Vanessa cardui, also known as painted lady butterflies, or thistle or cosmopolitan butterflies, are found worldwide in temperate, subtropical and tropical areas. After hatching out of a green pin-sized egg, the caterpillar larvae goes on a five to 10-day, nonstop eating binge. To attract painted lady butterfly larvae, you must have specific host plants. Otherwise, you will never see the fluttering brown, orange and white-spotted wings of this butterfly.
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Species within the Malvaceae family that are hosts to painted lady butterfly larvae include: hollyhock (Alcea rosea), common mallow (Malva neglecta), little mallow (Malva parviflora), running mallow (Malva rotundifolia), high mallow (Malva sylvestris), globe mallow (Sphaeralcea species). Malvas grow to 3 to 4 feet with pink, white or lavender flowers, and are either hardy annuals or perennials. It grows in U.S. Department of Agriculture zones 3 to 10 in full sun or partial shade and is fairly drought-tolerant.
From the Asteracea family, the painted lady butterfly will lay eggs on yarrow (Achillea millefolium), pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), western sagewort (Artemisia campestris), Mexican sagebrush (Artemisia ludoviciana), musk thistle (Carduus nutans), basket flower (Centaurea species), tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum), Texas thistle (Cirsium texanum), wavy leaf thistle (Cirsium undulatum), bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare), common sunflower (Helianthus annuus), milk thistle (Silybum marianum). Members of the Asteraceae family are hardy perennials that range in size and have daisy-like flowers of white, pink, purple or blue. They bloom anywhere from spring to late fall and prefer full sun.
Borage (Borago officinalis), and blueweed (Echium vulgare) are the favourite species of the Borainaceae family of painted lady caterpillars. The foliage found on borage and bluweed is coarse and hairy and the flowers are small and blue. Both species grows wild in disturbed habitats like landfills, drainage ditches, and roadsides. Plant in a sunny, well-drained location. Both species are drought tolerant.
English plantain (Plantago lanceolata) and common plantain (Plantago major) are the food of choice for the painted lady butterfly larvae for this plant family. Both varieties are weedy perennials that are naturalised to climates all over the world. Both grow best in rich, moist soil, but tolerate poor, dry soil too. Both also prefer full sun but can withstand partial shade. They each bloom stalks of tiny, greenish-white clusters of flowers.
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- Insectlorepedia: Painted Lady
- Center for Pathobiology Miscellaneous Publication #3; Butterflies and Their Larval Foods - Painted Lady; L.J. Orsak; 1997
- "Butterfly Gardens: Luring Nature's Lovliest Pollinators to Your Yard; Alcinda Lewis; 2007
- University of Michigan Museum of Zoology; Animal Diversity Web; Vanessa Cardui, et al.; 1999