Many Trees Are Host Plants for Butterflies (And Moths)

Trees serve many purposes in our yards. As we choose which trees to plant, it’s wonderful to choose trees that are host plants for butterflies and moths.

Giant Swallowtail Butterfly - Host Trees - Citrus species

Giant Swallowtail Butterfly
Host Trees
Citrus species
Zanthoxylum species
Hop Tree (No Thorns)

One of the most important facts to remember is that if you wish to attract a species that isn’t in your region, you have almost zero chance of doing so. I’d love to attract the Two-tailed Swallowtail but since I am in Florida and they are found in the western half of the United States, I could wait several lifetimes and never attract the first one. Plant for what is naturally found in your state.

Hercules' Club -  Zanthoxylum clava-herculis -  Giant Swallowtail Host - Thorns can be under leaves

Hercules’ Club
Zanthoxylum clava-herculis
Giant Swallowtail Host
Thorns can be under leaves

Thorns are all over the trunks of some trees and/or their leaves. In some of our yards, this isn’t an issue. In others, children and pets are running in the yard and thorns may be a big issue. For those of us with children, Hop Tree, Ptelea trifoliata, is a wonderful choice for Giant Swallowtail butterflies. Hop Tree grows to zone 5a.

Thorns grow on the underside of some Hercules’ Club tree leaves. The trunk is covered in thorns.

Hackberry Emperor Butterfly - Host Tree Hackberry Sugarberry Trees

Hackberry Emperor Butterfly
Host Trees:
Hackberry and Sugarberry Trees

Mourning Cloak - Willow, Elm, Cottonwood, Aspen, Hackberry, Birch

Mourning Cloak Host Trees
Willow, Elm, Cottonwood
Aspen, Hackberry, Birch

Some trees are simply too large for our yards. Some species of trees, like Willow and Hackberry, can be cut to 2′ tall each year. The stump will reward us with fresh growth in the spring. The shorter tree will be a delight for those of us who search for eggs and caterpillars. They will be at eye level. The biggest danger with cutting or trimming a tree is losing eggs, caterpillars, and/or chrysalises. Many butterfly and moth species spend the winter in one stage or the other. This is called ‘diapause’. When a tree is cut, overwintering eggs and/or other stages can be lost. We always carefully check each limb and twig for any trace of life stages when we cut our trees. It is time consuming and requires knowing which species use the tree as a host tree and how they spend the winter.

Palamedes Swallowtail - Bay Trees; Persea species

Palamedes Swallowtail
Bay Trees; Persea species
Spicebush, Sassafrass

People with small yards can carefully study to learn which species are in their area and which trees each species will use as a host tree. If two species will use the same host plant, we can choose to plant that tree instead of a different species of tree for each species of tree-hosting butterfly and moth.

Question Mark Butterfly - Hackberry, Elm

Question Mark Butterfly
Hackberry, Elm

If you have a pool in your yard or in a neighbor’s yard, consider the work required to scoop leaves out of the pool. If you wish, plant your trees at a distance from the pool. This results in fewer leaves landing in the water.

Always consider your neighbor! If you plant a Sweet Gum tree, remember that the spiked seed balls that fall are very uncomfortable to bare feet. You can either plant the tree where limbs will not reach over into your neighbor’s yard or you can cut the tree short every year. Happy neighbors are more apt to listen to us when we encourage them to use fewer pesticides in their yards.

Red-spotted Purple - Willow, Black Cherry, Deerberry, Aspen, Poplar

Red-spotted Purple
Willow, Black Cherry
Deerberry, Aspen, Poplar

When you are choosing a spot to plant your trees, power lines are a real concern. A quick internet search will show the height and width of the mature tree. In case of a severe storm, you don’t want anyone to lose power because of your trees.

Ruddy Daggerwing - Strangler Fig, Fig

Ruddy Daggerwing
Strangler Fig, Fig

Some host trees reward you with beautiful fall color. Sweet Gum will become a mass of orange, yellow, and red leaves.

Spicebush Swallowtail - Spicebush, Sassafrass, Bay (Persea sp), Camphor Tree

Spicebush Swallowtail
Spicebush, Sassafrass
Bay (Persea sp), Camphor Tree

Striped Hairstreak - Sparkleberry Tree

Striped Hairstreak
Sparkleberry Tree

If you have a small yard and live next to a wooded area, before planting a host tree, check to see which trees are growing right next to you. If you want Black Cherry and the woods are full of them, perhaps you could choose a tree that isn’t growing in the woods. Butterflies and moths that use Black Cherry as a host will visit your nectar plants if their host plants are growing within a quarter mile or so.

Tawny Emperor - Hackberry & Sugarberry Trees

Tawny Emperor
Hackberry & Sugarberry Trees

When yard space is limited, many butterfly gardeners and enthusiasts grow their host trees in pots. The very fact that their root growth is limited will also limit the top growth of a tree. Trees will normally grow much slower in pots. They can be taken out of the pots every winter, their root ball trimmed and the tree tops trimmed. Some species can be re-potted into the same pot for a few years. When it is simply too large for the pot, either choose a larger pot, give it away and buy a smaller tree (or propagate your own) and start over.

Tiger Swallowtail - Black Cherry, Sweet Bay, Tulip Tree

Tiger Swallowtail
Black Cherry, Sweet Bay, Tulip Tree

Never hesitate to search the internet for more information about butterfly host plants. Just remember that not every person that creates a website is knowledgeable and some people who make butterfly websites learn from other pages. There isn’t anything wrong with that! We all learn from other websites. That is the beauty of the internet. The drawback is that incorrect information can be passed along from site to site in that manner. Don’t invest a large sum of money in a plant or idea that you aren’t sure is correct. Always check with several other websites, books, gardeners, or professionals.

In addition, a tree that is an excellent host in one area may not be used in another area. This could be due to the type of soil, moisture content, acid/basic soil, and many other variables.

Viceroy Butterfly - Willow Tree

Viceroy Butterfly
Willow Tree

Zebra Swallowtail - Pawpaw Tree (Asimina sp)

Zebra Swallowtail
Pawpaw Tree (Asimina sp)

Don’t forget moths! Some moths are absolutely stunning. Many moths use the same host plants as some butterflies. The Cecropia Moth and Promethia Moth uses the same Black Cherry as Tiger Swallowtail and Red-spotted Purple butterfly caterpillars.

Cecropia Moth - Willow, Cherries, Plums

Cecropia Moth
Willow, Cherries, Plums

Imperial Moth - Pine, Oak, Maple, Sweet Gum, Sassafrass

Imperial Moth
Pine, Oak, Maple
Sweet Gum, Sassafrass

Regal Moth - Hickory, Pecan, Sweet Gum, Persimmon

Regal Moth
Hickory, Pecan
Sweet Gum, Persimmon

Sweet Bay Silk Moth - Sweet Bay Tree

Sweet Bay Silk Moth
Sweet Bay Tree

Polyphemus Moth - Oak, Willow, Maple

Polyphemus Moth
Oak, Willow, Maple

Luna Moth - Sweet Gum, Hickory, Persimmon

Luna Moth – Sweet Gum, Hickory, Persimmon

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