmer contains full color photographs. Chasing butterflies in natural areas can offer first-hand information about preferred native plants. Identify the caterpillars you find in your garden with “Caterpillars” a field guide by Amy Bartlett Wright.

Nanette with the completed container habitat garden.

Draw on the plantings within my 5’ x 5’ container garden to design a woodland garden on your own property. Choose to plant the natives that advertise food for your local butterflies, insects, and birds, and make a small but important contribution to a more balanced ecology. Your garden becomes a place of movement and color where you can enjoy dancing butterflies, singing birds, a comfortable hammock, and a cool drink. Your neighbor will be tantalized as much as your butterflies, and more gardens will grow.


Balmer, Elizabeth. 2007. A Pocket Guide to Butterflies & Moths. Paragon

Cullina, William. 2000. Native Trees, Shrubs & Vines, Houghton Mifflin Company

Mikula, Rick. 2000. The Family Butterfly Book, Storey Publishing

“MonarchWatch Butterfly Gardening,” University of Kansas,

Tallamy, Douglas W. 2007. Bringing Nature Home, Timber Press

Wright, Amy Bartlett. 1993. Peterson First Guides Caterpillars. Houghton Mifflin Company

About the Author

Nanette Masi, owner of Back to Nature, designs and creates wildlife habitat gardens from small pocket gardens to large commercial landscapes. A professional educator, ecological designer, and landscaping consultant, Nanette strives to help others restore ecological balance in their own backyards and to demonstrate the beauty of an organic landscape filled with the sights and sounds of nature. Nanette may be found at