Building a successful butterfly garden can be as easy as knowing which types of plants attract butterflies. Most adult butterflies nectar on a variety of flowering plants. However, a successful butterfly garden also means having plants attractive to the larval forms of butterflies, caterpillars.
A quick butterfly survey of the average American butterfly garden often ends with true brushfoots leading the list with the highest amount of species. That fact translates into true brushfoots representing the average garden butterfly. Because most true brushfoots sport orange color wings, identifying them can be a relatively easy task. Match a common names such as comma butterflies, crescent butterflies or checkerspot butterflies with a specific wing pattern and butterfly identification task becomes one of identifying individual species.
Here’s a great garden butterfly identification starter guide featuring twenty of the most common True Brushfoots that grace gardens across the United States. In many instances the host larval plant for the species is provided to help visitors and members decide on the types of plants that might be suited to their vision of a butterfly garden. It starts with the White Peacock (Anartia jatrophae), pictured above. It’s the most common Anartia species, inhabiting the southernmost areas of Arizona, east to Florida. Strays can be found in the Southeast and Midwest.
Caterpillars feed on Water hyssop and Wild Petunia plants. Adults nectar on flowers in the vicinity of the caterpillar host plants.
The Variable Checkerspot (Euphydryas chalcedona), also called the Chalcedon Checkerspot, shown in the top picture, takes on a couple of different color patterns. The dominant wing color on the top can be either a dark or black color combined with red spots on the sides of the wings.
Another version of the Variable Checkerspot has brown and orange color wings. Both versions display the white, or off white patterns on the wing to contrast with the darker wing colors.
The Bordered Patch (Chlosyne lacinia), the most widespread of the five patch species, inhabits areas of the Southwest, Midwest and South Texas.
It’s a medium sized butterfly with a variable wing pattern. The most common forms have black wings and a orange to yellow band running along both the top hind wing and fore wing. White spots are visible along the wing borders.
Caterpillars feed on plants in the sunflower family and adults nectar from a variety of flowers. Their adaptability to a variety of food and nectar sources partially explains their wide range.
The Crimson Patch (Chlosyne janais), a late summer and fall butterfly of South Texas and New Mexico, sports red patches on otherwise dark wings.
Caterpillars feed on a variety of honeysuckle plants (Anisacanthus), whose flowers attract hummingbirds. Adults nectar on a variety of flowers.
The Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia) deserves its name because with the exception of some areas in the extreme Pacific Northwest, it ranges across much of North America.
The brown wings with colorful eye spots make it a fairly easy butterfly to identify.
Caterpillars feed on a variety of snapdragons, plantains and wild petunias.
The Mangrove Buckeye (Junonia genoveva) has the smallest range of the three.
Their caterpillars eat the leaves of Black Mangrove trees, a staple along Florida coastal areas.
Since Black Mangroves are also found along much of the coastal areas of the Gulf Coast, a changing climate could potentially spur migration of the Mangrove Buckeye to those areas.
The California Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis californica) (pictured), the Compton Tortoiseshell and Mourning Cloak represent the Nymphalis genus.
California Tortoiseshells are Western butterflies, one of many orange brushfoot species, and one of the first spring arrivals. The black border that surrounds the wings is one helpful identification trait.
During certain years, California Tortoiseshell populations erupt, and large numbers, often reaching the thousands range, migrate. At these times, a mile long drive along a Western mountain pass might mean driving through a group of ten thousand Tortoiseshells.
The caterpillars feed on lilac plants.
The Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), although in the same genus as the California Tortoiseshell, looks substantially different.
The caterpillars feed on leaves from a variety of trees, including willow and elm, which partially explains it wide spread distribution.
Many adults hibernate during the winter, becoming one of the first species seen when the weather warms during spring.
Milbert’s Tortoiseshell (Aglais milberti), one of two Aglais species is predominantly a northern species, inhabiting marsh areas in Alaska, Canada and the northern United States.
Yellow and orange coloration spice up otherwise dull brown wings.
The caterpillars feed on stinging nettles and adults enjoy nectaring on fruit, sap and occasionally flowers.
Garden Butterflies: The Ladies
Four different butterflies in the Vanessa genus visit gardens across the United States. Three of them go by the common name, lady. Identifying the American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis) starts by looking for the white spot on the upper wing.
Compare the West Coast Lady (Vanessa annabella) and note the absence of a white dot on the wings. The bottom of the wings also shows a pattern of four blue dots circled in black, another field identification mark.
Almost any thistle species, mallow species and legume species can serve as the larval host plant for the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui), explaining its world wide distribution. Southern gardens have more luck regularly attracting them. Eastern gardens need to wait for mass migrations.
Contrary to the name, the Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) does not belong to the Limenitidinae subfamily of Admirals and their relatives. It’s more the face that the red stripe on the fore wing resembles the stripes often seen on Admiral butterflies.
Red Admiral caterpillars feed on plants in the nettle family, a very common group of plants. Rotten fruit is the preferred food for adults.
The Field Crescent butterfly (Phyciodes pulchella), a common West Coast Phyciodes species, live at both high and low elevations.
Caterpillars feed on plants in the aster family, and adults nectar on a variety of flowers.
Because of the abundance of aster plants in the Western United States, Field Crescents can be found through much of the spring, summer and early fall, depending on their geographic location.
The Mylitta Crescent (Phyciodes mylitta), one of the smaller crescent butterflies in the United States, live in both fields and residential settings of Western North America.
The picture shows the species enlarged by a factor of two in order to highlight the predominant orange wing pattern.
The Texan Crescent (Anthanassa texana), the most widely established of the Anthanassa crescents, is a medium sized butterfly with a predominant black wing color with orange and white pattern marks. The typical black dots bordering the bottom of the wings on Phyciodes species is absent.
Texan Crescents are found in southern states from Florida to California, including, of course, Texas. A small Midwest population also exists.
The Green Comma (Polygonia faunus) inhabits forest areas in the West, Upper-Midwest and New England. Dark borders on both the top and bottom wings often serve as the first identification clue. The black spot in the middle of the bottom wing (and below two additional black spots) serves as the second identification clue.
The Satyr Comma (Polygonia satyrus), picture two, inhabits woodland areas from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast.
The presence of multiple black spots on both the top and bottom wings, along with a light border on the lower wing serve as good field identification clues.
It is one of the only comma species found at lower elevations near the caterpillar host plant, stinging nettle. Adults overwinter in their territory and re-emerge during early spring.
The Hoary Comma (Polygonia gracilis), picture three, another primarily Western species, also maintains a small population in northern New England.
The two black spots on the bottom wing, along with the light brown and mustard wing border, serve as the basic identification clues.
The bottom picture shows a side view. Like other comma species, they live in and around forested areas. Often they can be found nectaring near streams. Some experts differentiate between the Eastern and Western species, calling the Western species Zephyr Commas.