The Washington Post

Planting for pollinators

Sharon Metcalf shows a monarch caterpillar on the underside of a swamp milkweed leaf in her butterfly garden in Bethesda. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Consider planting a fe w host plants for butterfly caterpillars:


Milkweeds are essential for supporting monarch butterflies.

●Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, is a perennial that grows to about four feet, likes damp conditions, and blooms for much of the summer.

●Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, is a prettier perennial, shorter and with bright orange flowers that appear in the late spring.

●Bloodflower, A. curassavica, is a particularly attractive milkweed, with orange and red flowers. It is not hardy in Washington but can be grown as an annual.

Research has shown that most monarch larvae feed on the common milkweed A. syriaca. This is an upright, somewhat stiff, large-leafed perennial with pink blooms — considered a weed by some but good for wilder parts of the garden. It spreads by runners and should be planted where it will be allowed to wander.

Many common trees and shrubs provide food for other butterfly larvae, including oaks, elms, ashes, hornbeams, tulip poplars, willows, cherry trees, redbuds and viburnums.

Some lesser-used native trees and shrubs feed desirable larvae. Check the plant’s mature size before deciding where or whether to plant.

Trees and shrubs

●Paw paw (zebra swallowtail)

●Hackberry and sugarberry (hackberry butterfly, snout butterfly, mourning cloak, question mark butterfly)

●Shadbush (tiger swallowtail)

●Spicebush (spicebush swallowtail)

●New Jersey tea (blues)

●Hawthorn (swallowtails, red-spotted purple)


●Parsley, rue, fennel and dill (black swallowtail)

●Nettles: wild stinging nettle or its ornamental stingless relative, Boehmeria (red admirals, commas, question mark and painted lady).

●Hop vine (red admiral, mourning cloak)


●Clover (blues)

●Penstemon (buckeyes)

●Violets (fritillaries)

●Asters (crescents)

●Baptisia (skippers and sulfurs)

●Lespedeza (blues, hairstreaks)

The following trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals provide a rich source of nectar and pollen for butterflies and bees.


Maple ●Mahonia ●Flowering quince

●Redbud ●Cherry and apricot ●Apple and crabapple ●Hawthorn ●Viburnum●Sourwood●American holly ●Tulip trees ●Rugosa rose ●Azalea ●Lilac ●Wisteria ●Hellebores●Catmint ●Clover ●Creeping phlox ●Lamium


Lavender ●Liatris ●Rudbeckia ● Coneflower ●Garden phlox ● Buddleia ●Dahlia ●Verbena ●Joe-pye weed ●Cucumbers and squash ● Sunflower ● Zinnia ●Pentas ●Tithonia ●Lantana ● Borage ● Cosmos ●Hyssop●Summersweet ●Buttonbush ● Russian sage ●Mountain mint ●Boneset


Buddleia ●Zinnia ●Tithonia ●Aster ●Caryopteris ●Cosmos ●Lantana ●Ironweed ●Goldenrod ●Abelia ●Lespedeza ●Mexican bush sage ●Sedum

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden."
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