What Did Black Swallowtails Eat Before we Brought In Parsley, Dill, and Queen Anne’s Lace?

Black Swallowtails

Black Swallowtails in the Butterfly Garden

Last week I used a photo of a Black Swallowtail Butterfly in a post, which prompted one of my favorite Ecosystem Gardeners, Cindy Brown Ahern, to post this comment on Facebook:

This is such a beautiful creature, and YOU can do something as simple as planting parsley, dill, fennel, carrots in your garden to provide a food source for the caterpillars in addition to flowers to provide nectar for the adult butterfly!

Carrots, Parsley, Dill, Fennel, Queen Anne’s Lace: not native

And this is a very true statement, Black Swallowtail caterpillars do, indeed, use all of these  as host plants. But I started to wonder what these caterpillars ate BEFORE the European settlement when none of those plants were present in this country.

So I started to research this question. I paged through all of my butterfly gardening books, but each and every one of them said the same thing: “Black Swallowtails use members of the carrot family (Apiaceae) including parsley, fennel, dill, Queen Anne’s Lace, and carrots.”

Same story online, even at native plant society pages.

So, What IS Native?

Now I am nothing if not determined, so several hours later I FINALLY found the answer at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. They have an amazing plants database which is searchable by plant family.


I searched on Apiaceae and discovered that there are 82 native members of this family, many of them endangered.

But, not all of them stated that they were a host plant for the Black Swallowtail. So I entered “Black Swallowtail host plant” into the search box and ended up with three species:

  1. Zizia aurea (Golden Alexander)
  2. Polytaenia texana (Texas Prairie Parsley)
  3. Polytaenia nutallii (Nuttall’s Prairie Parsley)

This is a great start!

What to do now?

I am not suggesting that you stop planting parsley, dill, or carrots for the Black Swallowtails in your butterfly garden, but fennel can be a little aggressive in the garden, and Queen Anne’s Lace is invasive in many areas (but is a main ingredient in many wildflower mixes which I call “meadow in a can”), so I’d avoid both of those.

AND, if any of the above native plants are appropriate to your site, add them to your garden.

ALSO, plant some of the other 82 native Apiaceae species and watch them diligently. If you notice Black Swallowtail caterpillars on any of those plants, take a photograph and send it to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildlflower Center. It may very well be that we have lost some knowledge of host plants for this butterfly.

And please let me know here if you notice Black Swallowtails using any of these plants. It would be so exciting if we could regain the knowledge we have lost in this area.

Go to the Native Plants directory to see if you can find a local supplier of these natives to add to your garden in the spring. Now is a great time to plan for this addition to your butterfly garden.

If you can, please support the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. They do amazing work.

Here’s some natural history information on Black Swallowtails with a range map so you can see if you could have these beautiful butterflies in your garden.

Do you have any of these plants already in your garden? Please let us know if the caterpillars are using them.

More information about Black Swallowtail Butterflies:

Check out my new free online course Ecosystem Gardening Essentials, 15 free lessons delivered to your inbox every week, teaching you to garden sustainably, conserve natural resources, and create welcoming habitat for wildlife in your garden.

© 2009 – 2013, 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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About Carole Sevilla Brown

Carole Sevilla Brown is a Conservation Biologist who firmly believes that wildlife conservation begins in your own back yard. Carole is an author, educator, speaker, and passionate birder, butterfly watcher,  and naturalist who travels around the country teaching people to garden sustainably, conserve natural resources, and create welcoming habitat for wildlife so that you will attract more birds, butterflies, pollinators and other wildlife. She gardens for wildlife in Philadelphia, zone 6b, and created the philosophy of Ecosystem Gardening. Watch for her book Ecosystem Gardening, due out soon. Carole is managing editor of  Beautiful Wildlife Garden, and also  Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. Follow Carole on Facebook and also @CB4wildlife and on Google+


  1. This is great information. I’m pleased to see that black swallowtails have been seen in my part of Kansas. I do have parsley in my garden but I’ve not seen any black swallowtails. I’ll have to check whether any of the host plants are native to my area and see if I can add them when I’m putting new perennials in the garden.
    .-= Alison Kerr´s last post ..Foiling Squirrels At Your Feeders =-.

  2. I have only ever seen Black Swallowtails on dill in my MA garden, but my Caterpillars of E. North America (Wagner) book says that they also feed on Rue and other members of the Rutaceae family. Good point though, asking ‘what did they eat before colonists brought carrots, parsley, dill, etc to this country’? Many of our butterflies have adapted to human settlement and succeeded because we’ve given them lots of what they need to survive. Brings up a philosophical question whether it’s a good idea to remove all non-natives from our gardens and stick with strictly natives. We’ve enabled these butterflies to prosper, is it fair to take away what they are used to?
    .-= Ellen Sousa´s last post ..Guest Posting at ConservationGardening.com =-.

  3. Thanks so much for looking into this, I was wondering myself what the native host plant was for this gorgeous butterfly. I’ve got some Zizia aurea stratifying in my fridge already, so I’m doubly pleased!
    .-= Rosemary´s last post ..Does growing invasive plants help birds? =-.

  4. That’s great to know. I can tell Samuel that the Black Swallowtail caterpillars will enjoy next years carrots too!
    Thanks for sharing.
    .-= Marghanita Hughes´s last post ..Recycled Art – Ice Fun with Nature =-.

  5. Thank you for this excellent information. I have always sacrificed my dill to the swallowtails, but never noticed them on any other plants – and I do grow carrots and parsley. There is lots of Queen Anne’s Lace around so maybe that’s where they are.

  6. We get caterpillars on our parsley and carrots all the time, but I’ve never noticed them on our golden alexander. The parsley and carrots are for us, not the caterpillars, but we plant enough to share…and we plant way more of those than the golden alexander, so that may explain the difference.
    .-= Elizabeth @the Natural Capital´s last post ..Natural Places in the DC Area To Take Your Out-of-Town Visitors =-.

    • Funny story: I stopped at a farm stand over the summer and was thrilled to find caterpillars on some of the parsley. So I carefully selected all of the plants with caterpillars but when I set them in front of the cashier she about had a coronary then offered to pick out new plants that didn’t have “those worms” on them. She was totally confused when I said that I really, REALLY wanted those specific plants because of the caterpillars. Education happens at many levels……

      • That’s a fantastic story! :D
        .-= Michelle Clay´s last post ..". . .a better place to direct development aid. . ." =-.

      • Magaly says:

        I did that too at my local Home Depot! They had Milkweed plants on sale. Monarchs were flying around all over them. I started searching for plants with caterpillars. Someone came over to help me find a “good plant”, with no bugs! I explained I was actually looking for the biggest caterpillars I could find. He was really confused but let me pick all the caterpillars I wanted. That was a fun day.

        • I sell plants for a living. I had to make a sign telling my customers to ask before removing insects from plants. Ladybug pupa and caterpillars are both things that people don’t recognize as “good bugs”.

          My father-in-law (and many others of his generation) were taught that any bug was a bad bug and all snakes should be killed.

  7. Hi Carole! I recently attended a lecture on invasive plants by a horticulturist and invasive plant specialist from the New England Wildflower Society. (I can dig up his name if you like, but don’t have it on hand.) He said Queen Anne’s Lace isn’t invasive (here in MA, at least), because “it doesn’t persist in the landscape”.

    Cheers, and thanks as always for maintaining this wonderful blog!

    • Michelle, I’m glad it doesn’t persist in New England. Queen Anne’s Lace is a mess here in Pennsylvania and also in Cape May, NJ. But I like the idea of adding the original host plants back to our landscapes!

  8. The only plant I have ever seen my Eastern Black Swallowtail Larvae on is Florida Native WATER COWBANE (Oxypolis filiformis) which is naturally occuring in my Central Florida ecosystem. The again, I don’t offer exotics so they wouldn’t have a choice. The URL above will show a nice specimen of the caterpillar

    • Loret, Kudos to you for having a completely native Ecosystem Garden! You are an inspiration to us all.

      • wellll, can’t say that it is COMPLETELY native. I only really found out about the importance of native plants in 2008 so going forward I stick to my ecosystem. I’m lucky enough to have the type of property to “go wild” with. There are non-natives there but most are naturalize. I removed all the Category I invasives and even cried since some were rather pretty…nandina was a personal favorite of mine. Alas, the rewards of seeing a passing snake, butterfly or bird knowing I was no longer being party to the demise of their habitats was well worth a few tears! Thanks for all you do and share!

  9. This is great, Carole. I’ve never given this a thought. I know they eat Rue, which I have, and I’ve seen them on that, but usually it’s parsley and most of all, the dill. So far, I haven’t seen any on the bronze fennel and we have a huge clump of that. I’m kind of surprised.

    I did find another cute furry caterpillar (2 of them, actually) on the Asclepias. I’ve seen them once before and will have to look up what they are, but we don’t see them often. The only other time I saw them was in a nature preserve near here and I got all excited that I saw them. I’ll let you know what it was in Twitter.
    Kylee from Our Little Acre recently posted..Imperial Moth Caterpillars – Eat- Sleep- Poop

  10. Kylee, the cute furry cats on your milkweed, are they orange and black striped and very fuzzy? I bet they are Milkweed Tussock Moths. I have them too, they usually seem to eat the older milkweed leaves, whereas the Monarch cats seem to prefer the fresh milkweed….
    ellen recently posted..Raising Herbert

  11. Is it possible that the black swallowtail came over with some specimens of the introduced species?

  12. It would be nice if sites such as http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/ would encourage fans to plant natives. Telling us what the native host plants are would be a good start.

  13. Leigh B. says:

    My friends who conduct workshops on butterfly gardening in north Florida know these larval plants for the black swallowtail: Mock Bishopweed (Ptilimnium capillaceum), Water Dropwort (Oxypolis spp.), and Water Hemlock (Cicuta maculata). They are all in the parsley family (Apiaceae).

  14. Pudding says:

    This is my first time ever doing a vegetable garden. Two days ago I found a black swallowtail in my carrot plant. I was thinking it was harm so I move the caterpillar to other place. After found that it was actually a “butterfly” and loves carrot plants I look for it next day and found it so I return her (he) to the carrot plant. I am so excited it choose my garden. I cannot wait until get as an adult.

  15. joann says:

    I just found 4 caterpillars on my parsley plant that I planted with my grandchildren. We were hoping to hatch the caterpillars ourselves as a “camp grandma” project! Any suggestions?

    • Joann,
      Some people who raise caterpillars use an aquarium with a screen lid. They put the caterpillars inside with lots of host plants (you’ll need to replace it every day) and cover it with the screen so the birds don’t eat them. It’s a lot of fun to share with your grandkids the joy of releasing them into the wild when they emerge as adults.
      Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Butterfly House at Albuquerque Botanic Garden

  16. I have black swallowtail caterpillars on my dill in my ND garden. They are also eating my parsnip leaves.

  17. I live on the Texas Gulf Coast. It also is not native but my Black Swallowtail Caterpillars eat Rue.

  18. Julia Vanatta says:

    Watched both black and yellow swallowtails today gathering pollen on Joe Pye weed in the Peace Garden, Minneapolis, MN.

  19. I haven’t seen them on my Zizia, but, then I wasn’t looking! They are welcome to all the parsley and fennel I have in my garden. Thanks Carole for researching that.
    Gail recently posted..Wildflower Wednesday: Hardy Blue Mist Flower

  20. Nice post Carole. I use Zizia aurea in projects pretty frequently, hoping to observe some Black Swallowtail interactions. I agree with some other commenters, I see more action around the spicy herbs than the natives but I’ll keep watching over the coming years. Maybe I’ll start planting the Golden Alexander right next to the Parsley and Dill, so close that the stems and leaves end up all intertwined and the caterpillars- who were there for the annuals actually have to trip over the native wildflower, make physical contact and maybe we can jar a recognition of, “Hey, this is food!!

  21. Kathryn says:

    I don’t have a website, but I can tell you that Spicebush is a native plant, and a host for Swallowtails :)

  22. I have a parsley plant growing on my fire escape, and just noticed some caterpillars today. At first I was grossed out, but now seeing how beautiful they turn out to be, I’m excited!
    Dante recently posted..Quick update: Tomatoes and Radishes

  23. S Cludius says:

    A course I took on Entomology from entomologists from Texas A&M University demonstrated an easy way to raise caterpillars. They placed them in Ziploc bags and added their food to the bags. Fresh food was added every day. Opening and closing the bags daily provided the caterpillars with enough air to breath. Several little caterpillars can start out together and later be transferred into individual bags. Saves time and space. You can also place a sleeve of small mesh netting over individual plants outside to keep the wasp away. Use tooth picks to hold the netting closed between the top and the bottom and tie the top and bottom closed with string.

  24. I planted several new Zizia aurea this spring and found 2 good-sized black swallowtail caterpillars on them about mid-summer. I’m sure that one was able to reach mature size, but I don’t know about the other – these were baby plants. All the plants but one have survived being eaten way back and are now putting on new growth.

    I always plant parsley for these guys, but this year the grasshoppers got to it first. I did not notice any grasshoppers eating the Zizia.
    Cynthia, aka Gaia gardener recently posted..Serendipitous Garden Combinations

  25. d.kenney says:

    Last week I had several black swallow tail caterpillars on my dill plants, they were doing real well, and growing real fast. But yesterday, they were all got eaten by the yellow jacket wasp. The saddest this was they were eating the caterpillars right in front of me. How do I prevent should I have more caterpillars in the future. thanks

  26. Bluebird Girl says:

    I have the Texas Prairie Parsley in my garden. It started growing in early spring and had already bolted and was dying by the time the butterflies started laying eggs (on my culinary parsley and fennel). I am wondering if maybe our spring was so cool that the butterflies were late. My Texas Prairie Parsley dies to the ground and returns the next spring. I was disappointed that the native plant was not used by the Swallowtails.

  27. S. Cludius says:

    Last spring I discovered that I had Texas Parsley on my 15 acres in East Navarro Co., Texas. When I looked it up, I discovered that it was a host plant for the black swallowtails. I too had wondered what native plant they ate since there are lots of the black swallowtails in my butterfly garden. I knew they must be eating native plants before I planted my fennel.
    Two years ago I raised 80 black swallowtails on my porch on dill and parsley. What fun! To start with I had about 8 caterpillars; I went to a nursery to buy more parsley and dill and was given two flats of parsley that were infested with the caterpillars! What luck for me! Texas parsley is the plant on my land and so far I have not seen the caterpillars on one of them.

  28. Take them inside as soon as you see them, keep them in a jar and feed them fresh cuttings from the dill plants several times a day. You could alternatively take in a small dill plant and plant it inside of a large mayo jar (the industrial size)in just a little bit of soil. That way you wouldn’t have to keep replenishing wilting leaves for them to eat.

    I did this with black swallowtail caterpillars a few years ago. I got quite a few to hatch, but a few turned out to have been parasitized by wasps before I got to them. The sooner you can notice the caterpillars the better. Caterpillars often look very different when they are small than when they are almost ready to pupate. The black swallowtail caterpillars are almost all black at first.


  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by wildobs, Alison Kerr. Alison Kerr said: Carole is a nature detective @CB4wildlife What Did Black Swallowtails Eat Before we Brought In Parsley, Dill… http://bit.ly/8VWdv0 #nature [...]

  2. [...] This post was Twitted by klsnature [...]

  3. [...] can choose to adopt one endangered species such as a butterfly, and each of you plant its host plant and a wide variety of nectar plants, and thus create a large habitat where that species can [...]

  4. [...] A much better alternative to this noxious, invasive plant is the native Golden Alexanders (Zizea aurea), in the same family as Bishop Weed, but a much gentler inhabitant of native ecosystems, and a host plant for Black Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars. [...]

  5. [...] I realized a while ago that all of the plants on the above list were brought to this country by the European settlers, so I got to wondering what Black Swallowtail caterpillars ate before we brought those plants here. [...]

  6. [...] Fennel self-seeds readliy so best to deadhead..also probably best to plant native Apiacea if you can, see: Hosts for Black Swallowtail http://www.ecosystemgardening.com/what-did-black-swallowtails-eat-before-we-brought-in-parsley-dill-… [...]

  7. [...] The Black Swallowtail lays its eggs on parsley, fennel, dill or rue.  The bright green striped larva eventaully develops into yet another black butterfly!  The male has a yellow band of color along the margins of his wings while the female has a row of yellow spots and a small band of blue on the hindwings. [...]

  8. [...] Let’s start with the adult butterfly, whose sole mission in life is to mate, and then the female butterfly searches for a specific host plant. Almost every species of butterfly is dependent on a specific plant (or a specific plant family) on which to lay their eggs. In this case, with Black Swallowtails, those plants are members of the carrot family. [...]

  9. [...] However, there’s a few host plants that grow well as annuals. Dill is a great host plant for black swallowtail caterpillars—I just have to plant enough so that my boyfriend can still make pickles. (Dill may re-seed [...]

  10. [...] many of our native woodland perennials, as well as some early flowering prairie species such as Golden Alexanders (Zizia [...]

  11. [...] Ecosystem Gardening has What Did Black Swallowtails Eat Before we Brought In Parsley, Dill, and Queen Anne’s Lace? [...]

  12. [...] What Did Black Swallowtails Eat Before we Brought In Parsley, Dill, and Queen Anne’s Lace? “I started to wonder what these caterpillars ate BEFORE the European settlement when none of those plants were present in this country. So I started to research this question. I paged through all of my butterfly gardening books, but each and every one of them said the same thing: “Black Swallowtails use members of the carrot family (Apiaceae) including parsley, fennel, dill, Queen Anne’s Lace, and carrots.” by Carole Sevilla Brown [...]

  13. [...] Black Swallowtail, Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), also parsley, dill, fennel [...]

  14. [...] none of the specific host plants mentioned above are native species . . . so the gardener at this website started a search for plants the caterpillars must have eaten before we brought all these [...]

  15. [...] What do Black Swallowtail Caterpillars eat? [...]

  16. […] What did Black Swallowtails Eat Before We Brought Parsley, Dill, Queen Anne’s Lace here? […]

  17. […] butterfly, it occurred to me that none of these plants were native to the US. So I got to wondering what the Black Swallowtails used prior to the European invasion settlement of this […]

  18. […] that none of these plants are actually native to North America, so I did some research to find out what Black Swallowtail caterpillars ate before Europeans brought those herbs […]

  19. […] What Did Black Swallowtails Eat Before we Brought In Parsley, Dill, and Queen Anne’s Lace? […]

  20. […] What Did Black Swallowtails Eat Before we Brought In Parsley, Dill, and Queen Anne’s Lace? […]

  21. […] What Did Black Swallowtails Eat Before we Brought In Parsley, Dill, and Queen Anne’s Lace? […]

  22. […] will support a lot of butterfly life (Zizea aurea is a classic native species host plant for Black Swallowtail butterflies) and other insects, which in turn increases the carrying capacity for the birds who live in my […]

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