Trees for Butterflies

When planning a butterfly garden one typically thinks of planting flowers. But did you know that trees also attract butterflies? Some flowering trees provide nectar for the adult butterfly. And then there are trees that provide food for caterpillars. There are many trees you can plant in your garden that are host plants for butterflies. A host plant is a specific plant that provides food for developing larva.



Brenda Dziedzic, author of Butterflies in the Garden, has created an amazing butterfly habitat in her small back yard in Michigan. She does not have enough room to plant many trees so she plants trees in large containers. Since this limits the root growth it will limit how big the tree will grow.

Please note, you should plant those trees native to your area that are adapted to the local climate and soil conditions where they naturally occur.

The Wonder of Monarchs in Mexico

The Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterflies that have spent the winter in Mexico have now started their northbound trek back to the United States and Canada. People who have visited the sites where the butterflies spend the winter have reported seeing tens of thousands of butterflies.

My friend, Jacqui Knight, just recently returned and shared with me her experience. “I was in Mexico two years ago to see the Monarchs. I was amazed at how many Monarchs we could see in the trees–the experience was mind-blowing. And so I was completely amazed at just how many more Monarchs I saw on this trip.

Jacqui Knight, from New Zealand, is the founder of Monarch Butterfly New Zealand Trust.

“The day after we arrived, we rode up Cerro Pelón, and halfway up the mountain, the horses stopped in a shady passage. Suddenly I realized we were surrounded by a stream of Monarchs, a constant stream, flying towards us and further down the mountain. The stream joined up with another stream as the Monarchs surged down the mountain, looking for nectar sources further down. Some of them stopped nearby to sip at Salvias (Salvia spp.) and other wildflowers beside the track.

“We rode on and found the Monarchs in a clearing in huge bunches in the trees. It was a thrill when something prompted the Monarchs to burst into life. Looking up at the blue sky it was as if I was standing next to a huge bonfire with ashes littering the sky, falling around us.

“And at the very top, the trees were thick with Monarchs. These were harder to see as they sat, wings closed in the trees. But we could see them and hear them: the gentle swish of a wonder of wings in the pines and firs. I had never imagined that I would see so many!

Photo by Brenda Dziedzic, author of Learn About Butterflies in the Garden. (Used with permission.)

“The next day down in the village of Macheros we saw Monarchs flying everywhere looking to top up on their reserves before they began the journey northwards, and they were puddling thickly in a stream near some houses… so many Monarchs that you could hardly see the stream,” Jacqui wrote as she ended her description of viewing the overwintering Monarchs up close.

In support of Jacqui’s description, the World Wildlife Fund, which monitors Monarch numbers, reported, “The area of forest occupied by hibernating Monarch butterflies in Mexico has increased by 144% in relation to last year’s survey—the biggest growth in the past 12 years. A new colony of Monarchs was also found in the Nevado de Toluca, State of Mexico.” This is good news for these North American Monarchs and for those of us who have made efforts to help this iconic butterfly. But we still have a long way to go!

The eastern North American Monarch population estimate for the winter of 2018-2019 reports a population size of 6.05 hectares. Read more:

But the news is not so positive for those Monarchs that overwinter in California. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, a nonprofit group that conducts a yearly census of the western Monarch, stated the population reached historic lows in 2018, an estimated 86% decline from the previous year. That combined with a 97% decline in the total population since the 1980s, this year’s count is “potentially catastrophic,” according to biologist Emma Pelto. Scientists estimate that the Monarch butterfly population in western North America has a 72 percent chance of becoming near extinct in 20 years if the Monarch population trend is not reversed. (

Just the other day I was visiting the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas, when a man standing next to me said, “I need to go and buy some Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) The Monarch butterflies will soon be here in Texas.” Then this stranger went on and told me all about how the Monarchs will need Milkweed on which to lay their eggs. This made my heart sing! What if everyone had this same enthusiasm for planting Milkweed for the Monarchs!

If we are going to save the wonder of the North American Monarchs, we need to plant Milkweed! So let us all show this same enthusiasm and plant Milkweed! To help you get started, I am giving away free Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seeds. Send a self-addressed stamped envelope to Suzanne Tilton, Butterfly Lady, PO Box 971263, El Paso, Texas, 79997.

Spread the message with this “Plant Milkweed T-shirt by Butterfly Lady:


Beautiful Blue Morpho

The Blue Morpho butterfly is probably one of the best known and most popular worldwide. It is particularly known for its luminescent blue wings. The brilliant blue coloring is a result of the microscopic scales on the backs of their wings, which reflect light.

With wings spanning from five to eight inches, the Blue Morpho is one of the largest butterflies in the world.

The Morpho is a highly diversified species with more than twenty subspecies. It is found from Mexico and throughout Central and South America and is endemic to Trinidad and Tobago. Located primarily in rainforests, however, the species can be found in habitats ranging from mountains, ravines, cleared lands, and streams.

Display case of the many different species of Morho species. (Photo by Terri Wilhelm. Used with permission.)

Many butterfly houses have these magnificent butterflies on display. The first encounter with a Blue Morpho was at Butterfly World in Coconut Creek, Florida. I was enchanted with their brilliant blue color and mesmerized as I watched them fly gracefully throughout the exhibit. I immediately fell in love!

The undersides of the blue morpho’s wings are dull brown, with eyespots (ocelli) and other gray, black, and red markings. The larger eyespots may help deter predators, who at first glance could think the eyes belong to a larger creature.

The cryptic coloration on the underside of the wings provides camouflage when the Morpho’s wings are closed.

As much as I love watching these wonderful butterflies in captivity, it does not compare to seeing them in the wild. A few years ago during a trip to Costa Rica, I was walking down a road when a flicker of blue glided past me. I started to run to keep up with the butterfly. The erratic flight pattern makes it quite difficult to follow. This is on purpose because this is how they defend themselves against predators. The Blue Morpho has what is known as a “flashing” defense. When in flight, its wings appear to flash from vivid blue to dull brown. The butterfly seems to continuously disappear and reappear again, making it very hard to track through the jungle.

The Morpho butterfly does not feed on the nectar from flowers but rather feeds on the juices of fermenting fruit. I was able to lure butterflies to the garden by setting out fruit in a bird bath.

Blue Morpho butterflies are farmed raised and then the live pupae are shipped all over the world for butterfly exhibits. Many people raise these butterflies in captivity to be used for collectors in display cases. Their wings are also used to make jewelry. This can be disturbing for many people but I would like to point out that the butterflies you see in boxes or in jewelry were not snatched from the wild population, but raised on a butterfly farm for the specific purpose of being sold as what is known as “dry stock”.

If you want to see these brilliant blue beauties you can travel to Costa Rica or your nearest tropical butterfly exhibit. You can click here to see a list of tropical butterfly houses in the United States and Canada.

Click here to see photos of the lifecycle of the Blue Morpho.

Morpho T-Shirt in Baby Blue. Click Here or on the photo to see more and to make it yours.

Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charithonia)

“Do you have a favorite butterfly?” I often get asked this question. I love all butterflies but I have to say that the Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charithonia), has always been my favorite. These graceful butterflies hold a special place in my heart because they have unique behaviors that distinguish them from other butterflies.

Zebra Longwing is found across South and Central America and as far north as southern Texas and peninsular Florida; there are migrations north into other North American states in the warmer months.

Most butterflies and moths rely on sugar-laden nectar or fruit to provide the energy they need. Zebra Longwings not only sip nectar from flowers but they feast on pollen. Pollen contains much more protein than can be found in normal butterfly diets. The extra nutrients allow these Zebra Longwings to lay more eggs and to live as long as six months as adults, rather than the few weeks most butterfly species live.

Zebra Longwing butterflies collect pollen on their proboscis. Note the yellow powder collected on the coiled proboscis.

Another unique characteristic of these butterflies is that they roost in large groups at night. These communal colonies can range from a few individuals to 30 butterflies or more. Roosting together provides protection from predators and retains warmth. The butterflies return to the exact same spot to settle down every night. Groups have a social hierarchy that allows the oldest butterflies to pick the best sleeping spots before the others bed down around them. The older butterflies of the group also give the younger ones a nudge to get going in the mornings.

Zebra Longwings are a social species and snuggle together in groups at night to keep warm and to protect each other from predators.

Apparently, these delicate butterflies memorize locations of their preferred flowers on which they feed and plan the most efficient route by which to visit their nectar and pollen sources. I observed this behavior last summer in my Florida garden. I planted various flowers in containers along the wooden pool deck in the back yard. The butterflies’ roost was located in an oak tree about 75 feet away. Each morning, around 10:00, they would leave the roost and fly toward my garden. They began feeding on Mexican sunflowers planted along the south side of the deck and then moved north visiting each container of flowers in the order they were placed on the deck. They ended up feeding on the zinnias, which were planted in rows, traveling down the row of flowers. From there they flew out into the fields nearby where Maypop (Passiflora incarnata) and Corkystem Passionflower (Passiflora suberosa) grew wild.

The Zebra Longwings in my Florida garden first nectar on the Mexican Sunflowers (Tithonia spp.) then feed on Purple Porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis), trailing Lantana (Lantana camara), and onto the red Pentas (Penta lanceolata).

Female Zebra Longwings lay their eggs on Passion Vines (Passiflora spp.), but their favorite seems to be Corkystem Passionflower and Maypop (Passiflora incarnata). The females deposit their eggs on the tendrils and the tip of the leaves, usually in clusters.  In the first few days, the caterpillars are gregarious, but they quickly break out to feed on their own.  Passion vines contain toxic compounds that are ingested by the caterpillars making the caterpillars, as well as the adult butterflies, a poisonous meal for predators. The white or yellow stripes and spots on the adults’ wings and body serve as a warning signal to potential predators of the butterflys’ unpalatable and poisonous nature. These bright, contrasting warning colors are known as aposematic coloration.

Females lay their eggs in clusters. The caterpillars are gregarious when they are young, but they quickly break out to feed on their own. The larvae are bright white and with rows of branching black spikes that make it difficult for predators to swallow, although the spikes are harmless to humans.

A few hours before eclosion (emergence from chrysalis), females release a pheromone  that attracts males. As a female gets ready to emerge from her chrysalis, males will begin to swarm around her, jostling and flapping wings to push each other aside. The winner of this scuffle mates with the female before allowing her time to expand and dry her wings. The male passes a nutrient-rich spermatophore to the female which reduces her attractiveness to future mates. Apparently, this mating behavior, referred to as pupal rape‘, is beneficial to the survival of the species by allowing the female to go straight to laying eggs, not having to exhaust energy in ritualistic mating practices.

Two male Zebra Longwings (Heliconius charithonia) hang on either side of a chrysalis. The male butterflies can sense that the pupa inside is a female and they will battle each other by spreading their wings and trying to intimidate the other to fly off. (Photo by Jay Paredes. Used with permission.)

I find Zebra Longwings so fascinating. I feel so blessed when these beautiful, striped butterflies grace my garden!

A Tale of Nature’s Living Gold

A few years ago, I was at a farmers’ market in Cary, North Carolina, USA, where I had a display of live Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterflies. Monarch chrysalises inside clear containers were available so that people could observe the pupa up close. One woman was quite intrigued by the beauty of the chrysalis. After looking at the chrysalis for a long time, she asked me, “How did you manage to paint those little gold dots on there?”

Monarch chrysalis in an emergence cup for close observation. The pupa is attached to the lid with tape, using the stretched silk button. A strip of coffee filter, about one inch (25mm) in width is taped to the bottom and side of the cup. In case the emerging butterfly falls, it will be able to climb up the coffee filter and spread its wings completely before they dry and harden in a crumpled form.

I suppose, if you look closely, the gold dots on a Monarch chrysalis do look like gold paint. It seems incredible that nature would adorn a living creature with a golden crown. Rick Mikula in The Family Butterfly Book, surmises that the early colonists of North America thought that the gold rim around the Monarch chrysalis reminded them of the king’s crown, so they named the butterfly “Monarch.”

Monarch chrysalis in hand. Notice the stretched silk button to which the cremaster held on during pupation. This chrysalis has been collected to keep inside, away from predators and parasites during its 10-day metamorphosis. The adult butterfly can emerge whether the pupa is hanging or lying on the ground or at the bottom of a cage.

A group of researchers in Germany did a careful study of the properties of these spots. They are not metallic (so they aren’t really gold), but the cells reflect light like metals do, giving them the appearance of being metallic. The gold is created by a combination of a carotenoid pigment and a hill-like structure that reflects light from the peaks to create the golden sparkle.

Monarch pupa camouflaged underneath a leaf of Scarlet Milkweed (Asclepius curassavica). Click Here or on the photo to purchase seeds of this valuable plant.

The scientists come to a few conclusions about the purposes of the metallic specks:
• Camouflage by reflecting colors of the surroundings and breaking up the shape of the pupa; they might also look like dew droplets.
• Warning coloration to predators that the pupa is toxic.
• Filtering particular wavelengths of light which might be harmful to the Monarchs.

Richard Stringer, in 2012, pioneered the use of various types of X-rays, MRIs and X-ray microtomography to peer inside a Monarch chrysalis and record the dramatic changes inside the chrysalis as it develops. His observations revealed that the gold spots on the outside of a chrysalis are ports of entry for oxygen.

Click Here or on the photo to read more about butterfly microtomography.

Interestingly, before those collecting and studying butterfly and moths became known as “lepidopterists,” they were known as “aurelians”. Aurelian comes from the Latin word for gold, which referred to the early collectors’ searches for golden chrysalises. The word “chrysalis” itself originates from the Greek word “chryso,” which also means gold.

A Monarch chrysalis just moments before the adult butterfly emerges. Starting a few hours prior to its emergence, also known as “eclosure,” the green and gold cuticle of the pupa becomes ever more transparent, exposing the colors of the wings.

Gold is a precious metal associated with wealth, grandeur, and prosperity, as well as sparkle, glitz, and glamour. Monarch butterflies truly are precious, natural living creatures that symbolize all of the above.

Spread the message and wear this “Plant Milkweed” t-shirt created by Butterfly Lady.