University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Summer News Article
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
If you love to watch butterflies in summer, perhaps you should think about the plants that attract them.  More importantly, realize that these and moths (together termed “lepidopterans”) don’t exist for our enjoyment, but to pollinate flowers and their larvae (caterpillars) to provide food for birds.  In fact, such larvae are one of the main sources of food for birds.   With an abundance of lepidopterans in your landscape, you’ll likely attract many birds as a benefit too.  These birds, in addition to their sights and songs, provide an “ecological service” by eating many other insects.
Professor Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware, has written a book—Bringing Nature Home-- describing in some detail the benefits of insects in our landscapes, as well as how most are attracted to and prefer native plants.  He and assistants have compiled a very complete and extensive listing of species of plants and lepidopterans from the mid-Atlantic states, which of these insects are attracted to which plants, and they ranked the most important plants (  While these numbers all won’t fit exactly in northeastern states, most of the plants grow here as well, and many of the key plants are likely important here too.
While there are many other insects that pollinate plants (such as bees), and provide food for birds, they chose to focus on this large group of moths and butterflies (about 3,500 species in the mid-Atlantic states).  In their lists they considered 1385 plant genera (the large groupings of plants such as asters, goldenrod, bee balm, and the like). Of these, there were 884 native plant genera, and 501 non-natives or introduced plants from elsewhere (“exotics” or “aliens”).
In their ranking list of woody plants, only one non-native (pears) was in the top 50 most attractive to moths and butterflies.  In their listing of herbaceous plants, 16 non-natives were in the top 50 most attractive, while the rest were native plants.  Of the introduced herbaceous plants that attract moths and butterflies, these non-natives included a few “weeds” such as dandelion (87 different lepidopterans attracted to this in the mid-Atlantic states, including both native and non-native species) and burdock (27); only one common garden flower—the hollyhock (22); some common vegetables such as corn (120), Brussel’s sprouts (68), beets (44), peas (38), and asparagus (32); and main agronomic crops such as alfalfa (69), wheat (36), and soybean (33). 
In the top 50 most attractive list of native herbaceous plants, fruits and vegetables included strawberries (81), beans (66), and lettuce (51).  Native “weeds” that you might consider leaving, at least in a few out-of-sight or controlled areas, that attract moths and butterflies, include plantain (66), horsenettle (61), ragweed (48), lambsquarters (42), nettle (35), pigweed (29), and thistle (29). If your garden gets weedy, just tell visitors it is providing an “ecological service”, or that it is a butterfly garden.
Agronomic crops with native origins that attract lepidopterans include clover (122, the highest of all herbaceous plants), rye (31), and hops (27).  Native flowers you should consider to attract butterflies include goldenrod (115), aster (109), sunflower (75), morning glory (39), lupine (33), willowherb (32), violet (30), false indigo (24), geranium (24), and chrysanthemum (22).
The top dozen native trees you could plant in North Country landscapes to attract moths and butterflies are oaks (532), willow (455), birch (411), cottonwood or poplar (367), crabapple (308), maple (297), alder (255), elm (215), pine (201), spruce (150), ash (149), and basswood (149). A dozen of the most important native shrubs for lepidopterans include beach plum (456), blackberry (163), rose (135), serviceberry (124), viburnum (104), currant (99), spirea (89), grape (79), witchhazel (63), rhododendron (51), juniper (42), and elderberry (42). 
 Of course, in each of these plant genera there are several if not many species, not all of which may be most attractive, nor even all native.  But these are a good selection to choose from with a good chance of helping and attracting butterflies more than many other plants.  For the total species listed attracted to these plants, you’ll find many more native moths and butterflies in the lists than non-natives.  For instance, for oaks, of the 532 species attracted, 14 are exotic and 518 are natives. For clover, of the 122 species attracted, 7 are exotic and 115 are natives.
In addition to the flowers already listed, other favorite plants for butterflies and moths include Joe-pye, honeysuckle, black-eyed susan, iris, evening primrose, milkweed, verbena, penstemon, phlox, bee balm, speedwell, and lobelia.  You can read much more on why native plants are important in our landscapes, and what to plant in landscapes, at Professor Tallamy’s website (  Lists, searchable by state and trait, for not only moths and butterflies but bees too, can be found from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (

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