Do Monarch Caterpillars Eat Anything Besides Milkweed

Monarch Butterfly on Seaside Goldenrod

I’ve been telling you that we can help Monarch butterflies in our Ecosystem Gardens by planting more milkweed because that is the only plant that Monarch will lay their eggs on.

We’ve also talked about making your wildlife garden a certified Monarch Waystation, which will provide habitat for them, since habitat loss is one of the largest contributors to their declining populations.

Monarch Caterpillars on Tropical Milkweed

And we’ve talked about the amazing phenomenon that is the Monarch migration to their wintering sites in Mexico, and the scientists who study this migration.

Each time we’ve talked about Monarch Butterflies, I’ve told you about the need to plant more milkweed to help the Monarchs on this journey.

But I just received this comment through the Ask Carole feature here at Ecosystem Gardening that seems to suggest that Monarch caterpillars eat other plants besides milkweed:

Hi Carole: I was perusing around searching for more info on plant attractants for hummers and butterflies.
I read your information about milkweeds for monarchs and that milkweed was the only plant they lay their eggs on – to which I would have agreed until last Fall. I was pulling out my tomato plants upon the finishing of the growing season. Was fortunate enough to spot a beautiful green crysallis (sp?) on one as I was throwing it away. I took it off, along with the twig it was on, found a large old clean mayonnaise jar, punched holes in the top and layed the twig inside. I searched all my butterfly books and ascertained it was a monarch crysallis and promptly went on with my busy life, basically forgetting about it. I wish I knew how many days went by when my husband said “What are you doing with this butterfly in a jar?” I said, “What butterfly”? Oh, my goodness, Carole, it was the most beautiful Monarch I have ever seen. I tell everyone you haven’t seen a Monarch until you’ve seen one ‘just born’!!! Anyway, that dispels the info that we have always learned that they lay eggs ONLY on milkweed (which I have a LOT of). Interesting, huh? Knew you would get a kick out of this. Peggy from Connecticut

So, are we now to think that Monarch caterpillars eat tomato plants because we have found a chrysalis there? Does this dispel everything we’ve learned about Monarchs up to this point?

Actually, no.

Monarch caterpillars do only eat plants in the Milkweed family (Asclepias spp), so if we want to help them out in our wildlife gardens, we still need to add these plants to our gardens.

Monarch caterpillars do not feed on tomato plants, despite what may seem like circumstantial evidence to the contrary.

Monarch Caterpillar in Search of a Safe Place to Become a Chrysalis

What happens is this: when a Monarch caterpillar is ready to enter the chrysalis stage of its life cycle, it will leave the milkweed plants that it has been feeding on and travel (often quite a distance) to a place where it feels safe from birds and other predators.

Once the caterpillar finds a safe place, it will assume the “J” position and begin the process of transforming into the chrysalis phase.

Sometimes this safe place will be under a ladder rung, sometimes it will be beneath your air conditioner, or under your window sill. And as Peggy has discovered, sometimes this place will be under a leaf of your tomato plants.

Pretty cool, eh?

Where have you found Monarch chrysalises in your Ecosystem Garden?

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© 2011 – 2014, Carole Sevilla Brown. All rights reserved. This article is the property of EcosystemGardening.com If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us

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Comments

    • says

      Interesting piece, Carole. I planted Asclepias fascicularis in the fall hoping to get more butterfly action in my yard…still waiting.

    • Ellen Reynolds says

      So glad you wrote this article. I will answer questions about locations of chrysalis, and folks seem to be adamant that the caterpillars were eating the “plant” the chrysalis was found on. Yes the comment about rungs on the ladder is something I will have to remember and use.
      Monarchs are amazing creatures as are all our native butterflies. I am afraid to say that Spicebush Swallowtails are my favorites!!

  1. says

    “Where have you found Monarch chrysalises in your Ecosystem Garden?”

    Hanging from a chain link fence. A car’s head rest (the caterpillar had escaped from a box inside a car where my friend had put it). Not to mention just about any tree or shrub near stands of milkweeds.
    Beatriz Moisset recently posted..Rain and Pollinators

    • barbara starek says

      I JUST WENT OUT SIDE TO WATER MY FLOWERS , I ALWAYS PLANT 2 GERBER DAISES AND PLANT PARSLEY SEEDS AROUND THEM , IN 2 POTS ON MY FRONT PORCH ,AND THEIR ARE 5 MONARCH CATERPILLARS EATING MY PARSLEY LIKE CRAZY I’M SO HAPPY THEY ARE A HUNGRY LITTLE BUNCH

        • barbara starek says

          I JUST WENT OUT TO PUT WATER IN MY 5 BIRD BATHS IN THE FRONT YARD AN THEY ARE OVER MY DILL WEED ALSO , I PLANTED FOR THEM , I’M GOING TO THE GROCERY STORE AN BUY LOTS OF FRESH PARSLEY AND PUT 2 IN A JAR , THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR FAST REPLY .BARBARA

        • Mary says

          Well, I used to have a whole lot of parsley (which was eaten by yellow and black caterpillars) and all I have now are Monarch butterflies.

  2. says

    Thankfully there are a number of different species of Asclepias that you can try – three species here in southern Ontario.

    The only problem is one of the species, the common milkweed, is listed as a noxious weed, which means that by law you’re supposed to remove it from your property when you find it.

  3. says

    Unfortunately the only caterpillar food plant in our Reserve for Monarchs is a Weed – Gomphocarpus physocarpus Balloon Cotton Bush. So I while I pull these out one of my bushcare collegues leaves them for the Monarchs … I certainly find it hard to object as these are a beautiful species.

    I will investigate the Milkweed family and see if it has relevance for our suburban Pollinator Pathway gardens – http://megoutlook.wordpress.com/2011/12/20/bringing-butterflies-to-your-garden/

    Michael

  4. Janet Cross says

    I have 4 swan plants (newly planted) I have had 5 caterpillars grown on them very large but they have all disappeared. I can see a few eggs now on the plants and there were two tiny caterpillars this morning on them but now they have disappeared. What is taking them and how can I stop this. thank you

  5. Renee D says

    Hello, I have a question. I live on cape cod and as a child i would fine hundreds of monarchs in my neighborhood and only on milk weed, so I have planted loads in sunny places in my back yard so my daughter can enjoy them like I could. We get loads of butterflies passing through, even laying eggs on the milk weed but then the first in star just vanish! they nibble for a day then there gone the next. Could they be moving on to my grape vine or bitter sweet to feed? there certainly not large enough to morph. What can I do to protect the monarchs in my yard?

  6. Tracey Callari says

    I have been watching 6 monarch butterfly caterpillars first eating my carrots – almost clean, and then my entire parsley plant (which I moved them too because I wanted to have some carrots this season!). I have sat and watched them actually eat both! They have spent a little over a week on the parsley and one by one have disappeared- I only have two left still eating. I presume they have gone to make their chrysalis. I have not found one yet but I assume they are somewhere on my tomato plants. Still looking!

  7. Barb says

    I actually saw monarch Caterpillar here in Texas eating a tomato plant. How do we know they are not adapting to the milkweed shortage? Nature has a good way of slowly adapting over time!

    I grew up in Wisconsin, and every summer helped lots of Monarch caterpillars hatch on the milkweed, but just last summer I saw 3 caterpillars on a tomato plant, eating it to almost non-existence, as it was a potted plant, and there was nothing else nearby to eat…all the leaves were nearly gone.

  8. Gabriele Hofmann says

    I just found a bunch of monarch butterfly larvae (different sizes) eating my parsley. I watched them eat one leaf after the other. On every page I checked online I found that they only eat milkweed. What is it with the parsley?

  9. Miss. Sue says

    Day before yesterday I found my bronze fennel literally COVERED in Monarch caterpillars! According to my gardening books, these should be Swallowtails, but every picture I can find proves them to be Monarchs. I’m not sure what plants are included in the milkweed family, but I need to find out! After two days, they’ve stripped every bit of foliage off the fennel, and have nothing left to eat. I’d estimate there were possibly 50 caterpillars to start with, and I don’t want them to all starve for lack of another suitable plant. I also have no clue where I could find any actual milkweed. HELP!

  10. Melitta Toth says

    I have found two monarch caterpillars on my carrot leaves in my vegetable garden, but not on the milkweed that I have in my flower bed. Does that mean they do eat other than milk weed? should I transfer them on to the milkweed?
    thanks

  11. Stephanie Turner says

    Hello, I live in Calif and have planted milk week. (the only one that was avail) I do have Monarchs now. I have a new property with a clean slate in Hope, Maine. Our dream come true on Lermond Pond. The comments I find interesting but none that keep it a little more simple and spell it out what plants “will” attract butterfly’s for feeding etc in Zone 4-5 on a Lake in mid coast Maine. Thanks for helping!

  12. Holly says

    I have about 7 monarch caterpillars munching down on my dill right now, does that mean then that dill is part of the milkweed family? I’m pretty sure it isn’t.

  13. Annette says

    I’d just like to share an observation. I have had monarch caterpillars eating my parsley plant. This is not the first year that this has happened. I live is San Angelo, TX, where you don’t find much milkweed. It is late July, and my one little parsley plant is host to at least 20 caterpillars.

  14. nancywiley says

    Rob Moore
    are you sure you got the right plant? I bought ascclepias curassavica silky orange. I have so many monarch caterpillars(they seem to appear out of nowhere) that there are not enough leaves to keep them satisfied on my stripped plants and there are Monarchs fluttering about every day!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Host plants for caterpillars, usually native perennials, can be invaluable for butterflies and moths. Many species of butterfly and moth can only lay eggs on a specific type of plant, so by planting the plants native to your region, you can help keep entire species of butterfly and moth alive. [...]

  2. [...] Do Monarch Caterpillars Eat Anything Besides Milkweed? “Are we now to think that Monarch caterpillars eat tomato plants because we have found a chrysalis there? Actually, no. Monarch caterpillars do only eat plants in the Milkweed family, so if we want to help them out in our wildlife gardens, we still need to add these plants to our gardens.” by Carole Sevilla Brown [...]

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