Top 3 Native Flowers for a Caterpillar and Bird-Friendly Yard

Illustration by Ann Litrel of Top 3 Native Plants for Caterpillars in Home Landscaping GardensIt’s 5:30 am. My fellow Master Naturalist Diane Tidwell is driving, speeding south as the sun rises. Our destination is Macon, Georgia, where today, she and I have a chance to meet a rising “rock star.” His name is Doug Tallamy.

Tallamy is an entomology professor. In other words, a bug expert. The best-selling author is keynote speaker for the annual Georgia Native Plant Symposium. Sporting glasses and gray hair, he appears the quintessential bookish professor. Yet Tallamy is leading a revolution, a grassroots movement in conservation home landscaping. As he talks, he flashes photo after photo of suburban yards, including his own, showing a sanctuary for butterflies, pollinators, and native nesting birds.

Doug’s message is full of hope: the key to restoring our eco-system can take place right in our yards.

– 85% of land in Eastern United States is owned by private landowners, 110 acres in suburbia.

– If just half that acreage is landscaped with productive native plants, we will re-create a sprawling network of wilderness – 50 million acres, bigger than all of the national parks put together. Tallamy calls it “Homegrown National Park.”

Here is what has happened: Many common landscaping plants, like crape myrtle and liriope, are exotics. They feed virtually ZERO native insects, on whom the whole community of our birds and small animals depend.  Our native plants, on the other hand, co-evolved to feed our insects, birds and wildlife. Leaves of native plants, for example, feed  the caterpillars of native butterflies. Bloom times and berries of native trees and shrubs match the migration and nutritional needs of migrating birds, etc.

Doug’s message is this: Wildness is a renewable resource. Re-create Nature’s eco-system right where you are.

Author and enomology professor Doug Tallamy with Ann Litrel

Caterpillars Are the Key to Helping Birds

Caterpillars, according to Tallamy, are THE KEY to the ecosystem. Here is why:

– Ounce for ounce, caterpillars transfer more energy from plants to other animals than any other lifeform.

– Caterpillars are essential for birds – 6,000-9,000 caterpillars are needed to rear one clutch of baby birds.

So how do you help? As you improve or replace your aging plants, just make sure to use natives. If you’re in a hurry, the first and easiest step is to shrink your lawn. Plant a native tree in a suitable spot, and surround it with an island of native shrubs and perennials. You’ll save water, and cut down on your chemical use, too. Voila!

In the illustration above, I show the top 3 native perennials for caterpillars. Those are: Goldenrods (host to 112 butterfly species), native Sunflowers (62 butterfly species), and Joe-Pye weeds (host to 34 butterfly species).

Butterfly Show In My Yard

Five years ago, I planted a native passionflower vine in my backyard bed and let it ramble among my blueberries through the summer. Passionflower is the ONLY known host for caterpillars of the gulf fritillary butterfly.

Every summer since then, I have been treated to a show of dozens of the bright orange fritillaries dancing among the showy purple flowers. Last year a pair of bluebirds raised their young in the bushes right next to the vines. I have no doubt the baby bluebirds dined well on fritillary caterpillars.

Just one plant – and I provided food for a whole community!



Find the best native plants in our zip code for supporting wildlife at the National Wildlife Federation database NativePlantFinder.

Locate nurseries to purchase local native plants at the website of the Georgia Native Plant Society.


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