Butterfly Garden: How Butterflies Rely on Trees

It’s Pollinator Week (June 21 – 27, 2021), and we’re buzzing with delight and celebrating our tiny environmental powerhouses. When we think of butterflies, we think of bright garden flowers, but did you know that trees are butterfly gardens, too?

Butterflies are universally recognized for their vibrant patterns and overall gentle demeanor. Their unique life cycles are widely regarded as symbols for growth, beauty, and change. While most people are well-acquainted with the various stages of a butterfly’s life, (i.e., egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, butterfly), their close-knit relationships with trees and plants may come as a surprise.

Butterflies use specific trees and plants throughout each phase of their life cycle. The most commonly thought of relationship between butterflies and plants lies perhaps between plants in need of pollination and butterflies in need of a food source. Butterflies use a variety of plants as sources of food, making frequent stops, enjoying a multitude of different nectars, and spreading pollen around the environment in the process. While this relationship plays a key role in supporting butterfly and plant life, it alone is not enough to sustain a butterfly’s entire lifecycle.

Because of this, butterflies also rely on trees in a variety of ways. Like many other living things, butterflies need shelter from harsh outside elements. Trees provide a sturdy shelter that protects butterflies from the outside world.

Host plants not only provide shelter for adult butterflies, they also protect and support butterflies in their ovum (egg) and larval (caterpillar) stages. Butterfly larvae require a very specific type of host plant in order to survive. As caterpillars, each species of butterfly relies on a unique type of tree. For example, the Gray Hairstreak, Common Checkered Skipper, and Painted Lady all require Hollyhock trees for their egg laying. If butterfly eggs are laid on the wrong type of host by accident, those caterpillars would not be able to survive. This is because freshly hatched eggs will feed solely on the leaves of the host plant up until they form their chrysalis or cocoon. Knowing this, female butterflies have an intrinsic knowledge of the suitable tree type for her new eggs. They can be observed “testing” certain plants with their feet before determining the perfect spot to lay their eggs. This greatly increases the larvas’ chances of survival. Ensuring the eggs are laid on the correct plant is key to ensuring larvae survive into adulthood, and transform into the beautiful butterflies adored by so many.

Oak trees support 897 caterpillar species in the United States.

Like us, and many other living things, butterflies rely on trees to live healthy lives. The existence of trees is invaluable to the life cycle of a butterfly. Without so many varieties of trees, there would not be so many varieties of butterflies throughout the world. So, next time you are admiring the beauty of a butterfly, thank the trees that helped that butterfly grow into what you see today.

Want to attract butterflies to your yard – consider planting these trees:

Source: Georgia Department of Natural Resources;


Published June 23, 2021

Written by Izzy Herring, Education Intern, Trees Atlanta


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