Planting for Butterflies and Caterpillars

Field crescent butterfly nectaring on its host plant, common California aster (Symphiotrichum chilensis). Photo submitted by Carol Ralph.
Field crescent butterfly nectaring on its host plant, common California aster (Symphiotrichum chilensis). Photo submitted by Carol Ralph.

Everyone loves butterflies, and everyone wants more of them in their garden! What’s the best way to attract them? Planting diverse native plants! Adult butterflies eat flower nectar, so providing a variety of nectar-producing species that bloom at various times of the year will attract adult butterflies.

Adult male butterflies are looking for females, and females look for host plants (where they will lay eggs) to provide food for their caterpillars. Planting species that are appropriate host plants for a variety of butterflies will ensure their caterpillars are well-fed.

We asked three local butterfly enthusiasts, Gary Falxa, Bill Rodstrom, and Laurie Lawrence, for a list of the 12 most commonly encountered, easily identifiable, local butterfly species, and their host plants. The resulting list is posted on our chapter website ( and will be printed in our December newsletter. It will also be available at our plant sales.

Caterpillars, while at the bottom of the food chain, are incredibly important for a variety of other species. For example, caterpillars are essential food for small bird nestling growth. Native plant species host more caterpillars than non-natives, and native plants in landscapes result in greater reproductive success for birds. Planting diverse native plants in your garden will maximize the options for butterflies, and by extension, bird species as well.

There are more species of moths than butterflies, so presumeably there are more moth caterpillars out there than butterfly caterpillars. The National Wildlife Federation has a website that lists the number of caterpillar species known to eat each species (or genus) of plant (  Plants with a higher number of species listed indicates the possibility for a higher number of caterpillars likely on that host plant.

Yellow spotted tiger moth caterpillar (Lophocampa maculata) on its host plant, willow. Photo: Carol Ralph.
Yellow spotted tiger moth caterpillar (Lophocampa maculata) on its host plant, willow. Photo: Carol Ralph.

Some caterpillars however, such as the monarch butterfly, are distasteful or even toxic to birds. The bristles on many moth caterpillars are also a defense mechanism against birds. Most of us can’t expect to know how many local moth or butterfly species use each plant in our garden, or how palatable each of the caterpillars is, so again the best plan is diversity in your planting.

Interested in learning more? Speakers and displays about pollination and pollinators will be a special feature at next spring’s Wildflower Show, May 1, 2, 3, 2020 at Jefferson Community Center, Eureka.  Mark your calendars now for this wonderful event!

Evening Programs

Evening programs are free, public programs on the second Wednesday of each month, September through May, at the Six Rivers Masonic Lodge, 251 Bayside Rd., Arcata. Refreshments at 7:00 p.m.; program at 7:30 p.m. For information or to suggest a speaker or topic, contact Michael Kauffmann at 707-407-7686 or

December 11, Wednesday.  7:30-9:00.  Native Plant Show and Tell: North Coast Scholarship  Research.  Gabe Goff and Len Mazur will share the results of their 2019 research, funded in part by the North Coast Chapter.  Gabe is a graduate student in HSU’s Forestry, Watershed, and Wildland Sciences Program. His research investigates the effects of conifer encroachment and removal on ecosystem physiology and biodiversity in native Oregon White Oak woodlands. Len is currently the lead Vegetation Management Technician for Sonoma County Regional Parks, where he is working to establish an early detection network for invasive weeds, monitor post-fire landscapes, and restore rare plant habitats throughout the county. He will share the methods and results of his senior capstone project, in which he assessed the health and degree of woody plant encroachment of two Darlingtonia fens in the Mill Creek Addition of Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park.

January 8, Wednesday.  7:30 p.m.  Butterflies of Coastal Humboldt County. Butterflies decorate the native plants of Humboldt County, and in some cases have relationships with specific hosts. Join us for a three-part presentation celebrating the butterfly diversity in the county. Local naturalist Bill Rodstrom will present a summary of the new North Coast Chapter’s guide to butterflies and host plants, many of which are available in our nursery.  This will be followed by retired Eureka High School science teacher Robert Child’s quick guide to butterfly ID using his watercolor art, highlighted in a new poster celebrating the butterflies of coastal Humboldt.  Posters will be available at the talk. Gary Falxa will wrap up the talk with a short discussion on Monarch butterfly conservation and ecology. Come and get inspired for spring planting to enhance
your garden’s wildlife!


Native Plants All Winter

No need to wait for the spring native plant sale (May 2 & 3, 2020). A selection of our chapter-grown native plants is available to buy every day, 12 noon-6 p.m., at the Kneeland Glen Farm Stand at Freshwater Farms Reserve, 5851 Myrtle Ave. (near Three Corners Market).  If you don’t see what you want there, you can ask if we have it by contacting us at