From the employee-owners of Gardener's Supply

Caterpillars First, then Butterflies

If you want to attract butterflies, it’s important to think about caterpillars. My favorites, the moths, begin life as caterpillars, too. Start by choosing plants that will provide food for the hatching caterpillars.

This is a promethea moth (woodland moth) that I raised from an egg.

The caterpillar of the promethea moth.

A luna moth that I raised from an egg.

If you have gardening questions, we’ve got answers. Just fill out the Ask an Expert form and our team of specialists will be on the case.

Lisa Yankowski, also known as The Bug Lady, is one of the team members who might answer your question — especially if it’s bug-related. Recently she shared some information about a favorite subject: caterpillars.

If you want to attract butterflies, an important group of pollinators, you should think about caterpillars. My favorite lepidoptera, the moths, begin life as caterpillars, too.

Start by choosing plants that will provide food for the hatching caterpillars. I plant parsley for the black swallowtails and milkweed for the monarchs. I have a lot of trees in my yard to attract large woodland moths. And, of course, tomato hornworm moths are looking for tomato plants. Check the plants to see if you have any caterpillars. They will be very small to start, and get bigger as they eat and progress through instars, or development stages.

To many gardeners, caterpillars are destructive pests. However, if you want to be adventurous, try raising a few in a net enclosure or a large jar with a screen or net over the top. The key is to ensure good air movement. Put out fresh food every day or two and try to keep the enclosure clean. When you clean out old food, be sure none of your caterpillars are on it. Try not to handle the caterpillars because they can be injured easily; use a brush or something they can crawl onto. Makes a great project for kids.

Plants that attract butterfly larvae (caterpillars)

  • Parsley
  • Borage
  • Fennel
  • Grasses
  • Hollyhocks
  • Lupine
  • Milkweed
  • Nettle
  • Thistle
  • Willow

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Lisa Yankowski
Gardener’s Supply


  1. June 23, 2011    

    Nice article. I’ve also found that False Indigo is great for supporting the complete cycle for butterflies.

  2. June 30, 2011    

    What a beautiful creature!

  3. Jason Diersing
    August 21, 2016    

    Beautiful pictures and I understand that this article is five years old but your ID is wrong I’m sorry to say. The large brown moth is that of the Polyphemus, not the Promethea. Two totally different species.

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