Plants That Caterpillars Eat
The plants that caterpillars eat are called host plants and they are usually very picky about their choices! Actually, they must be because they will not survive if they do not have access to the right plant for their specific species. The adult female butterflies know which plants are acceptable for their babies and they will seek out those plants on which to lay their eggs.
You can find a list of host plants broken down by butterfly species on this webpage: What Do Caterpillars Eat. This is helpful when trying to attract a certain species of butterflies to your yard or when trying to identify a caterpillar on a plant (when you know what the plant is).
There is quite a variety of plant types that serve as host plants among the various species of caterpillars. Various annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees, vines are all included.
Some species are very specific like the Monarchs. They will only use milkweeds as their host plant. There are many varieties of milkweeds that they will use but it must be in the milkweed family.
Other butterflies like the Black Swallowtail have many different plants that they will lay their eggs on to feed their caterpillars. Included are fennel, parsley, dill, carrot, Queen Anne’s Lace and common rue. The Tiger Swallowtail butterfly uses an even larger variety including birch, lilac, tuliptree, cherry, willow and other broadleaf shrubs and trees.
Some of the plants that are eaten by caterpillars are poisonous to humans and other animals. Milkweed (used by the Monarchs) and Pipevine (used by the Pipevine Swallowtail) are two examples. When the caterpillars transform to a chrysalis and then a butterfly they carry the toxins over which this makes the butterfly very unappealing to predators such as birds.
Many caterpillars will eat the flowers and buds of the plants that are their host plants as well as just the leaves. In the above picture of the Black Swallowtail butterfly laying an egg, you can see that she has chosen to lay it on a developing flower head rather than the leaves below.
There are even a few other caterpillars that don’t eat plants at all but rather the aphids that are on the plant! The Harvester butterfly has a carnivorous aphid-eating caterpillar. They can be found in central and eastern US.
Most times the plants that the caterpillars eat will recover just fine if they are mature and healthy. Nature has been feeding the caterpillars long before we started gardening for them. The plants might get a little ragged looking for awhile but it sure is a lot of fun to plant what they eat and watch them grow and develop in your own backyard!
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