What Do Caterpillars Prefer To Eat?

Last updated on October 23rd, 2023 at 08:55 pm

Caterpillars are the larvae of butterflies. Each species has its own food plant, although some also make do with alternatives. Even in a small garden can thus succeed in encouraging caterpillars. We clarify what caterpillars prefer to eat.

  • wild plants are especially suitable as caterpillar food
  • each species has its preferred food
  • some plants are eaten by comparatively many caterpillars
  • butterfly caterpillars can also be supported in other ways
  • the best is a garden as close to nature as possible


What Do Caterpillars Prefer To Eat?

Some species of moths specialize in conifers, they are found on all species. These include:

  • Pine moth
  • Pine Moth
  • Convent moth
  • Nun

Coniferous trees are often too large to plant in conventional gardens. If trees are present, they should only be cut down if they are diseased. Other moth species on the respective conifers:

Silver fir: trout owl

  • Spruce: pine hawk moth, coniferous tree moth, trout owl
  • Scots pine: pine resinous gall moth, pine hawkmoth, coniferous tree moth, pine processionary moth, trout moth
  • European larch: pine hawkmoth, pine processionary moth

Deciduous trees and shrubs

  • Deciduous trees are also often too large for the garden. However, willows and hazels make suitable hedges and can be trimmed to shape accordingly. Deciduous trees with the most butterfly species:
  • Saltwillow: over 60 species, evening peacock butterfly, C butterfly or mourning cloak.
  • Quaking aspen: more than 30 species, large kingfisher, small shill butterfly, order ribbons
  • European beech: 30 species, snail moth, beech moth, night peacock butterfly
  • English oak: over 45 species, oak hawkmoth, owl moth, oak processionary moth
  • Hazelnut: over 20 species, birch moth, hare owl, moonbird
  • Weeping birch: over 30 species, linden hawk moth, birch chinch moth, silverleaf
  • English oak
  • Oak processionary moth caterpillars, among others, love live oak.
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Garden and wild herbs

Many caterpillars eat various herbs. They make no distinction between wild species and cultivated species. Thus, various moths occur on native meadow sage as well as on sage grown in the garden.
The most important herbaceous forage plant is the stinging nettle.

Plant family: Nettle family

  • Characteristics: 30 – 150 cm high, perennial herb, typical stinging hairs, woody rhizome, leaves oblong-ovate, toothed, flower inconspicuous
  • Occurrence: nutrient-rich, sunny sites, roadsides, weed meadows
  • Butterfly species: Admiral, thistle butterfly, peacock butterfly, land moth, house moth, various bears, small fox
  • Use and promotion: Usually nettle is considered a weed, however, it can also be used as a medicinal and salad plant.

Other herbs in the garden or meadow that are suitable for butterfly caterpillars:

  • Common horn clover: clover owl, ink-spot white butterfly, brown day owl.
  • dandelion: autumn moth, agate owl, cinnamon bear
  • variegated crown vetch: variable ram, crown vetch butterfly, crown vetch blue butterfly
  • sorrel: small fire butterfly, ducat butterfly, dock bark owl
  • Ribwort: White grasshopper, plantain hawk moth, white-spotted rampion
  • Sage: Small night peacock butterfly, Gamma owl, Russian bear
  • Thyme: Thyme widow, Gray blue butterfly, English bear

Thyme Widow
The caterpillars of the Thyme Widow prefer the herb of the same name.
Note: It is convenient to leave some sunny places in the garden weedy and tolerate nettles there.


Many butterfly caterpillars do not stop at vegetables. The extremely rare swallowtail, for example, prefers umbelliferous plants. These include carrots, fennel, dill and parsnip or their wild relatives.

Note: Since the swallowtail always lays its eggs singly, no major damage to vegetable plants is expected.

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At risk from cabbage white butterfly caterpillars are various types of cabbage and all other cruciferous vegetables. Often the butterfly caterpillars occur in large groups, which quickly eat the plants bare.
Butterfly crops (peas, beans, vetches) are also attacked by various moth caterpillars. If the infestation occurs only singly, it can be tolerated.

Other ways to encourage caterpillars
In addition to sufficient food, caterpillars need above all an undisturbed place to pupate. Some caterpillar species also travel longer distances to do so. Places where butterfly caterpillars pupate and sometimes overwinter:

Loose soil (vegetable beds)
grasses and woody plant parts
attics or cellars
coarse bark on trees
brushwood or compost piles
If pupae are found or dug up, they should be left in that location or, if buried in soil, reburied in another suitable location. With luck, the butterflies will hatch anyway.

Support butterflies

Just as important as supporting butterfly caterpillars is supporting the various butterfly species, which especially need nectar plants and overwintering sites.
Butterflies found in basements or attics during the winter should not be disturbed. They are in a type of hibernation and will not “come alive” until it gets warmer.
Suitable nectar plants:

  • Herbs: sage, lavender or thistle
  • Shrubs: summer lilac, privet
  • Trees: fruit trees (some moths prefer to suck on fallen fruit)
  • Flowers: phlox, thistles

Frequently asked questions

Do the caterpillars harm the plants?

If there are many caterpillars on a plant, they can actually eat it bare. This will cause sensitive plants to die. Trees or even the great nettle recover quickly.

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How can you help a caterpillar you find?

If the moth caterpillar is moving very quickly, there is a good chance that it is looking for a place to pupate. If it runs across a path or a road, it is enough to put it on the edge, it will look for a suitable place itself.

Is it possible to raise caterpillars by yourself?

This is extremely difficult. Very few butterfly species are suitable for it, which are uncomplicated in feeding and the place of pupation. It is always better to place a found caterpillar in a place where there is as much suitable food as possible. It will then look for a plant to feed on itself.


  • James Jones

    Meet James Jones, a passionate gardening writer whose words bloom with the wisdom of an experienced horticulturist. With a deep-rooted love for all things green, James has dedicated his life to sharing the art and science of gardening with the world. James's words have found their way into countless publications, and his gardening insights have inspired a new generation of green thumbs. His commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship shines through in every article he crafts.

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