Native Butterfly Species to Look Out for on the Delmarva Peninsula

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The monarch is one of more than 60 butterfly species found on the Delmarva Peninsula. Whether you’re gardening on a postage-stamp patio or in a large yard, it’s simple to attract a few.

One basic ground rule: no insecticides—in your garden or on the plants you buy. (The nursery or store should be able to tell you whether their products have been treated.)

Other guiding principles:

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Accommodate the insect’s whole life cycle—include host plants on which eggs can be laid and that caterpillars can eat, as well as sources of nectar for the adult butterfly.

RELATED: This Project Aims to Restore Local Populations of the Monarch Butterfly

Choose plants that will keep your garden continually blooming. Some butterflies appear as early as April, and several species continue breeding into the fall. Late-summer blooms are especially important for monarchs, which fuel up at the end of the season for their long migration south.

When in doubt, go native. Native plants and insects have evolved together and have an established relationship. Caterpillars can be picky eaters, and many non-natives are useless to them (though their blooms may attract the adult butterfly). Planting native species also nurtures a healthy ecosystem. Local growers and nurseries like Gateway Garden Center in Hockessin and East Coast Garden Center in Millsboro are good sources for all of your native plant needs.

Some common backyard visitors to look out for include:

Tiger Swallowtail

Suzanne Herel

Hosts: Leaves of a variety of woody plants, including tulip tree, sweet bay, wild cherry, spicebush, birch, ash, willow

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Adult favorites: Milkweed, ironweed, joe-pye weed, buttonbush, Japanese honeysuckle, butterfly bush and Agastache

Fun facts: The tiger swallowtail is the official butterfly of Delaware. Spot the females by the larger swatch of blue on their hind wings. Also look for the dark form of the female—in bright sunlight, you can distinguish the tiger markings.

Red-Spotted Purple

Suzanne Herel

Hosts: Wild cherry, willow, apple, plum, trees in the rose family, aspen, poplar, birch

Adult favorites: Fermenting fruit, tree sap, butterfly bush, Agastache

Fun facts: The caterpillars resemble bird droppings, making them appear unappetizing to predators. Caterpillars that emerge late in the season will use the shortening days as a cue to stop molting and form a leaf shelter called a hibernaculum, where it will overwinter and emerge in spring. The adult is a mimic of the toxic pipe-vine swallowtail.

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Variegated Fritillary

Suzanne Herel

Hosts: A variety of unrelated plant species, including purple passionflower, violets, plantain, purslane

Adult favorites: Asters, milkweed, clover, sedum, blue mistflower

Fun facts: The variegated fritillary is one of the first and last butterflies of the season, appearing from late April until frost. Its chrysalis is a work of art, pearly white to blue with black spots and gold spikes.

Eastern Black Swallowtail

Suzanne Herel

Hosts: Dill, fennel, parsley, members of the carrot family, rue

Adult favorites: A wide variety of nectar plants, including milkweed, ironweed, butterfly bush, zinnia

Fun facts: The black swallowtail is the official butterfly of New Jersey. If the chrysalis is formed late in the season, it will overwinter and emerge in the spring.

Published as “Bring the Butterflies” in the May 2020 issue of Delaware Today magazine.

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