Creating A Rhode Island Butterfly Garden

Times are definitely changing. At the time of this writing we are in the midst of a global pandemic, where everyone is asked to self isolate and keep six feet away from friends and family. These are trying times, emotionally and financially, so what is someone to do to help weather the storm? With it being spring, one thing you can do is help another global issue; the decline of pollinators.


For the purpose of this blog, I am concentrating on my favorite types of insects, the butterflies. There are many reasons told for the decline of local butterfly populations. Global warming. Pesticide use. Over collecting. Though all of these reasons can, and do, contribute to their decline, the biggest issue seems to be habitat loss.

The human population is not getting any smaller and everyone needs places to live and to shop. Because of this, land is readily being taken and modified so that humans can be  there. What is now becoming more apparent, after years and years of research, is that even the slightest change in a butterfly’s environment can be detrimental, leading to lower numbers and in some cases, extinction.


Butterfly gardening has been around for a very long time. In the beginning, the use of native plants was not emphasized so non-natives were introduced into our yards. Because our local butterflies are conditioned to native plants, they rarely went to these non-native additions and oftentimes, the non-native plants would beat out the natives, leaving you with no butterflies even though the plants themselves are nectar sources in other parts of the country. This is an example of changing a butterfly’s environment, but on a small scale. The problem is though that even the smallest of changes can have the biggest of impacts.

Since we are all looking for things to make us feel better about the state of the world, why not take a section of your yard and convert it to a butterfly garden? Working outside in the sun and fresh air is such a mood lifter and as all gardeners know, making something with your bare hands is so rewarding.


To start out, I would recommend looking at your existing yard and taking an inventory. What plants do you already have? Ask yourself if they are natives or not. Then, think about what species of butterflies you have seen and make a note of what they went to. The butterflies that you see in your area regularly have obvious colonies nearby. Since they are already there, you may want to cater to them by finding out not only what their favorite nectar sources are but also what native plants their caterpillars feed on. Butterfly gardening is a two part system; the nectar sources get them there and the caterpillar food plants keep them there!

Before I get into actual butterfly species and their favorite plants, I do want to talk about butterfly bushes (Buddleia) as there has been a lot of controversy over them in recent years. One of the biggest complaints is that they are not native and in warmer climates, can be invasive. Though these facts are true, I am personally a firm believer in how beneficial they are to butterflies. They attract pretty much every species of butterfly and I have never experienced any kind of invasiveness. On occasion, I may find a seedling which I will then dig up and either use as a potted plant or will transplant it somewhere else. If you regularly cut the grass around the base of the bush, being invasive is something you will never have to worry about. Butterfly bushes also make great backdrops to pollinator gardens as they can get eight to ten feet in height, with all of your smaller plants being placed in front of them.

Though I am not going to cover every Rhode Island butterfly here, I am going to cover the ones you are most likely going to encounter on a regular basis. For each species, I will include the most common plants that are known to be host plants for the caterpillars. Check what you have growing around your property. You might be surprised at how many you have! Also, foodplants marked with an “*” may be toxic to pets. The degree of toxicity varies from plant to plant and in some cases they may just cause skin irritation while others can cause illness or even death. To find out specifically the toxicity of any of these plants, I highly recommend the University of California Safe and Poisonous Garden Plants website.


Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes Fabricius): parsley (Petroselinum spp.), carrot (Daucus), dill (Anethum) and rue* (Ruta graveolens).


Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus Linnaeus): wild cherry* (Prunus spp.), sweetbay (Magnolia virginiana), tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), birch* (Betula spp.), ash* (Fraxinus spp.), cottonwood (Populus deltoides), mountain ash (Sorbus americana) and willow (Salix spp.).


Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes Cramer): prickly ash (Zanthoxylum americanum), hop tree (Ptelea trifoliata), rue* (Ruta graveolens) and members of the citrus family (Rutaceae).


Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor Linnaeus ): pipevines* (Aristolochia spp.).

pipevine swallowtail

Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus Linnaeus): spicebush (Lindera benzoin), sassafras (Sassafras albidum), prickly ash (Zanthoxylum americanum), tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), sweetbay (Magnolia virginiana) and redbay (Persea borbonia).



Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton Drury): white turtlehead (Chelone glabra), English plaintain (Plantago lanceolata) and hairy beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus).


Buckeye (Junonia coenia Hübner): snapdragon (Antirrhinum), toadflax (Linaria), plantains (Plantago) and ruellia (Ruellia nodiflora).


Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma Harris): American elm* (Ulmus americana), hops (Humulus), nettle* (Urtica), false nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica) and wood nettle (Laportea canadensis).


Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa Linnaeus): black willow (Salix nigra), weeping williow (Salix babylonica), American elm* (Ulmus americana), cottonwood (Populus deltoides), aspen (Populus tremuloides), paper birch* (Betula papyrifera) and hackberry (Celtis occidentalis).


Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui Linnaeus): thistles (Asteraceae), hollyhocks and mallow (Malvaceae) and various legumes (Fabaceae).


Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis Fabricius): American elm* (Ulmus americanus), red elm* (Ulmus rubra), hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), Japanese hop (Humulus japonicus), nettles* (Urtica) and false nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica).


Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta Linnaeus): stinging nettle* (Urtica dioica), tall wild nettle* (Urtica gracilis), wood nettle (Laportea canadensis), false nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica) and pellitory (Parietoria pennsylvanica).


Red-Spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis Drury): wild cherry* (Prunus), aspen (Populus), poplar (Populus), cottonwood (Populus), oaks* (Quercus spp.), hawthorn (Crataegus), birch* (Betula), willows (Salix spp.) and basswood (Tilia).


Viceroy (Limenitis archippus Cramer): willows (Salix spp.), poplars (Populus spp.) and cottonwoods (Populus spp.).



Cabbage White (Pieris rapae Linnaeus): plants in the mustard family (Brassicaceae).


Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice Godart): plants in the pea family* (Fabaceae) including alfalfa (Medicago sativa), white clover (Trifolium repens) and pea (Pisum sativum).


Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme Boisduval): plants in the pea family* (Fabaceae) including alfalfa (Medicago sativa), white clover (Trifolium repens) and white sweet clover (Melilotus alba).



American Copper (Lycaena phlaeas Linnaeus): herbs of the buckwheat family (Polygonaceae) such as sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella), curled dock (Rumex crispus) and mountain sorrel (Oxyria digyna).



Coral Hairstreak (Satyrium titus Fabricius): wild cherry* (Prunus spp.), wild plum* (Prunus spp.) and chokecherry* (Prunus spp.).


Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus Hübner): members of the pea family* (Fabaceae), mallow family (Malvaceae), beans (Phaseolus), clovers (Trifolium), cotton (Gossypium) and mallow (Malva).



Eastern Tailed Blue (Everes comyntas Godart): yellow sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis), alfalfa (Medicago sativa), vetch (Vicia), clover (Trifolium), wild pea* (Lathyrus) and bush clover (Lespedeza).


Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon Cramer): dogwood (Cornus florida), New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americana), black cohosh (Actaea racemosa), blueberry (Vaccinium) and meadowsweet (Spiraea salicifolia).



Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele Fabricius): violets (Viola).



Monarch (Danaus plexippus Linnaeus): swamp milkweed* (Asclepias incarnata), common milkweed* (Asclepias syriaca) and orange milkweed* (Asclepias tuberosa).


This next section is on the best native plants that butterflies and bees use as nectar sources. Many of these species can be purchased as either plants or seeds, either at local nurseries or online. One thing to look out for though are plants that say they use neonicotinoid pesticides on their plants. On the one hand I understand nurseries wanting to sell pest-free plants but on the other, neonicotinoids have been proven to be deadly to pollinators. Not only do they work on the surface of the plant but they are also absorbed into the plant getting into the plant’s sap and flower’s pollen. Thankfully Home Depot, one of the biggest offenders of using this pesticide, now clearly labels all of their plants that have been exposed to neonicotinoids and their long term goal is to not sell plants with this material in the future. I have also added toxicity concerns of these plants towards your pets. These are just a rough guideline to toxicity and keep in mind that different breeds may have different reactions.


Actaea racemosa (Fairy Candles): may be toxic to pets


Anemone quinquefolia (Wood Anemone): may be toxic to pets


Aquilegia canadensis (Wild Columbine): may be toxic to pets


Asclepias incarnata (Swamp Milkweed): may be toxic to pets


Asclepias syriaca (Common Milkweed): may be toxic to pets

Common milkweed flowers.

Asclepias tuberosa (Butterfly Weed): may be toxic to pets


Baptisia tinctoria (Wild Indigo): may be toxic to pets


Caltha palustris (Yellow Marsh Marigold): may be toxic to pets


Chelone glabra (White Turtlehead): thought to be safe for pets


Coreopsis rosea (Pink Tickseed): thought to be safe for pets


Echinachea purpurea (Purple Coneflower): thought to be safe for pets


Eupatorium spp. (Joe-Pye Weed): thought to be safe for pets


Geranium maculatum (Wild Geranium): may be toxic to pets


Helenium flexuosum  (Purplehead Sneezeweed): may be toxic to pets


Ionactis linariifolia (Stiff Aster): thought to be safe for pets


Liatris spp. (Blazing Star): thought to be safe for pets


Lobelia spp. (Cardinal Flower): may be toxic to pets


Lupinus perennis (Lupine): may be toxic to pets


Monarda spp. (Bee-Balm): thought to be safe for pets


Packera aurea (Golden Groundsel): may be toxic to pets


Penstemon digitalis (Foxglove Beardtongue): may be toxic to pets


Pityopsis falcata (Sickle-Leaved Golden Aster): thought to be safe for pets


Phlox spp. (Wild Sweet William): may be toxic to pets

Wild Sweet William (Phlox maculata L.)

Rudbeckia spp. (Black-Eyed Susan): may be toxic to pets


Salvia spp. (Sage): thought to be safe for pets


Solidago spp. (Goldenrod): thought to be safe for pets


Spigelia marilandica (Woodland Pinkroot): thought to be safe for pets


Symphyotrichum spp. (Aster): thought to be safe for pets


Vernonia noveboracensis (New York Ironweed): thought to be safe for pets


Viola spp. (Violets): thought to be safe for pets


Zizia aurea (Golden Alexander): thought to be safe for pets


Though this is in no way a complete list, both in butterfly species and nectar plants, it is a great place to start for your butterfly garden. Even with the listed caterpillar foodplants, those listed are the most common ones (and further research will in time increase these lists). It is never too late to help the declining butterfly species, though sooner is always better than later. The adage that if you build it, they will come, has never been truer than with butterfly gardening. Even if you have limited yard space, many of these plants will also work just as well in containers, achieving the same results. My last recommendation is that the plants will be more attractive to pollinators when a single species is planted in quantity. In other words, if you have room for just five plants, you will get better results by having five of the same plants as opposed to five different plants, one of each. This is because butterflies are attracted to color and if you have a higher concentration of one color, it greatly increases the chances of the butterflies seeing it! Also, keep in mind that you may not get huge results your first season. I can guarantee though that if you keep up with your gardens year-after-year, perhaps adding more of the same plants, then you will see a definite increase in your flying visitors. It is very rewarding when such a project can yield such a positive result in a relatively short time.

~David Albaugh



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