Brush-footed Butterflies: Garden Butterflies

The two hundred plus native brush-footed species (family Nymphalidae) represent approximately thirty percent of the total number of North American butterfly species. Odds are the species with orange wings in the garden belong to the family.

Of course, the amount of garden butterflies in any particular area depends on the landscaping. This introduction provides tips on how to landscape for butterflies in all ten brush-footed butterfly subfamilies. It starts with the Emperor subfamily Apaturinae.

The video at the top of the page shows an Empress leilia butterfly, one of six documented native Emperor species. Collectively their wing patterns resemble the wing pattern of the butterfly in the picture. Wing color tends to change.

The Tawny Emperor, for example, flies through most of the Midwest and East. Its lighter color wings (compared to the Hackberry Emperor), along with white spots on the forewing also differentiate it from the Hackberry. The species is fairly common in the Eastern part of the United States.

Emperor butterfly caterpillars consume leaves of trees and plants in the Elm family. Landscaping for emperor butterflies can be as easy as determining the specific species that grow in the area in question.

Nymphalinae (True brush-footed butterflies)

picture of a Green Comma butterfly

A handful of True brush-footed butterflies also use trees as their larval hosts. Tortoiseshells and Comma butterflies, for example, use a range of trees, including those in the elm family.

Crescents fit the garden butterfly category in most places. Most of the many species seek out plants in the daisy family as their larval hosts.


picture of a Snout butterfly, part of the garden butterflies series
Count the American snout as one of the common garden butterflies in those same areas with elm trees. With the exception of the Pacific Northwest and areas along the upper Midwest, American snouts range across the continental United States.

Identifying snout butterflies in the garden can be as easy as looking for a medium sized butterfly with burnt orange to brown wings and a large nose.

Danainae (Milkweed Butterflies)

picture of a Queen butterfly, brush-footed butterflies
The picture shows a top view of the Queen’s wings. A lack of dark veins differentiates it from the Monarch butterfly.

Most people rightfully think Monarch butterfly when they think milkweed butterflies. The larval forms of all three species in the genera feed on milkweed plants. Many areas of the United States offer suggestions regarding local milkweed plant species that can encourage Monarch butterflies to stop by the prospective butterfly garden.

Please press the Milkweed butterflies button to learn more about all the species in the genus.

Brush-footed Butterflies: Longwings

picture of a Speyeria Fritillary

Heliconilnae consist of two different types of butterflies. Fritillaries, the dominant group within the Heliconiinae subfamily, basically split between the Speyeria (greater) or Boloria (lesser) genera, depending on wing size. Different species live in most forested areas of the United States.

Many fritillaries use violets as their larval host plant. Landscaping for shaded areas to promote violet growth is step one in attracting these often large and colorful butterflies.

The longwings display long, narrow wings and their range is limited to the southern areas of the United States. It’s an open secret in those regions that passion vines, a common larval host, are a perfect way to attract them to the garden.

Limenitidnae (Admirals and Relatives)

picture of a Band-celled Sister, brush-footed butterflies

Formally called Limenitidinae butterflies, the subfamily better known as Admirals helps them stand out in a crowded butterfly field.

Using the formal language of taxonomy, the subfamily divides into two genera or three genera, depending on the source: Sisters (Adelpha); Admirals (Limenitis) and Daggerwings.

Popular butterflies, four sisters (genus Adelpha) grace the fields and forests of North America and the White Admiral or Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis), for example, was recently voted New York’s state butterfly. Please press the Admiral butterflies button for additional butterfly pictures and information.

Satyrinae (Satyrs and Wood-Nymphs)

picture of a Satyr butterfly, brush-footed butterflies

Satyrs and Wood-Nymphs represent the non-orange colored brush-footed butterfly family. For individuals not familiar with the genera, their brown color might be a clue to initially identify them in the skipper family. Fortunately, the presence of eye spots make members of the Satyrinae family fairly easy to identify.

Approximately fifty different species, divided into fifteen different genera, inhabit North America. Half of those species belong to either the Erebia genus commonly called the Alpines, or the Oeneis genus, commonly called the Arctics.

In some, but not all circumstances, areas with native grasses can consider them as potential garden butterflies. Alpines use native grasses in high altitude areas. as larval host plants. In the east, the Pearly-eyes use lowland native grasses.

Biblidnae (Tropical brush-footed)

picture of a Common Maestra
Nine genera of tropical brush-footed, subfamily (Biblidinae), make an appearance in North America, with Texas and Florida serving as the primary host states. The picture shows a Common Mestra (Mestra amymone), the only native North American Mestra species. It flies regularly from South Texas through South, with occasional northward migrations to lower Midwest states. An average sized butterfly, with a very distinct orange patch on the bottom of the wings, makes it difficult to misidentify.

Their limited range in the United States also translates into their need for more specialty landscaping.

Charaxinae (Leafwings)

picture of a leafwing butterfly
One look at the picture explains the name leafwing butterfly. As a group they tend to be large sized with some shade of orange wings. When the wings are folded, the camouflage of the wings kicks in and the butterfly looks like a leaf.

The name of the most common species in the United States, Goatweed Leafwing, describes its garden butterfly status, areas where plants in the Croton genus.


picture of a Ruddy Daggerwing butterfly
The Daggerwings subfamily (Cyrestinae) has a very limited presence in the United States. The three species are all southern. The picture shows a Rudddy Daggerwing, the most common of the three species and found in South Florida and South Texas.

The picture shows the long tail. Given their limited distribution, it’s always a pleasure to see one. A specialty garden butterfly for areas where fig trees thrive.