Attracting the Eastern Black Swallowtail to Complete Its Life Cycle in your Backyard

Preserving Native Wildlife

Have you ever wondered how to spark your child's interest in nature or the outdoors during the spring and summer months?  Have you ever wondered how to have your children excited about gardening with your family?  Well, planting flowers and plants to attract butterflies to your backyard is a great start. 

Perhaps you yourself, are just interested in a simple easy way to attract more butterflies to your backyard?  Well, this article will get you started on your way to attracting these majestic and magnificient creatures right out your back door.

Basically the easiest butterfly to attract to your garden(s) is the Eastern Black Swallowtail.  If you live in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, these butterflies are frequently seen as early as mid April.  These butterflies are black and have yellow dot-like markings on their wings.  The males have larger yellow patches on their wings and the females have smaller yellow dots with more blue lower wing coloring.  These butterlfies have 3 generations, in my experience and observation,  throughout the summer months.

To attract this butterfly you need a few of the following plants: (I'll explain how many later.)

Definite purchase for Caterpillar food (called a host plant): Fennel, Dill, or Parsley

Suggested Nectar Sources for Adult Butterfly:  Zinnias, Butterfly Bush, Cosmos, Lantana, Mexican Sunflower, Pentas, Daisies, Heliotrope, Dianthus

First, please do purchase fennel and dill plants in the herb section of a variety of plant stores or garden centers.  As a beginner 2 plants of each will do.  Both plants produce numerous seeds at the end of their growing season (end of August zone 5 or 6).  These seeds can be directly thrown and covered in the soil and plants will grow the following season, thus becoming a way to save money in the future.  The female Eastern Black Swalowtail will lay her eggs upon these plants and when these eggs hatch, the plant becomes their food.  If you plant it...they will come!  Trust me!  You will notice at first tiny black caterpillars with white band on their back. Soon these caterpillars triple in size and turn bright green with yellow markings.  Eventually, they will make a Chrysalis (pupa) and after a week or so they will hatch int a butterfly.  The process takes about a month. 

To be successful in attracting a female to lay eggs on the dill, fennel, or parsley pair with one of the nectar source plants from above.  I suggest zinnias and lantana.  Those two flowers are irressitible to the Black Swallowtail.  Lantana and Zinnias are both annual plants (one season plant).  Zinnias are usually sold in packs of 4 or 6 and can grow as little as 6 inches or as tall as 2 feet.  I prefer the larger varieties such as Cut and Come again Zinnia or State Fair Mix.  Again you can collect the seed in the fall and keep indoors until the spring and plant outside.  Just remember that if your plant the zinnia seeds yourself, they won't bloom until July, thus making you miss a few months of potential life cycles of butterflies. 

Purchasing these plants could involve one trip to the garden center.  Just go in to the store.  Purchase 2 dill plants,2 fennel plants, 2 six packs of zinnias, and 2 lantana plants.  All of these plants tolerate full sun and drought conditions, so they are easy to care for.  I remove dead flowers and the blooms of the zinnias keep coming back.  You will also most-likely attract the ruby-throated hummingbird and the American Goldfinch too as they love zinnias and lantana! 

If you want to ensure that you will attract the Black Swallowtail Butterfly, a butterfly bush plant is a very fragrant butterfly attractant.  And when paired with the zinnias, lantana, dill, and fennel, the Eastern Black Swallowtail can't pass it up.  Last season I raised and released 80 Eastern Black Swallowtails.  These are native butterlfies to New Jersey and Pennsylvania so in planting for them you are helping a native pollinator to survive.

Try it out and let me know what happens. I am very excited for this spring/summer season of butterflies.  I hope you are looking forward to getting started with butterly watching!


Male Eastern Black Swallowtail
Credit: Butterfly Teacher
Female Eastern Black Swallowtail
Credit: Butterfly Teacher (me)