Butterfly host plant — Parsley

Posted by on July 19, 2012

“Look how many there are…” That is a common compliment I get when people visit my garden, Helen’s Haven, in Raleigh, NC. Butterflies are abundant. At Helen’s Haven, we grow plants for wildlife, in particular: hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. Nothing gives me more pleasure in the garden than to share what worked for me to attract and sustain wildlife to my 1/2 acre suburban lot.

Attracting and sustaining a wildlife habitat is my consistent in my message. Most new gardeners get the part about adding nectar plants to attract butterflies to the garden. The brightly colored flowers are fun to grow, and attract even more color though butterflies can make one down right giddy. But to really have a wildlife habitat, one must also sustain the butterflies as well. To sustain a habitat, you should grow more than nectar-rich plants; you should also grow their larval host plants.

Butterfly larval host plants are a key element in creating a wildlife habitat. A butterfly host plant is a plant that is often very specific to each butterfly. Butterflies will lay their eggs on the plant that is the  food source for their larval cycle. The classic example is the host plant to the Monarch butterfly. The only plant a Monarch will use as a host plant is a milkweed. No milkweed, no eggs will be laid. No eggs, no larvae. No larvae, less butterflies. You may still have adult Monarchs visit your flowers, but if your garden won’t sustain their complete life-cycle of egg, larvae, chrysalis, and adult,  the Monarchs you see will only be passing visitors. Simply put, without host plants, you will have fewer butterflies.

As I read books and magazine stories about building a wildlife habitat, most of the literature was animal-driven. A toad needed this, an Eastern Black Swallowtail needed that. It was hard for me to get my head around a single animal and all that it needed. I wanted to look at a single plant and see what animals used as a host plant.  As such, I decided to write a series of plant-based posts that are needed to host butterflies.

I’ve often thought people come to gardening from many different angles. It would seem only natural that a wildlife gardener would first be attracted to the wildlife. But I’m equally attracted to the plants as I am to the wildlife. I wanted to clearly know what benefit my plants had to the wildlife. And I wanted to know what plants I could add to sustain certain butterflies in my east coast home.

Parsley begins a series of posts about butterfly host plants and the butterflies that use them. These posts will be from the plant’s perspective. Plant this if you want that… Plant parsley if you want Eastern Black Swallowtails on the east coast or Anise Swallowtails on the west coast.


Name: Common parsley, curly, Petroselinium crispum

Zones: 3 – 9

Size: 12 to 18-inches, tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun to some light shade. Biennial, can be used as an annual in colder areas.



Common parsley, Petroselinium crispum, curly and familiar, brings nostalgia to a garden. Used in the restaurant business for years, parsley was the it plant of the 50s, 60s and even the 70s to garnish your dinner plate. Parsley had the appeal of being cute and curly with a verdant green providing a refreshing look. Parsley had a good run until a wise culinary expert made the bold move to suggest a garnish should provide an anticipation of the tastes that lies on the plate. The role of a garnish should that of whetting the appetite for the meal. If the major flavoring in the dish was rosemary, say, then a rosemary garnish would be more appropriate, not parsley.

Perhaps because of it’s cuteness, or because it’s so easy to grow, parsley is still widely grown in vegetable gardens to use as a favoring, and adding a bright coloring to a prepared meal. Parsley is tasty sprinkled over a potato dish such as mashed, whole, scalloped or whipped. Its crisp green leaves are also a flavorful and a nutritious addition to salads. Parsley is also commonly used in flavoring soups, stuffing, and sauces. Snipped and sprinkled fresh right before a meal is served is a refreshing alternative to serving it on the side of the plate.

Common parsley, Petroselinium crispum is a member of the carrot family (Apiaceae), native to the Mediterranean. A biennial (living for 2 seasons; seeding the second year) but it can also be grown as an annual. As with most herbs, parsley will perform best in a sunny location, receiving 6 – 8 hours of direct sunlight a day. Parsley can also tolerate some shade. As one might suspect, given its mediterranean origin, parsley prefers well-drained soil with a pH range of 6.0-.7.0.

Beyond culinary uses, parsley can make a pretty accent plant in a garden bed. Planted as an edging or bedding plant, parsley is an unexpected addition giving foil for annuals such as begonias and petunias.


Eastern Black Swallowtail


For all the good reasons to grow parsley, I can count on one hand the times I’ve snipped parsley to used for a meal. I grow parsley as the host plant for the Eastern Black Swallowtail. Out west, parsley is also the host plant for the Anise swallowtail. Both of these swallowtails use other plants as host plants. But since the focus of this series is plant-specific, I’m only highlighting the butterflies that use parsley as a host plant.

It seems most people I know have a green worm story. Also known as parsley worms, these larvae are actually the caterpillar of the Eastern Black or Anise Swallowtail.




I clearly remember about 10 years ago when I had a friend visiting my butterfly garden for the first time. He was amazed at all the different butterflies in the garden that day. Excited about beginning his own butterfly garden, he asked where to begin. Instead of weighing him down with a myriad of information about host plants, nectar plants, food, water, and cover, I told him to simply start by planting parsley. My friend already had plenty of nectar plants since he was an ornamental gardener. What he lacked were host plants. Parsley is an excellent choice to bring in the butterflies quickly.

A couple of months later, when I saw him again, I asked how was his butterfly garden coming along? Specifically I asked , “Do you have a backyard full of Eastern black swallowtails? ” I was saddened and shocked to learn he didn’t have very many. Wondering about the parsley, I asked if he planted it like I suggested, and if he saw adult butterflies around it laying eggs?  It was hard for him to focus his answer because he was more disappointed with the green worms that were all over the plant. He told me, “I kept picking off these green worms, but then they would come back.”  Frustrated, he dumped the whole container of parsley into the compost pile. The moral of the story? Even though I thought I was simplifying it for him, I made it too simple. Now when I tell people to start with parsley, I make sure to say, “If you see green worms eating your parsley, consider your efforts a success.”



Around March in my zone 7b mid-Atlantic garden, I direct sow parsley seeds. I don’t need to do this every year, it just depends on the amount of parsley there is in my garden from the year before. In good butterfly years, when all of the parsley was eaten to a nub, I reseeded. In the years that the butterfly population was only so-so, the plants will flower then self sow.

Parsley germination is notoriously slow, so be patient. The rate of germination can range from 2 – 5 weeks. Soaking the seeds for twenty-four hours prior to planting will hasten the germination process. But for my zone and place, direct sow works well.

The most common variety is common or curly parsley, Petroselinium crispum. Typically growing 8-14 inches tall, and forming dense clumps, curly parsley looks great grown in borders. Interplanting parsley in the garden beds or in containers along with other herbs, vegetables, or even ornamentals is an intriguing way to add parsley as a host plant to your backyard habitat.

Italian flat-leaf parsley, P. neapolitanum is another popular variety. To my knowledge, there is no preference in the variety as a host butterfly plant. Flat-leaf parsley tends to have a looser habit and is taller, about 2 – 3 feet.  Many find this variety of parsley to have a stronger and sweeter flavor than the other varieties, making it more desirable for cooking. But you butterflies won’t care which variety you plant.


Helen  Yoest is an award winning writer and speaker through her business Gardening with Confidence ®.

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Helen’s book,  Gardening with Confidence–50 Ways to Add Style for Personal Creativity is due out this fall.

13 responses to “Butterfly host plant — Parsley”

  1. Thanks for these series of posts, Helen. I didn’t know that parsley was a host plant. Now I’m going to add it to my seed list for next springs’ plantings. The kids will love having caterpillars and butterflies.

  2. HelenYoest says:

    Thanks, Modern Mia Gardening. Yes the kids will love it! H.

  3. Hi Helen,
    I found your blog via twitter. I am enjoying reading it. It is very diverse and full of great and useful information. I am a botanical artist and gardener who specializes in painting the lifecycle of butterflies/moths with their host plants. I am having an exhibit in your neck of the woods at the Alamance Art Alliance in Graham, NC. I would love to send you an invitation. Where can I send it? The show runs from July 26 – September 8, 2012. The artist reception is on July 26. Here is a link to the article on the web about the show:http://www.thetimesnews.com/articles/graham-57321-nature-artist.html
    I appreciate all the information that your blog gives to readers, spreading the word about gardening for and with nature. I will be adding your blog to mine for my readers too!
    Happy planting!

  4. HelenYoest says:

    Mindy, you show sounds exciting. It’s about an hour away. Not sure if I can make it, but I sure will try. Helen

  5. Thanks Helen!


  6. […] could all plant parsley… The black swallowtail (pictured above) also likes carrots, fennel, dill, and there are other […]

  7. Scarlett says:

    I have parsley at my condo in St Petersburg FL a black swallowtail is currently laying eggs. My indoor cats are entertained

  8. Sally says:

    Someone had told me to plant parsley for butterflies. I just saw a black swallowtail laying eggs on it. I am SO excited. I googled butterfly eggs and found this site; I cant wait for the green worms (although I would have known what they were at least).

  9. Leslie says:

    I’m so glad I found your information. I have always planted parsley and was thrilled to find the eggs and larvae on the plants. I even had to find an emergency plant when my were stripped clean! This was in KS and I thought it was the Tiger Swallowtail that laid the eggs. I’m glad to know it was the black swallowtail, a butterfly we had in abundance in KS. Now that I’ve moved back to NH, I still plant the parsley and have had no takers so far. The only ones who seem to enjoy it are the deer.
    Thanks for your great website!

  10. Leslie says:

    Now I see that it was the Anise Swallowtail that laid the eggs on my parsley. Here in NH we have a profusion of butterflies that are either tiger or anise. I haven’t been able to see one close enough.

  11. Marie says:

    I have green worms that are attacking my parsley how can I get rid of them, I don’t want to use chemicals thanks

  12. HelenYoest says:

    Those are butterfly larvae..share it with the swallowtail butterflies Plant more if you need it for a crop.

  13. Jan Stanley says:

    I have grown parsley for butterflies for a few years after accidentally having caterpillars! Love it. Plan on reading your blog to find other host plants! Thanks!

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