Spicebush Swallowtails in the Wildlife Garden

A wildlife garden full of swirling butterflies is a truly beautiful sight. You can achieve this for yourself in your wildlife garden by understanding the butterfly life cycle.

You see, you need more than lots of nectar flowers, you’ve got to have the specific host plant for each type of butterfly you want to attract. Most butterflies are specialists, meaning their caterpillars are only able to eat one specific plant, or one family of plants.

The Spicebush Swallowtail is one of my favorite butterflies, with its iridescent black and blue markings and long “tails.” Its coloring resembles the poisonous Pipevine Swallowtail, which gives some protection from hungry birds seeking a tasty snack.

Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars also have tricky defenses. The first instars resemble bird droppings, while the 4th and 5th instar have eye markings that resemble a snake’s eyes.

The Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar spends the day tightly rolled up in a leaf to hide from birds and other predators, only coming out at night to feed.

Adults of this species can be found in deciduous woodlands and open fields, gardens, and parks. Males are constantly on patrol, seeking to mate with as many females as possible.

After mating, the female with go in search of the host plant on which to lay her eggs. Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars primarily feed on Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), although some will also eat Sassafras.

Spicebush blooms in early spring before it gets its leaves. The soft yellow glow from blooming Spicebush in the early spring wildlife garden is a delight in itself.

Adult Spicebush butterflies feed on nectar from native flowering perennials such as Joe Pye, Jewelweed, and Coral Honeysuckle.

These butterflies are primarily an Eastern species, but have on occasion made it as far west at Colorado. They’ve also been spotted in Cuba.

Do you have Spicebush Swallowtails in your wildlife garden?

Carole Sevilla Brown lives in Philadelphia, PA, and she travels the country speaking about Ecosystem Gardening for Wildlife. Check out her new free online course Ecosystem Gardening Essentials, 15 free lessons delivered to your inbox every week.

© 2011 – 2012, Carole Sevilla Brown. All rights reserved. This article is the property of BeautifulWildlifeGarden.com We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. Brenda R says

    I hope I will! I planted a spicebush (lindera bendoin) shrub last year to entice them. It is about 3 feet tall and has lots of leaves. I have not as yet seen any caterpillars in folded leaves though. :( Is one shrub enough? I don’t have any room for any more. lol

  2. says

    Carole, Oh you lucky gardener! I have spicebush and even see the butterfly but, have not found the instars or cats! They are fabulous butterflies and the spicebush is perfect addition to a garden. Now if they would only hold still so I could get a good shot! gail PS Very helpful info.

  3. Bob says

    I have quite a bit of Spicebush in the yard… I need to start taking a closer look at the “black” Swallowtails flying about!

  4. says

    We are not seeing too many yet, but butterflies usually make a big showing in our yard.

    I was once head of the Nature Lab at a camp nearby and some kids brought me a caterpillar that we carefully kept.

    I will never forget when I released the swallowtail butterfly at campfire one Sunday morning. I expected a gentle flitter, but that big boy shot out like a rocket, leaving our sight within seconds.

    Thanks for the post.
    David Bourne recently posted..A Simple Pic of Why I don’t Like Facebook. A Metaphor for the Walled Garden

  5. Donna B. says

    Now I’m confused! Sadly I do not have a spicebush… but when taking cuttings of my Dill plants, I found a small spiky caterpillar… so I relocated it back outside – couple of days later now, it’s definitally a bird poop type ‘pillar… What do I have exactly?!
    I’m excited as this is my first year with caterpillars on my plants. I did find a monarch ‘pillar on my Liatris the other day too… [it’s about two feet from my milkweed plants…] do I have confused caterpillars? Hee hee.

    • Carole Sevilla Brown says

      Donna, the caterpillars on Dill were probably Black Swallowtails, like I described in this post: http://www.beautifulwildlifegarden.com/do-black-swallowtail-catepillars-lay-their-eggs-on-dill.html

      The Monarch caterpillar will crawl to a place that it feels safe when it’s ready to start becoming a chrysalis, and I talked about that process in this post: http://www.ecosystemgardening.com/do-monarch-caterpillars-eat-anything-besides-milkweed.html

      • Donna B. says

        Thank you so much! I love how helpful and informative this site is~ ♥

        I totally forgot that Dill *is* part of the carrot family… hehe! So it was a wonderful thing I decided to plant a huge section of Dill in my flower beds~ I’m excited! I think it’s only in the 2nd instar… sadly not smooth just yet – just barely getting the lighter coloring on it’s body…
        W/ the Monarch it wasn’t entirely big enough to be going into the chrysalis stage yet – it was only about two inches long, and I haven’t seen it since! Maybe I need to poke my head in the mess of butterfly weed to see if it’s in there eatin’ away~

        I saw a Black Swallowtail Butterfly and a Sphinx Moth yesterday after work~ So happy!

  6. K. D. says

    In the summer of 2010, I saw several Spicebush Swallowtails in my back yard. I have never seen the Spicebush plant locally however, there are a number of sassafras trees in the woods behind my house. Sadly, this year has not been good for butterflies in my area. I have seen few species and very few individuals so far.

  7. Ellen Reynolds says

    My favorites, Their transformation is so drastic that I love to use them for my school programs .So mush more dramatic for the kids than the monarch. Use of the eye spots helps when teaching adaptations and the students just love “the fake eyes’.

  8. Heidi/Woodland Garden says

    We have tons of spicebushes in our woods but haven’t yet seen a caterpillar nor butterfly. We live 1 hour west of Cincinnati. Are we too far north? Or are there certain nectar plants I should plant to attract them?


  1. […] Spicebush Swallowtails in the Wildlife Garden “The Spicebush Swallowtail is one of my favorite butterflies, with its iridescent black and blue markings and long “tails.” Its coloring resembles the poisonous Pipevine Swallowtail, which gives some protection from hungry birds seeking a tasty snack.” by Carole Sevilla Brown […]

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