Grow Potted Trees as Butterfly Host Plants

Prunus serotina is a host tree for tiger swallowtails, red-spotted purples, and the amazing cecropia moth. Don't have room for an 80 foot host plant? Try potting your tree instead...

If you have a garden with limited space, you might think butterfly host trees are out of the question…I thought that too until I came across an  enlightening article from author Brenda Sattler Dziedzic.

In it, she lists all the different host trees she grows in containers and the different types of butterflies they attract.

After researching some of the options, we decided to plant Prunus serotina (black cherry tree) for the following reasons:

  • Host option for three local butterflies: eastern tiger swallowtail, coral hairstreak, red spotted-purple
  • Nectar flower for spring pollinators (we needed more)
  • Easy access to caterpillars with container-sized tree

Since this jumbo Prunus can grow up to 80 feet tall (with a 30 ft spread!) this isn’t a tree species we could even consider for yard or garden planting.

A 20 gallon barrel planter gave us the solution we’d been seeking…

Planting Our Cherry Tree

We found our tree at a spring plant sale, and planted it with instructions from this video tutorial. This was especially useful for deciding the soil content for our container:

Our tree thrived the entire season, and more importantly…it attracted butterflies in its inaugural season!

I found 5 eastern tiger swallowtail eggs in late summer and raised them indoors. I plucked single leaves from the tree and feed them to caterpillars inside florist tubes. This kept the leaves fresh for days…

The tree thrived in season one, but the root was already coming out of the bottom of our apparently not-so-oversized container.

It’s now obvious, cutting back the root ball of our host cherry tree will be an annual fall event due to the accelerated growth of Prunus serotina.

What about placing the tree in a much larger container? The issue with using oversized containers is excess moisture stays in the soil, which can lead to root rot.

Winter Protection for Potted Trees

Initially, I moved the heavy pot about 20 feet so it would be protected by the south side of our home. It wouldn’t have been so bad if we had attached the caster wheels suggested in the video…DOH! 

Going forward, we will no longer move the heavy potted tree each fall. Instead, we will place rabbit fencing and stakes with a 6″ perimeter around the container.

Then, we’ll stuff the area between fence and container with a leafy layer of insulation.

Potted Trees for Butterfly Host Plants- How to protect container plants from Old Man Winter

While this won’t give them a ton of protection, we’re hopeful it will give them enough extra warmth to survive winter inside a cold-challenged container.


Fast forward to April and we’ve removed the fall leaves and fencing. Our potted black cherry tree has survived a frigid Minnesota winter and will soon be ready to host the next generation of butterfly caterpillars:

Last winter, we protected our potted black cherry tree from a Minnesota winter by putting a fence around it and filling in the gaps with leaf insulation. The tree survived and should be a popular host plant for spring and summer butterflies.
Minnesota Winter Survivor

Another option Sattler suggests if you don’t want to grow trees in containers is to stump-cut your host trees: “In the fall I just cut my trees down to 2 to 3 feet. They then will branch out the next year with many shoots and I can keep them shorter. Not only are they shorter but I’ll have more leaves to feed the caterpillars with.”

Find Black Cherry Plants and Seeds on Etsy

Find Prunus Serotina Seeds and Plants Here

Find More Host Butterfly Trees and Plants for your Garden

Share the Joy of Butterflies

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  1. Thinking of adding trees for butterfly host plants this spring. Where is a good place to buy nice size trees that aren’t treated chemically? Or how do you go about finding nurseries that carry such?

  2. So what potting mix is used? I have been trying to grow Spicebush and while they have not died they do not thrive. Admittedly they are at the southern end of their range (zone 9).

  3. Brenda has a new idea that I am trying with my tulip tree, because I’m too lazy to cut back the roots each year. She told me to plant the tree! Then cut it totally back each spring, and new shoots will grow. Basically, you will have a bush size host plant.

  4. Is the black cherry tree appropriate for central Wisconsin? It sounds and looks like it could be a good addition to our new butterfly garden. I think I would put it about 6-9 ft. outside the garden. What do you think? Are there other places to get the seeds besides Spain? Can I buy a seedling? Where? Do you think it’s expensive buying the seedling? Thanks for your help!! Marilyn

    1. Hi Marilyn, Prunus serotina is a native for all Wisconsin, so it should grow well in your region. I added a second link to the page where you can purchase small trees. Otherwise, you can probably find one at a native nursery. good luck!

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