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When we think about planting for pollinators, we rarely consider anything outside of pollen and nectar. These two components are super important, of course, but there is a huge piece of the puzzle that is often missing from ornamental “butterfly gardens.”


If you want the butterflies, and bees, and songbirds, you need to be ready to support the larval stage, namely, caterpillars! Lots of pollinators can and will visit just about any flower containing pollen and/or nectar, but need specific species of plants in order to raise their young. This special relationship with host plants, is easily explained with the lovely Monarch butterfly. We all know (we know…right?) that the Monarch butterfly will seek out milkweed (Asclepias ssp.) plants to lay their eggs on. The eggs hatch, the caterpillars go to town munching on the tender milkweed leaves as they grow bigger and bigger, before they move off the milkweed plants and find a place to start forming their chrysalis. In this instance, the milkweed is the host plant for the Monarch, feeding the caterpillars as well as the adults butterflies.

We can apply this understanding to many of the native plants in our garden! We have been conditioned to freak out when we see holes in plant leaves, or webby nests being built, but this is an excellent opportunity to investigate what is eating the leaves, and understand why this may be that missing piece mentioned above. Keep in mind that an estimated 90% of native insects have host plant relationships. 

We recently had a customer contact us after seeing the tops of her pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) curling and looking rather rough (her photo is to the left). This looks like “pest damage” or “disease.” What you are seeing, however, is the beginning of a webby nest for either the American Lady, or Painted Lady butterfly larvae! These butterflies hold a special place in our hearts here at Blue Stem, as they are often one of the earliest butterflies of the season, and they never fail to show up almost as soon as we put their preferred host plants out, the aforementioned pearly everlasting, as well as the adorable pussytoes (Antennaria ssp). Even though this stage can be hard on our human eyes, it is important to remember that this damage is not permanent, and these insects will not completely destroy the plant. It is in their best interest to keep it around, after all. She sent a follow up video and her pearly everlasting is the best restaurant in town!


Keep in mind that not all plant “damage” is due to beneficial host relationships, there are a whole lot of non-native, potentially invasive, insect damage that can and does occur. It does take some education to be able to recognize different insects and their various life stages. Luckily there are quite a few wonderful resources you can use to find more information. We adore The Caterpillar Lab ( for a local resource, Native Plant Finder ( for county-level information, and there are some truly nerdy bug groups on Facebook that can help with identification. I particularly enjoy “All Bugs go to Kevin.” I also utilize an iPhone app called “Picture Insect” to help with tentative identification in the field.


Learning about these insects and their habitat is fun, and can go a long way in helping assuage the distress we may feel when we see our beloved plants getting munched.

“If something is eating your garden, congratulations!”


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