Common Garden Butterflies: Brush-footed Butterflies

picture of a Green Comma butterfly

The two hundred plus native brushfoot species (family Nymphalidae) represent approximately thirty percent of the total number of North American butterfly species. The family's large size translates into an abundance of butterfly stories, from tales about long range migratory species such as Monarchs and Red Admirals, to updates on the mass migration patterns of species such as American Snouts and California Tortoiseshells.

Somewhere along the way the story of the brushfoots gets retold as the four legged butterflies because of the reduced size of their front legs.

Related Information

Butterfly Life Cycle

picture of a caterpillar

Formally, North American brushfoot butterflies divide into eleven subfamilies, with some, such as the True Brushfoots, Satyrs and Fritillaries, having relatively high species numbers, along with a continent wide presence. When gardeners think garden butterflies, they traditionally think brushfoot butterflies.

Successful butterfly gardens get built around the basic butterfly life cycle that schools and butterfly exhibits around the country annually celebrate by displaying and studying the four stages of butterfly metamorphasis process: egg, larva, pupa and adult.

Butterfly on Pupa
    picture of a Snout Butterfly emerged from a pupa

The story always starts with the egg, a pinhead size splotch usually laid on the leaf of the caterpillar's host plant. Depending on the species, the caterpillar will hatch in a matter of days or a couple of weeks.

All caterpillars go through separate stages of development during the larval stage. Caterpillars grow and shed their skin druing stages called instars. They can often change colors from one instar stage to another. More often than not, the caterpillar that hatches from the egg looks completely different than its butterfly form.

Caterpillar bodies consist of segments, usually thirteen, which can be hairy or smooth. Different species also can have a different numbers of legs. One trait caterpillars share is a big appetite. During their lifespan, which can last from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, caterpillars live to eat. Most consume the leaves of their host plant. A few caterpillar species are insectivores that feed on aphids.

At some point in time, a caterpillar's internal clock sets off an alarm that tells the caterpillar to start spinning a new home. It makes a silk button on a branch and then attaches itself to the button. It then sheds its skin for the last time, with the new skin being the hard shell called a chrysalis. The process takes anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, depending on the species. Many species that develop in the fall spend the winter in their chrysalis and emerge in the spring.

At the transformation from a caterpillar to a butterfly nears its end, the chrysalis becomes clear, making it easy to see the soon to be butterfly behind its walls. The chrysalis begins to crack and the butterfly crawls out. It holds on to chrysalis for a short time in order that its wings gain form and strength. Then it flies away to begin life as a butterfly, feeding on flowers and looking for a mate to keep the cycle going.

Here's a quick take on representative species of true brushfoots that are common garden butterflies.

Crescent Butterflies

picture of a field crescent butterfly

Two genera, Anthanassa and Phyciodes account for the vast majority of the North American Crescents, with the Phyciodes more broadly distributed.

The Field Crescent butterfly (Phyciodes pulchella), a common West Coast Phyciodes species, live at both high and low elevations. Caterpillars feed on plants in the aster family, and adults nectar on a variety of flowers.

Because of the abundance of aster plants in the Western United States, Field Crescents can be found through much of the spring, summer and early fall, depending on their geographic location.

picture of a Mylitta Crescent

The Mylitta Crescent (Phyciodes mylitta), one of the smaller crescent butterflies in the United States, live in both fields and residential settings of Western North America.

The picture shows the species enlarged by a factor of two in order to highlight the predominant orange wing pattern.

picture of a texan crescent butterfly

The Texan Crescent (Anthanassa texana), the most widely established of the Anthanassa crescents, is a medium sized butterfly with a predominant black wing color with orange and white pattern marks. The typical black dots bordering the bottom of the wings on Phyciodes species is absent.

Texan Crescents are found in Southern states from Florida to California. A small Midwest population also exists.

Comma Butterflies

picture of a side view of a comma butterfly

Members of the family Polygonia, commonly called Comma butterflies share a physical characteristic. With the exception of the Question Mark butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis), the seven native North American comma species display a white comma mark on the middle of the lower wing. The Green Comma (Polygonia faunus), pictured at the top of the page inhabits forest areas in the West, Upper-Midwest and New England.

Dark borders on both the top and bottom wings often serve as the first identification clue. The black spot in the middle of the bottom wing (and below two additional black spots) serves as the second identification clue.

picture of a Satyr Comma butterfly

The Satyr Comma (Polygonia satyrus), picture two, inhabits woodland areas from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast.

The presence of multiple black spots on both the top and bottom wings, along with a light border on the lower wing serve as good field identification clues.

It is one of the only comma species found at lower elevations near the caterpillar host plant, stinging nettle. Adults overwinter in their territory and re-emerge during early spring.

picture of a Satyr Hoary Comma butterfly

The Hoary Comma (Polygonia gracilis), picture three, another primarily Western species, also maintains a small population in northern New England.

The two black spots on the bottom wing, along with the light brown and mustard wing border, serve as the basic identification clues.

The bottom picture shows a side view. Like other comma species, they live in and around forested areas. Often they can be found nectaring near streams.

Some experts differentiate between the Eastern and Western species, calling the Western species Zephyr Commas.

Garden Butterflies: The Vanessas

picture of an American Lady butterfly

Four native Vanessa species, the American Lady, Painted Lady, Red-Admiral, West Coast Lady, are common garden butterflies across North America.

Identifying the American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis) starts by looking for the white spot on the upper wing.

picture of a West Coast Lady butterfly

The West Coast Lady (Vanessa annabella). Note the absence of a white dot on the wings. The bottom of the wings also shows a pattern of four blue dots circled in black, another field identification mark.

picture of a Painted Lady butterfly

From a distance, the Painted Lady looks to have black or dark dots on the bottom of the wing, with no white dot on the forewing.

picture of a Red Admiral butterfly

The Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta), one of four different butterflies in the Vanessa genus, can be found in fields, forests and cities around the United States. Contrary to the name, they do not belong to the Limenitidinae subfamily of Admirals and their relatives, however, the red stripe on the forewing show a resemblance to the stripes in Admiral butterflies.

The caterpillars feed on plants in the nettle family, a very common group of plants. Rotten fruit is the preferred food for adults.

© 2006-2016 Patricia A. Michaels.