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An Easy Butterfly Gardener’s Guide to Erie County, PA Swallowtails

There are nearly 150 species of butterflies that have been found in Pennsylvania. All of these species help to pollinate plants and act to move energy through the ecosystem. These butterflies are found in nearly all of the habitats in Pennsylvania. In this post we will talk about the seven species of swallowtail butterflies (Papilinoidae) that you can host in your butterfly garden in Erie County, Pennsylvania.

Prepare for an Erie County Swallowtail Extravaganza in Your Garden

Imagine this: vibrant wings of yellow, black, and white fluttering with the summer breeze against a backdrop of wildflowers in your garden. Entice these entertaining Erie County residents to your garden and enjoy their magnificence. With this easy-to-digest guide, we will explain the host plants that will attract them and include many images for identification. Read on to unlock the secrets to attracting butterflies to your garden and become a swallowtail whisperer and amaze your neighbors.

Table of Contents for Swallowtail Butterflies and Host Plants in Erie County, PA

Location of Erie County, Pennsylvania

Map of Pennsylvania with the county of Erie highlighted in red.
Pennsylvania with the County of Erie highlighted — David Benbennick, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Erie County, Pennsylvania is located in the northwestern part of the state, south of Lake Erie. The major municipalities in Erie County is the City of Erie and Millcreek Township.

USDA Plant Hardiness Zones in Erie County, Pennsylvania

USDA plant hardiness zone map (2023) for the state of Pennsylvania.
2023 Map of USDA Plant Hardiness Zones — USDA Public Domain

Erie County, Pennsylvania is has two plant hardiness zones within it. Adjacent to Lake Erie and about two miles going inland (south) is zone 7a. This area, which includes Presque Isle, has temperatures that are moderated by the lake. Going south to about I-90 is zone 6b and south of I-90 is zone 6a. When selecting plants in the City of Erie you will want to get those that can handle temperatures as cold as -50F to be sure they will survive unless you are near to the lake. The rest of the county should look for plants that handle temperatures down to -100F.

Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor) and its host plants in Erie County, PA

Eggs of pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor) on a plant.
Eggs of Pipevine Swallowtail — Insects Unlocked, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Caterpillar of the pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor) on the ground.
Caterpillar of Pipevine Swallowtail — Insects Unlocked, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor) on a yellow goldenrod plant.
Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor) — ALAN SCHMIERER, CC0, Wikimedia Commons
Brown chrysalis of pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor) on a twig.
Brown chrysalis of pipevine swallowtail — Meganmccarty, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor)

The pipevine swallowtail flies throughout the United States, except for the Pacific Northwest.

It has orange-brown eggs that are laid on the host plant. The black to brown to red caterpillar with orange markings comes out in the spring. They then overwinter as a pupa (Monroe and Wright 2017).

In the spring and summer the adult butterflies start to fly. They have a wingspan of 2.5 in (6.4 cm) to 5 in (12.7 cm) and are black colored with white markings.

Plants that Host the Pipevine Swallowtail

The Pipevine Swallowtail is generally hosted by members of the birthwort family (Aristolochiaceae). In Erie County, PA these include:

  • Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense): a herbaceous plant that is native.
  • Virginia Snakeroot (Endodeca serpentaria): a herbaceous plant. This plant is also known commonly as Aristolochia serpentaria and is native just west of Erie County.
  • Pipevine (Isotrema macrophyllum): As the name would suggest this is the main host plant and a vine. This vine is native to the south of Erie County, but can exist in the hardiness zone.
  • Woolly Pipevine (Isotrema tomentosa): a herbaceous plant that is native near to Erie County, PA.
Vine of woolly pipevine (Isotrema tomentosa) on a tree.
Woolly Pipevine (Isotrema tomentosa) — Chhe, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Plant of virginia snakeroot (Endodeca serpentaria) in a wooded area.
Virginia Snakeroot (Endodeca serpentaria) — Eric Hunt, via Wikimedia Commons

Giant Swallowtail (Papilo cresphontes) and its host plants in Erie County, PA

Yellow of egg of giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) on a green leaf.
Egg of Giant Swallowtail — Anne Toal from US, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Brownish-black caterpillar of giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) on a leaf.
Caterpillar of Giant Swallowtail — Aaron Carlson from Menomonie, WI, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wkimedia Commons
Brown chrysalis of giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) attached to a leaf.
Brown chrysalis of Giant Swallowtail — Ianaré Sévi, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Adult of giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) butterfly on vegetation.
Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) — ALAN SCHMIERER, CC0, via Wkimedia Commons

Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes)

The giant swallowtail flies throughout the United States and southeast Canada, except for the northwest. Beyond North America it ranges into Central America and the Caribbean Islands. It is the largest butterfly in North America (Wikipedia).

The giant swallowtail has brownish-orange eggs that are laid on the host plants. The caterpillars have five stages or instars before pupating, which takes about two weeks. The adult butterflies have a wingspans ranging from about 5.5 in (14.0 cm) to 7.5 in (19.1 cm) and are black and yellow colored.

Plants that Host the Giant Swallowtail

The giant swallowtail is hosted by members of the Rutaceae, of which there are two primary plants in Crawford County. These include:

  • Toothache tree (Zanthoxylum americanum) — a small to medium sized tree
  • Common Hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata) — a rare small tree in Pennsylvania
Yellow flowers of hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata) in a wooded area.
Common Hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata) — Mason Brock (Masebrock), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Toothache tree (Zanthoxylum americanum) in fruit.
Toothache Tree (Zanthoxylum americanum) — Krzysztof Golik, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Common Rue (Ruta graveolens), an introduced plant, can also be planted in Erie County, PA.

Canadian Swallowtail (Papilio canadensis) and its host plants in Erie County, PA

Brown caterpillar of canadian swallowtail (Papilio canadensis) on log.
Brown Caterpillar of Canadian Swallowtail — Sherby71, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Green caterpillar of canadian Swallowtail (Papilio canadensis).
Caterpillar of Canadian Swallowtail — Cephas, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Canadian swallowtail (Papilio canadensis) on leaf.
Canadian Swallowtail (Papilio canadensis) — Cephas, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Adult canadian swallowtail (Papilio canadensis) with folded wings.
Canadian Swallowtail (Papilio canadensis) — ALAN SCHMIERER, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Canadian Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)

The Canadian swallowtail flies throughout the northeast and northern tier of the United States including Alaska and Canada.

It has orange-brown eggs that are laid on the host plant. The caterpillar is brown at first, which looks like a bird dropping and serves to camouflage it. Later it turns green. The pupa than overwinters to emerge in the spring.

Canadian swallowtails have a wingspan of 2.5 in (6.4 cm) to 3 in (7.6 cm) and are yellow with black striped markings. It differs from the eastern tiger swallowtail in that the black stripes are not continuous to the bottom.

Plants that Host the Canadian Swallowtail

The Canadian swallowtail, like the eastern tiger swallowtail, is a generalist and uses members of a number of families as host plants. These include the Birch Family (Betulaceae), Rose Family, (Rosaceae), Willow Family (Salicaceae), and the Maple Family (Aceraceae). Some species in Erie County, PA include:

Autumn foliage on quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides).
Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) — Satsuuma, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Serrated leaves of yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis).
Leaves of Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) — Salicyna, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) and its host plants in Crawford County, PA

Green egg of eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) on a green leaf.
Egg of Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) — USFWS, Public domain, via WIkimedia Commons
Brown caterpillar of eastern tiger swallowtail on green leaf.
Brown Caterpillar of Eastern Tiger Swallowtail — Jim Conrad, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Green caterpillar of eastern tiger swallowtail on green leaf.
Green Caterpillar of Eastern Tiger Swallowtail — Jacy Lucier, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Eastern tiger swallowtail on flower.
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail — Shenandoah National Park from Virginia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Black form of eastern tiger swallowtail on vegetation.
Female Black Form of Eastern Tiger Swallowtail — Shenandoah National Park from Virginia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)

The eastern tiger swallowtail flies in the mid-western and eastern United States from the Rocky Mountains and east. In the Eastern US it is likely one of the most distinctive swallowtails.

The light green eggs are laid on the host plants. The caterpillar has five stages; with the first three a brown color and the last two as a green color. The brown chrysalis is placed in on trunks or on fallen leaves.

Eastern tiger swallowtail adults have a wingspan of 3.0 in (7.6 cm) to 5.5 in (14.0 cm) and have two color schemes. The yellow and black is the most distinctive, but the females also have a dark black phase that mimics the pipevine swallowtail (see image). Generally there are two broods in Pennsylvania (Monroe and Wright 2017).

Plants that Host the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

The eastern tiger swallowtail is a generalist and uses members of a number of genera as host plants. Some species in Erie County, PA include:

Close-up of white flowers of wild black cherry (Prunus serotina).
Flowers of Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) — Author Image
Flower of tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera) with leaves.
Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera) — Rob Hille, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) and its host plants in Erie County, PA

Black and white caterpillar of black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on vegetation.
Black and White Caterpillar of Black Swallowtail — Inklet Arts, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Green and yellow caterpillar of black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes).
Caterpillar of Black Swallowtail — NCBioTeacher, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Greenish-brown chrysalis of black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes).
Chrysalis of Black Swallowtail — Photo by and (c)2009 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man), GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons
Black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on fence.
Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) — Kaldari, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)

The Black Swallowtail flies in most of the United States, except for the Northwest.

The yellow eggs are laid on the host plants and take about a week to hatch. The caterpillars are at first black colored but later have green, black, and yellow coloring and last from a week to a month. The butterflies then survive the winter as a chrysalis.

Black swallowtail adults have a wingspan of 2.5 in (6.4 cm) to 3.5 in (8.9 cm) and are black colored with yellow spots along the wings and a red eyepsot near the tail on the top. The underside has orange spots.

Plants that Host the Black Swallowtail

The black swallowtail is a generalist and uses members of the carrot family as host plants. Some examples of carrot family members in Erie County include:

  • Purple-stem Angelica (Angelica atropurpurea): a herbaceous plant
  • Hairy Angelica (Angelica venenosa): a herbacous plant
  • Spotted Water-Hemlock (Cicuta maculata): a herbaceous plant
  • American Cow-Parsnip (Heracleum maximum): a herbaceous plant
  • Hairy Sweet Cicely (Osmorhiza claytonii): a herbaceous plant
  • Aniseroot (Osmorhiza longistylis): a herbaceous plant
  • Wild Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa): a herbaceous plant
  • Hemlock Water-Parsnip (Sium suave): a herbaceous plant
  • Heart-leaf Alexander (Zizia aptera): a herbaceous plant
  • Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea): a herbaceous plant
Plant of spotted water-hemlock (Cicuta maculata).
Spotted Water-Hemlock (Cicuta maculata) — Williammehlhorn at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Plant of aniseroot (Osmorhiza longistylis) with white flowers.
Aniseroot (Osmorhiza longistylis) — Mason Brock (Masebrock), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilo troilus) and its host plants in Erie County, PA

Green caterpillar of spicebush swallowtail (Paplio troilus) on a twig.
Caterpillar of Spicebush Swallowtail — NCBioTeacher, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Light brown chrysalis of spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus).
Chrysalis of Spicebush Swallowtail — Judy Gallagher, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus) on vegetation.
Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) — Kaldari, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus)

The spicebush swallowtail flies in the mid-western and eastern United States.

The greenish eggs are laid on the leaves of spicebush. The caterpillars are brown at first but then turn yellow. The chrysalis is attached to leaves on the ground.

Spicebush swallowtail adults have a wingspan of 3.0 in (7.6 cm) to 4.0 in (10.2 cm) and are black with white spots along the bottom and a red eyespot on the bottom middle.

Plants that Host the Spicebush Swallowtail

As the common name would suggest, spicebush (Lindera benzoin), is a host plant for the spicebush swallowtail as is the sassafras (Sassafras albidum), both of which are members of the Laurel Family (Lauraceae). Both of these species are found in Erie County and the spicebush swallowtail only feeds on members of the Lauraceae (Scriber et al 2008).

Shrub of spicebush (Lindera benzoin) in a park.
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) — Dan Keck from Ohio, CC0
Leaf of sassafras (Sassafras albidum).
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) — Photo by David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0

Zebra Swallowtail (Protographium marcellus) and its host plants in Erie County, PA

Eggs of zebra swallowtail (Neographium marcellus).
Zebra Swallowtail Eggs — Megan McCarty, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Caterpillar of zebra swallowtail (Protographium marcellus) on leaf.
Caterpillar of Zebra Swallowtail — Meganmccarty, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Zebra swallowtail (Protographium marcellus) on purple flower.
Zebra Swallowtail (Protographium marcellus) — Megan McCarty, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Zebra Swallowtail (Protographium marcellus)

The Zebra swallowtail flies in the mid-western and eastern United States.

The green to brown eggs are laid on the leaves of the host plant, which is the pawpaw. The caterpillars have two color variations, first black and then later stages are more colorful with green and yellow stripes. The brown chrysalis can overwinter in places of cold temperatures (Wikipedia).

The black and white multi-colored adults have a wingspan of 2.5 in (6.4 cm) to 4.5 in (11.4 cm) and fly from February to December with a more restricted season in more northern places. The early season brood can be smaller and has a shorter tail than the later summer brood that is larger and has a long tail (animaldiversity.org).

Plants that Host the Zebra Swallowtail

The zebra swallowtail uses members of the Custard Apple Family (Annonaceae) as host plants. In Erie County, pawpaw (Asimina triloba), an understory tree, is used as a host. This tree is near the northern limit of its range in Erie County.

Brownish flower of pawpaw (Asimina triloba).
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) — Agnieszka Kwiecień, Nova, CC BY-SA 4.0

Nectar Plants to Consider Putting in Your Garden

Sweet joe-pye-weed (Eutrochium maculatum) in a garden.
Spotted Joe-Pye-Weed (Eutrochium maculatum) — Author Image

While the swallowtails need certain species of plants to use as hosts, the adults also need nectar plants to visit in order get nourishment. Nectar plants can also help other insects such as bees. Some common nectar plants that can be grown in Erie County, PA include:

  • Goldenrods (Solidago spp.)
  • Joe-Pye-Weeds (Eutrochium spp.)
  • Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) — Also benefit the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus)
  • Asters (Symphyotrichum spp.)
  • Coneflowers (Rudbeckia spp.)
  • Blazing Stars (Liatris spp.)

Frequently Asked Questions

How much land do I need to start a butterfly garden?

Every plant that you can grow can make a difference for visitors to your garden, especially in urban areas. Potted plants are also useful en masse for pollinators. When planting your garden, make sure you plant both the host plants and nectar plants for the adults to feed on.

Where should I get my plants?

For pollinators, it is best to have native plant species. The insects will be used to these plants more than ones from other places. Be sure you get your plants from a reputable nursery does not use neocontinids that would harm visitors to your garden.

Are there gardens near me, where I can see an example of a butterfly garden?

There are several gardens in and near Erie County, PA that can be visited in order to get ideas for your Butterfly Garden. These include the:

Erie Zoo: a zoo with a variety of gardens located in Erie, Pa.

Goodell Gardens & Homestead: a garden in Edinboro, Pa south of Erie that has native plants and a pollinator garden.

Lake Erie Arboretum: an arboretum in Erie, Pa with a variety of local trees.

Serenity Botanical Gardens: a garden south of Cambridge Springs, Pa that contains a butterfly garden.

The Arboretum at Penn State Behrend: arboretum in Erie, Pa that has a number of native trees.

Books where you can find out more about Butterfly Gardening in Erie County, PA

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References

  • Monroe, James L. and David M. Wright. 2017. Butterflies of Pennsylvania. (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press). 304 pp.
  • Scriber, Mark J., Michelle L. Larsen, and Myron P. Zalucki. 2008. Responses of North American Papilio troilus and P. glaucus to potential hosts from Australia. Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society 62: 18-30.
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Robert Coxe

Robert Coxe

Robert Coxe is a professional ecologist and botanist who has worked as the State Ecologist of Delaware and as an ecologist for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. He is also a former Past-President of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science. He currently is an innkeeper at McMullen House Bed & Breakfast LLC and a web designer and owner for Silphium Design LLC.

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