Warmer Weather Entices Big Butterflies Into
Before 2011, I’d maybe seen two Giant Swallowtails in Minneapolis…in 30 years! But, as temperatures trend tropical, those living in the northern US and Canada are reporting more sightings of the Giant Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio cresphontes).
This beautiful black and yellow butterfly is hard to miss with a wingspan of up to 7” across. In fact, this swallowtail species is the largest butterfly to flutter throughout the US and Canada. Since GST’s are most common in Central and South America, I wasn’t surprised to find they preferred our non-native zinnias and lantana here in Minnesota.
Giant swallowtail caterpillars feed on a variety of trees within the citrus family (Rutaceae) including sweet orange, lime, and the hoptree.
They are sometimes referred to as “orange dogs” and they hide amongst the foliage perfectly disguised…as bird poop! Some predators have figured out their “crappy camouflage,” but it’s likely allowed many to reach butterhood.
Garden Tip: If you’d like to provide host plants for giant swallowtail caterpillars, but don’t have room for full-sized trees, you have a few decent options:
This small citrus plant fits perfectly in most butterfly gardens and tops out at just 3 feet high and wide. Black swallowtails will also use this as a host plant.
2. Northern Prickly Ash (Zanthoxylum americanum)
This is the northern most member of the citrus family and is reported to be a favorite of northern venturing giants. It thrives in USDA hardiness zones 3-7 which means even Canadians have a shot at giant glory!
Papilio cresphontes mamas will also lay eggs on
This smaller host tree is an excellent space-saving option. It tops out around 15 feet so it won’t take over your yard and it can even be potted.
The butterflies have been reported to feed on nectar from azalea, goldenrod, lantana, swamp milkweed, and more. In our northern garden, they couldn’t get enough of the profusion zinnias last summer. I thought this was odd because I rarely see “big” butterflies on the smaller zinnia flowers. Tiger swallowtails were also frequent visitors.
As the Giant Swallowtail butterfly continues to expand it’s territory north, more of you will have the opportunity to host them in your gardens. If you’d like to attract these giant black beauties to your yard this season, entice them with offerings from our butterfly plants page.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that GST’s have a nectar-tooth for many of the same garden flowers as monarch butterflies. Have you noticed this too?
Please comment below about your experience with host plants and nectar plants that attract giant swallowtails and help a butterfly gardener out!