Get to Know Your Favorite Butterflies

Check out our field guide to some of the most common butterflies you might see in your garden.


The much-loved Monarch butterfly is common throughout most of North America, although you may have trouble finding one in some parts of the Pacific Northwest. Be sure to plant milkweeds -- the species doesn't matter -- if you're trying to attract Monarchs.

Tiger Swallowtail

Take a look at a Tiger Swallowtail butterfly and you'll see how this black-striped insect got its name. Tiger Swallowtails can reach more than 5 inches across, filling the garden with bold yellow color. Attract their caterpillars with trees such as willow, ash, birch, or cottonwood. The butterflies drink nectar from coneflower and Mexican sunflower.

Zebra Longwing

This elegant butterfly is common in the South, where it gracefully flits from flower to flower. The caterpillars eat passionflowers, which contain chemicals that make Zebra Longwings poisonous to birds. The butterflies eat pollen and drink nectar from butterfly bush, pentas, lantana, and other common garden plants.

Red-Spotted Purple

Another Swallowtail look-alike, Red-Spotted Purple butterflies are dark beauties whose open wings have a blue iridescence. Like Mourning Cloaks, the adults have nontraditional tastes, often feeding from rotting fruit, tree sap, and animal droppings. Like many common caterpillars, attract Red-Spotted Purples to your yard with willows.

Painted Lady

A common butterfly, Painted Ladies can be seen around the world. The caterpillars are big fans of thistles; if you don't want thistles in your yard, try hollyhocks instead. The adults drink from flowers such as purple coneflower and verbena.

Here's a hint: Because the caterpillars can leave hollyhock leaves looking really ragged, hide hollyhocks behind another plant such as peony. That way you don't notice the hole-filled foliage.


In the butterfly world, Viceroys are the pretenders to the Monarchs' throne. The Viceroy butterfly is a similar color to the Monarch. Since Monarchs taste bad to birds and other predators, those predators are tricked into thinking Viceroys taste bad too, even though they don't. Viceroy caterpillars love to dine on willows; the butterflies enjoy nectar from milkweeds and coneflowers.

Here's a hint: Do you know how to tell the difference between a Monarch and a Viceroy? Viceroys bear a thin black arc that runs horizontally on their hind wings. Monarchs do not bear this line.

Thanks to visitor petunias for sharing this great photo!

Eastern Black Swallowtail

Though not as brightly colored as Tiger Swallowtails, these butterflies are every bit as dramatic with their dark, velvety wings marked with yellow and blue. Bring Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillars to your garden with dill, fennel, Queen Anne's lace, and carrot. The butterflies enjoy nectar from butterfly bush, milkweeds, phlox, and zinnias.

Thanks to visitor sandyshadow for sharing her great photo.

Giant Swallowtail

One of North America's biggest butterflies, Giant Swallowtails can reach 6 inches across. Invite these big beauties to your garden with citrus or rue plants; caterpillars love them. The adult butterflies love nectar from butterfly bush, coneflower, and sunflowers.

Thanks to visitor dittepetitti for sharing this great photo.

Spicebush Swallowtail

Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies are a rich, deep black-blue color punctuated with bluish stipples and white spots. It's definitely a garden showstopper. Attract it by planting spicebush (Lindera benzoin), the caterpillars' favorite food. Adults are less picky; they'll drink from many common plants including butterfly bush, coneflower, and lantana.

Mourning Cloak

Long-lived Mourning Cloak butterflies look a bit like swallowtails but emerge in early spring. The adults feed from a variety of sources, from the nectar of fruit trees to tree sap, rotting fruit, and even animal droppings. The caterpillars are likely to feed on trees such as elm and willow.

Thanks to visitor degravesb for sharing this great photo.

White Admiral

Even more dramatic than the Red-Spotted Purple, White Admirals are only common in the North and Northeast. The caterpillars eat the leaves of a variety of trees, from wild cherry to poplar, birch, willow, and linden. The adults may drink some nectar from flowers, but they seem more fond of rotting fruit and tree sap.

Thanks to visitor Flowers Everywhere for sharing this great photo.

Red Admiral

One of North America's more common butterflies, Red Admirals are territorial, so you're not likely to see more than one at a time. The caterpillars love false nettle, a North American wildflower. Adult Red Admirals like salt and may land on you to sip your sweat. They'll also drink nectar, tree sap, and rotting fruit.

Pearl Crescent

Though often only an inch wide, Pearl Crescents are common and cheery. They often fly low to the ground. The butterflies appear in big numbers in late summer as asters begin to bloom. That's no coincidence: Asters are their caterpillar's preferred plant. The adults drink from a variety of blooms, including coneflower and verbena.

Great Spangled Fritillary

Great Spangled Fritillaries have an interesting life cycle: They lay eggs in summer. The caterpillars hibernate in fall and winter, then emerge in spring to eat the leaves of violets. The adult butterflies drink from common butterfly-garden flowers including milkweeds and coneflowers.

Eastern Comma

This small, bright butterfly is common throughout the eastern half of North America. The adults hibernate in winter, often in woodpiles or other out-of-the-way places. Their caterpillars love eating leaves of elm trees, hackberry trees, and hop vines. The adults drink nectar from a variety of flowers, including butterfly bush.

Thanks to visitor Madam Kimithy for sharing this great photo.

American Snout

Look closely and American Snout butterflies are pretty easy to recognize -- they look like they have exceptionally large noses. They're most common in the South. The caterpillars love hackberries, and adults drink from a variety of wildflowers, as well as rotting fruits.

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