This is a list of plants native to the upper midwest that attract butterflies and pollinators, and will provide food for native caterpillars. They would be good plants to consider planting in a yard or garden in order to make it more attractive to pollinators and other native creatures.
These are all common prairie plants, and should be available from any midwestern native plant nursery. The list is based on lists from the Xerces Society, Prairie Moon Nursery, and on my own experience.
Check to be sure your nursery doesn’t treat plants or seeds with pesticides called neonicotinoids. These are systemic insecticides – which means that when plants are treated with them, they are present in all parts of the plants, including pollen and nectar. If you grow plants which have been treated with neonicotinoids, pollinators will come to gather pollen or nectar, and caterpillars will eat them, but consuming the plants may kill them.
Partridge Pea is an annual; all the others are perennials, so they’ll take a few years to bloom. If you want flowers the first year, plant plants instead of, or in addition to, seeds.
Agastache scrophulariaefolia – Purple Giant Hyssop
Allium stellatum – Prairie Onion
Amorpha canescens – Lead Plant
Antennaria neglecta or Antennaria plantaginifolia – Pussytoes
Aquilegia canadensis– Wild Columbine
Asclepias exaltata – Poke Milkweed
Asclepias incarnata – Swamp Milkweed
Asclepias tuberosa– Butterfly Weed
Baptisia alba – White Wild Indigo
Chaemecrista fasciculata – Partridge Pea
Coreopsis palmata– Prairie Coreopsis
Dalea purpurea – Purple Prairie Clover
Eupatorium perfoliatum – Common Boneset
Echinacea pallida – Pale Purple Coneflower
Eutrochium purpureum– Purple Joe-Pye Weed
Heliopsis helianthoides– Oxeye
Lespedeza capitata – Round-headed Bush Clover
Liatris aspera– Rough Blazing Star
Liatris ligulistylis – Meadow Blazing Star
Liatris pycnostachya – Tall Blazing Star
Lobelia cardinalis – Cardinal Flower
Lobelia siphilitica– Great Blue Lobelia
Lupinus perennis – Wild Lupine
Monarda fistulosa – Bergamot
Penstemon grandiflorus – Large Beardtongue
Pycnanthemum virginianum – Mountain Mint
Ratibida pinnata – Yellow Coneflower
Rudbeckia hirta– Black-eyed Susan
Rudbeckia triloba – Brown-eyed Susan
Solidago flexicaulis – Zig-zag Goldenrod
Solidago nemoralis – Gray Goldenrod
Solidago rigida – Stiff Goldenrod
Solidago speciosa– Showy Goldenrod
Symphyotrichum laeve – Smooth Blue Aster
Symphyotrichum novae-angliae – New England Aster
Symphyotrichum oolentangiense – Sky Blue Aster
Tradescantia ohiensis– Spiderwort
Verbena stricta – Hoary Vervain
Veronicastrum virginicum – Culver’s Root
Viola – Violets
Zizia aurea – Golden Alexander
Click Here to see a video of Doug Tallamy (Professor of Ecology at the University of Delaware) talk about why planting plants native to the area you live in is so important.
Click Here for another of his videos.
Click Here to read about a study showing how important native plants are to nesting songbirds.
Butterfly (and moth) Host Plants (plants their caterpillars eat)
American Lady – Pussytoes
Monarch Butterfly – Milkweeds (Asclepias sp.)
Baltimore Checkerspot – Turtlehead (Chelone glabra), Plantain (Plantago sp.)
Great Spangled Fritillary – Violets
Painted Lady – Thistle
Question Mark – Nettle, Elm
Eastern Comma – Nettle, Elm
Silvery Checkerspot – Sunflowers
Black Swallowtail – Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), Parsley, Dill
Hackberry and Tawny Emperor – Hackberry
Eastern-tailed Blue – Round-headed Bushclover,
Viceroy – Willow, Poplar
Red-spotted Purple – Cherry, Willow, Poplar, Birch
Luna Moth – Black Walnut
Cecropia Moth – Ash, Lilac
Polypheumus Moth – Oak
Here’s a short list of more aggressive natives that are also great for butterflies and pollinators. They should be planted in areas where they won’t cause trouble if they spread aggressively.
Anemone canadensis – Canada Anemone
Asarum canadense – Wild Ginger
Asclepias syriaca – Common Milkweed
Cirsium discolor – Field Thistle
Cirsium altissimum – Tall Thistle
Cirsium muticum – Swamp Thistle
Several organizations have developed lists of native plants that support native birds and insects in different areas of the country.
Plants for Birds – Audubon
Native Plant Finder – National Wildlife Federation
Native Plant Nurseries in Minnesota and Wisconsin
Prairie Moon Nursery – Winona, MN
Prairie Restorations – Princeton, MN (with other retail locations)
Kinnickinnic Natives – River Falls, WI
Prairie Nursery – Westfield, WI
Bluestem Farm – Baraboo, WI
Outback Nursery – Hastings, MN
Nurseries often sell ‘nativars’ – native cultivars, rather than true native plants. Nativars are plants that have been developed from native species. Sometimes they are clones of plants that have been found in the wild that have a character that breeders especially like – maybe an unusual flower or leaf color. Sometimes they are plants that have been hybridized or otherwise genetically modified to have certain desirable characteristics.
If you’re planting natives to attract wildlife, it’s better to plant the real thing – not nativars. But if you are considering planting nativars, here are some articles with more information about them.
Nativars (Native Cultivars): What We Know & Recommend – Habitat Network (The Nature Conservancy & The Cornell Lab)
Please don’t use pesticides in your garden. They will usually kill all insects, not just the ones you’re targeting.
Here’s an article by Karen Oberhauser about spraying for mosquitoes – there are tradeoffs that are important to know.