Garden Photo of the Day

More Butterflies in Barb’s Garden

More flying favorites

We’re back in East Berlin, Pennsylvania (Zone 6b) visiting with Barb Mrgich today. We’ve visited her flower-filled garden before, but yesterday we got a different kind of tour of the butterflies that visit her garden and the plants they need to thrive. Today is the second part of the tour.

I came upon this beautifully marked black swallowtail one day while working in my garden. It had obviously emerged recently from its chrysalis and was waiting for its wings to dry before it could fly. I don’t know the significance of the colorful markings on the underside of its wings, but it sure was a beauty!

I was thrilled to come upon this unusual guy in my garden one day. I looked him up and found that he is a giant swallowtail. Giant he was! The article says he hosts on citrus and is actually considered a pest in the Florida citrus groves. He is a long way from home! He liked the zinnias and hung around all day. Then he left, and I’ve never seen another one. (Editor’s note: In cold climates where citrus doesn’t grow, giant swallowtail caterpillars can feed on other plants, including rue [Ruta graveolens, Zones 4–8] and prickly ash [Zanthoxylum americanum, Zones 3–7].)

Here are two common buckeyes. They have no connection to the Ohio buckeye tree. They are so named because of the large eye spot on their wings. Among other plants, buckeyes host on snapdragons. They are said to especially like nectaring on purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea, Zones 3–8). Buckeyes fly south in the winter, usually to Florida.

The first time I ever saw a red admiral, I got very excited because I really didn’t know any butterflies then. I Googled “dark butterfly with red stripe down wing,” and it came right up. Here he is on sedum (Hylotelephium spectabile, Zones 3–9). Butterflies tend to like flowers with a wide landing zone, and sedum certainly provides that! This butterfly’s favorite host plant is stinging nettle, a vicious plant I don’t want anywhere near my garden. I have only ever encountered stinging nettle in Florida, and brushing against it was worse than a bee sting! Surprisingly to me, the red admiral is rather prevalent in my Pennsylvania yard. Like the painted lady, he packs it up and flies to warmer climates in the winter months.

Here is a butterfly that can fool a lot of people. It looks almost exactly like a monarch, but it is a resident butterfly for me. This is a viceroy butterfly. This viceroy is also nectaring on sedum. For me, the distinguishing mark to tell it from a monarch is the thin black line that runs across his hindwing. I call it his necklace. This butterfly hosts on native willows like pussy willow (Salix discolor, Zones 3–8) and actually winters over in its caterpillar form! The immature caterpillar rolls itself up in a leaf of its host plant as winter nears, then drops to the ground with the leaf. There it stays until spring, when it crawls back up the tree and begins to eat.

For a long time I had no interest in the little brown butterflies that are so plentiful in my garden. They are not flashy and eye-catching like the others, so I just ignored them. Finally, as my interest in gardening for wildlife grew, I realized that although they may not be the flashiest, they are valuable pollinators and important for biodiversity. I learned that they are called skippers. As with butterflies, there are many different species of skippers. They have different host plants and nectar on the same flowers that large butterflies prefer. Some go south for the winter, while others winter over in the protection of the leaf litter. Skippers are considered butterflies, although they have fuzzy bodies that are more mothlike. As a general rule, moths fly at night, and butterflies and skippers fly during the day.

Here is a silver-spotted skipper, a species that is easy to identify because of the white spot on its wing. He is so small that it’s easy to miss him completely! He is nectaring on a hardy Agapanthus. Agapanthus, sometimes called lily of the Nile, is prevalent in warmer states, and most plants are not hardy in Pennsylvania. Although I consider myself a wildlife and native plant gardener, I just had to have one. I was delighted the day I found one of these plants in a small, backyard nursery for sale. It has grown here for years and has created a rather noticeable patch. The flowers are smaller than the ones I have seen in California, and the blooms don’t last as long, but they do attract pollinators!

I was at a friend’s house one day, and she was showing me her Tithonia plants, which she had grown from seed. As we were admiring the flowers, a monarch fluttered in to nectar. As I snapped the camera, a hummingbird photo-bombed the picture!

One very popular nectar plant I haven’t yet mentioned is the Brazilian verbena (Verbena bonariensis, Zones 7–10 or as an annual). An annual in my climate, it will reseed itself prolifically all over your garden. It is one of those “see through” plants that can mingle with just about any other plants and be beautiful wherever it goes. Butterflies absolutely love it. Here it is serving its nectar to a painted lady butterfly. Painted ladies host on a good many weeds, such as thistle and nettle. They also use rose mallow, which is also known as hardy hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos and related hybrids, Zones 5–8). I see quite a few of them in my gardens.

I love to take photos in my garden. This one has always been one of my favorites: an eastern swallowtail on liatris.


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View Comments


  1. User avater
    treasuresmom 12/05/2023

    Great pics.

  2. User avater
    user-7007816 12/06/2023

    Wonderful collection of photos. You are so fortunate to have such a wide variety of butterflies.

  3. btucker9675 12/06/2023

    Best photo bomb ever!!!!!

  4. User avater
    simplesue 12/07/2023

    Oh wow another great and informative post. Your photography is excellent and you share a wealth of great garden info. Thanks to you I'm thinking of planting some hardy Agapanthus! and because of your post before this- I'm inspired to plant some parsley!

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