Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Saturday, July 15, 2017

A Painted Lady in the garden

I haven't seen many butterflies so far this summer, so when this beauty showed up I ran for the camera. The pretty Painted Lady butterfly was not going to pose for me, so I feel lucky to have these few photos.
Echinacea 'Cheyenne Spirit'

I followed her (just a pronoun) as she fluttered around the Echinacea 'Cheyenne Spirit' and then, she was off to explore other gardens. If she is a she and has mated there may be eggs someplace in the garden; fingers crossed that is what happened.
I was able to identify it as Vanessa cardui from the eyespots.

The Particulars:
Vanessa cardui 
The Painted Lady

Brushfooted/Nymphalidae Family: This family of butterflies gets its name from its front legs which are shorter than the other four and are not used to stand or walk. Instead of feet the front legs are little brushes of hairs that are used to smell and taste. The front legs of some brushfoots are so small you can't see them. Brushfoots are quite a diverse family, some are brightly colored, some well camouflaged. There are 34 species of Brushfoots found in Tennessee.

Description: Easily identified by 4 eye spots along the hindwing edges of this orange and brown butterfly. The wingspan is 2 to just under 3 inches. Females have a larger, more rounded abdomen than males. The male butterfly’s abdomen has straight sides, while the female’s abdomen is curved.

Range: The Painted Lady/Vanessa cardui butterfly is one of three Vanessa in Tennessee. it's called a cosmopolitan butterfly because it's one of the most widely distributed butterfly in the world and is found in all 48 contiguous states.

Habitat: gardens, fields, old pastures, lake edges, and even in vacant lots.

Larval Host plants: Their larval food plant list is longer than most other butterflies. They commonly use some species of thistle as their primary host, but they also lay eggs on hollyhock, mallow, and plantain species.

Adult Food: The Painted Lady prefers nectar from composites, especially thistles; also aster, cosmos, blazing star, ironweed, and joe-pye weed. Flowers from other families that they visit include mallows, forget-me-nots, waterleaf, bean, nettle, mint, potato, morning glory, carrot, milkweed, elm, and citrus. So many families as a food choice that you are sure to find them in your garden!

Comments: Their adult life consists of drinking nectar, pairing, and laying eggs. Expect to see them from April to November in Tennessee. Life span is about two weeks.

Raising Painted Lady Butterfly: The Painted Lady Butterfly is a popular science activity in elementary schools.  Do a web search to find information and to order kits. This can be an exciting activity for supervised children. The sellers ask only that you make sure you have host plants for them once they arrive...They're voracious eaters!  Here's a link for more general information on raising butterfly.

I've been checking plants to see if there are eggs or cats, but, so far none. I will be sure and let you know when/if I find any!
Creative Common Use Tom Murray photographer

Here's what I am searching for: A black caterpillar, with yellowish lines on each side, and a black head. The first instars make a nest of rolled leaf held together with silk. Photos I've seen of these nests show nearby skeletonized leaves and lots of frass. Please note: Each instar changes appearance, which makes this a difficult cat to id.

Now start searching!

PS Remember if you want pollinators like this pretty Painted Lady in your garden never, ever, ever, ever, ever, use pesticides, even when you come upon a messy, frass filled rolled leaf! Let's all be better at embracing imperfection in our gardens.

Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.


  1. Wow, it is beautiful. I have seen several butterflies in our garden during the last few weeks.

    1. She/he is a pretty butterfly. I hope we all see more pollinators as the summer continues. gail

  2. We've only seen a skipper or two in Sweden - must be a bit too cold for many butterflies. LOTS of bees of various sorts, however, with plenty of flowers in patches for them to visit.

    1. I hadn't thought of that, but, it makes sense. gail

  3. Wonderful!
    Hope you are having a great week-end!

  4. Wonderful photographs! Last year we had Painted Ladies on the 'Summer Beauty' Allium, but so far this year I haven't seen any.

    1. We are ahead of you a bit, but with all those beautiful flowers I wonder if they won't visit this year. gail

  5. I think the dry weather has kept the butterfly population down some around here. Early spring I saw plenty of butterflies but not lately. Your pictures give me hope.

    1. I hope for you, Lisa. I miss the bees, too. I noticed more today then recently! Maybe the Joes and Susans will bring them in to my garden. gail

  6. I've been visited by their relatives, the red admiral, but haven't spotted a painted lady yet. No monarchs have been spotted either. It's been a light year for butterflies so far. You're lucky to get the photos you did, they're so skittish!

  7. The first thing I saw in our garden (apart from the plants of course!) after arriving home from the Fling was a painted lady flitting around the top terrace bed :)

  8. Glad to know that I am not the only one grabbing a camera and trying to get a good photo. The Monarch are all around lately and I am patiently waiting to see a Swallowtail.

  9. I seem to confuse this with the American Lady butterfly which consistently lays eggs on my Pearly Everlasting. I have begun trying to raise one or two indoors with my daughter. I think the Painted Lady must come later as I think I seem them more mid-summer. Thanks for the interesting photos!

  10. She's a beauty! You got some great photos.

  11. There was a butterfly fluttering around my Echinacea just off the living room window the other day but it was too quick for me to ID. Love that you have Cheyenne Spirit - I started several from seed this past spring and they are currently in pots, waiting for their permanent home to be ready.


Let us be grateful to people who make us happy;
they are the charming gardeners
who make our souls blossom.