Many species of butterfly have a hard time surviving due to destruction of habitat. There are ways to help increase their numbers, one way is to support their larval stage. However, taking caterpillars from the wild can do more harm than good so do not attempt this unless you are well prepared! Also, please be very aware that these are living animals, they are not toys, they are not things to throw away when you get bored with them. Once you take them (from the wild), you will be responsible for their wellbeing until you release them back. So think carefully if you are really willing to commit.

170x190 caterpillars


Most people love butterflies, they are colorful and seem very carefree as they flutter about. If you like butterflies then there are things you can do to support them, you can for example planting fragrant flowers. There are many colorful flowers that look great in any garden and are a great way to support the insect community.

Even though not everyone likes caterpillars, they are essentially butterflies. You can also support butterflies by planting food plants for their caterpillars. This article will provide some examples of popular food plants and ways of keeping the caterpillars.

Flowers for butterflies

Even though it sometimes seems like it, butterflies don't fly around just for fun. During the spring and summer they are busy looking for a mate, after copulation the female will look for a place to lay her eggs. All that traveling is tiring and they regularly replenish energy by extracting nectar from flowers (they also like tree sap, honey, rotting fruit, etc). Butterflies love most flowers but some are on the top of their list. Flowers with a strong aroma, like herbs for example are especially attractive, I’ve listed a few of these flowers below. You can buy them individually but most garden centers also sell mixed seed packages of wild flowers. Some plant species have wild variants that are on the endangered list, so please buy them at your garden center, don’t take them from the wild.
plant butterfly bush   plant purpletop vervain   plant oregano
Butterfly Bush As the name implies, butterflies love this bush! It can grow quite large and it does require some maintenance but it is worth it. It comes in different colors (purple, pink, blue, white) and I think it smells wonderful.   Verbena, Purpletop Vervain This is a large family of flowers beloved by butterflies, especially with the European Peacock, Red Admiral and small White.   Oregano Also known as wild marjoram. The wild plant is a protected species but you can buy cultivated variants in most garden centers.
plant field scabious   plant dames rocket   plant herbstfreude
Field Scabious The wild version is a protected species. The cultivated variants which comes in additional colors can be bought in most garden centers.   Dame's rocket (Hesperis matronalis) This is a plant that flowers in spring giving early butterflies like the Common Brimstone a chance to refuel after their hibernation.
  Herbstfreude (Hylotelephium telephium) This plant use to be very popular as it was believed that it would protect against evil spirits. It's a very hardy species that does well in most gardens.
plant aster   plant hemp agrimony   plant purple coneflower
Aster (Michaelmas Daisy) A plant that flowers in late summer and is nice for those butterflies that are trying to gather enough energy to last the winter.   Hemp-agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum) This plants grows rather high and likes moist-soil. Tea from this plant use to be used to cure the common-cold and as a laxative (causes liver damage if taken in large quantity so better leave it to the butterflies).   Purple Coneflower This flower en it's relatives are beloved by many insects. It's not as easy to keep as some others plants in the list, it's also liked by snails.
plant bergamot   plant honeysuckle   plant lavender
Monarda (Bergamot) Is part of the mint family. The plant enjoys a sunny spot in your garden and there are many cultivated species to choose from.   Honeysuckle Is a climber that requires support of other plants to grow. It is sometimes used to cover unsightly wall but can look messy during the winter when it doesn't have its leaves. The flowers smell really good and the berries are favored by birds and other wildlife.   lavender This is a very popular garden plant because of its soothing aroma. It does require maintenance to keep it looking nice and healthy.

Plants for caterpillars

Planting flowers is a great way to help butterflies but without a place for their caterpillars they will not survive long term. Below is a list of some of the more common (European) butterfly species and the plants that their caterpillars live on.
  • Placing these plants in your garden does not guarantee that butterflies will lay their eggs on them. Some butterflies lay their eggs in large clusters and won't lay them if there isn't enough food for their caterpillars.
  • Some of these plants and the caterpillars that feed on them are poisonous so be careful if you have small children and pets.
  • Some caterpillars (often colorful and or hairy ones) like the oak processionary are to be avoided! They can be found in large clumps on oak trees and cause extreme skin irritation when handled.
plant nettle   butterfly peacock   butterfly red admiral
Stinging Nettles   European Peacock   Red Admiral
butterfly small tortoiseshell   butterfly comma   butterfly the map
Small Tortoiseshell   The Comma   The Map
Nettles plants are very useful but rather disliked. This plant provides medicine, tea, rope and are beloved by insect including many species of butterfly. Most gardeners however aren't very happy to have these around as they can give you a nasty sting (even when wearing work gloves). They are very easy to keep and you might want to consider placing a pot of stinging nettles in a corner of your garden. Placing them in a pot will stop them from spreading.

plant cabbage   plant rapeseed   plant indian cress
Cabbage   Rapeseed   Indian Cress
butterfly small white   butterfly large white   butterfly caterpillar
Small White   Large White    
These butterflies aren't much loved by farmers as their caterpillars damage crops (cabbage, broccoli, Brussels-sprouts, etc), in Australia and New Zealand where this species isn't native they are considered pests. They are very easy to keep but are also the favorite food for many birds and for parasitic wasp. Having your caterpillars eaten from the inside out by parasitic wasp larva is a pretty traumatic experience...

plant buckthorn   butterfly common brimstone   butterfly common brimstone
Buckthorn   Common Brimstone    
This butterfly seems a very common species but their food is not as common as other plants featured on this page. The females often travel far and wide in search of a spot to lay her eggs. You can buy Buckthorn bushes/trees from specialists but it might be easier to find berries in the wild and plant those.    

plant ragwort   butterfly cinnabar moth   butterfly cinnabar moth caterpillar
Ragwort Cinnabar Moth    
This is a very common day-moth which usually lays its eggs on ragwort which is a poisonous plant. The caterpillars stores this poison when it consumes the plant and it stays poisonous throughout its life cycle. Because of this it has no natural enemies. The caterpillars are very cute and lively but because they are poisonous you'll have to be careful with this species around young children and pets. If these caterpillars run out of food they are known to turn on each other, so make sure they don't run out!

plant milk parsley   plant wild carrot   butterfly swallowtail
Milk-parsley (UK)   (Wild) Carrot   Swallowtail
This is one of the more exotic looking species of butterfly in Europe but unfortunately they are a rare sight. About nineteen years ago I myself had the opportunity to try and raise about fifteen caterpillars but failed horribly. My mother and I saw a butterfly lay her eggs on a neighbors carrot patch and we later told the owner about it. She told us she didn't want the caterpillars in her carrots and said she wanted them removed from her property. After about a week I removed any caterpillars I found and placed them in a terrarium with common carrot leaves. They were content munching away and growing steadily, eventually transformed into their chrysalis stage. I placed them in a wooden box with some gauze on the front so I could keep an eye on them. In winter I placed them in the shed because it was too warm in the house. One day I went to check on them and mice had gnawed a hole in the box and had ate all but one... I was crushed, I felt so guilty and still do. The one that was left emerged in spring and we all gathered to witness it slowly spreading it's wings and fly off, alas it never fully opened its wings all the way and it was too weak to fly, it died after a few hours.

Keeping caterpillars

Caterpillars in jars

This is what most people do and what we use to do also when we were children. It stops the caterpillar from crawling off and keeps it safe but also leaves it at risk to neglect. If you find a caterpillar and want to keep it in a jar as a temporary pet then your first step is to find what it's needs are. Butterfly/moth larva won't eat just any kind of leaf but usually only the ones they were born on. It is important you find which species of plant they like (some eat several different ones) else it will eventually starve to death. They usually enjoy fresh/young leaves, so you have to replace the old ones regularly. Some butterflies and moths like to dig a hollow in the ground where they transform into their chrysalis stage, if this is the case with your caterpillar then you might want to add a layer of earth to your jar. Always try to place a full grown caterpillar or emerging butterfly/moth back near where you found it.

Caterpillars in the garden

This option would be the best for the animal. Butterflies know what’s best for their larva and will usually only lay their eggs if the environment is suitable to sustain them. Touching caterpillars places stress on the animal which can cause it harm over time. These animals can also be dangerous to people when handled, which is a good reason to leave them be. Caterpillars living outside will be endanger of being eaten but that's nature.

Caterpillars on potted plants

This option is better than placing them in a jar but not as good as letting them live free on your garden plants. One of the benefits of having caterpillars on potted plants is that you can move them about (or even inside your home) if needed. If you do move a potted plant to inside your home to keep them safe from predators then make sure they don't start wandering off. You can do this by following the schematic below. Most caterpillars dislike water and will avoid taking a swim unless desperate for food.
caterpillar on pot
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