Meet the Pollinators : Spring Flying Butterflies

I have done many a post on attracting insect pollinators, butterfly host plants, and pollinators. But I have not grouped when the pollinators are out. What are the spring flowering pollinators? Which butterflies overwinter as adults in the leaves and landscapes? All this and more I will cover in in this post.

Let us meet the guests and learn about them, one by one. Butterflies are mostly considered a summer flying flower. But there are many that overwinter as adults in leaf litter and other parts of the garden. These we see feeding on spring ephemerals and flowering trees in springtime. Most of them stick around for the summer, so they add to those butterflies that overwinter as pupa or those that travel elsewhere.

The Question Mark Butterfly

Looking like a leaf when at rest, the question mark butterfly is one of my favorites in the woodlands, and also one of the hardest to photograph. They see me coming and take off, so I have to be very stealthy when I see them. While the adult butterflies rarely feed on flowers, I have seen them alight on scarred walnuts and maples, when the sap is flowing.

Question mark butterflies have barrel shaped eggs that are stacked together on the undersides of elm and hackberry leaves. Because we have so many of these trees around in our area, we have an abundance of these butterflies flying around.

question mark butterfly stages

Eastern Comma Butterfly

The eastern comma is another leaf looking butterfly when at rest. And it too is difficult to get good photos of, but I work hard to get them anyways. Unlike the question mark, the eastern comma feeds on the leaves of nettles and hops. There are 2 common species of nettles in the woods around us, as well as hops growing wild along fencerows.

Also, the eastern common butterfly feeds on tree sap and rotting fruit, and rarely on flowers, though I have observed it on liatris and echinacea.

eastern comma butterfly

Mourning Cloak Butterfly

One of the prettiest flyers in early spring, the mourning cloak butterfly is majestic. I have only seed a handful of these butterflies, and rarely did I have a good camera with me. Living up to 10 months old, adults produce an anti-freeze like substance which helps them survive the winter. Their larvae feed on leaves of willows, elms, cottonwood, hackberries, and birch.

mourning cloak butterfly
Mourning cloak butterfly

Red Admiral Butterfly

The red admiral butterfly is one of the most recognizable spring flying butterflies. The bright orange and black butterflies overwinter as either adults or pupa in the landscape. The are very common in our area in the spring, though you see them less in the summer as other butterflies are out and steal the show.

One of the most interesting things about red admiral butterflies is that they will often alight on your arm or hand. This is because they are attracted to the sweat from your body. Other butterflies also will do this. The caterpillars of red admirals feed on the leaves of nettles.

red admiral butterflies.

American Lady Butterfly

The American lady butterfly is another spring flyer, that overwinters as an adult in leaves and brush piles. Unlike the widely common Painted Lady butterfly, which feeds on many different plants and can have outbreak years, the American lady only feeds on a few species within the Asteraceae Family, particularly members of the Everlasting Tribe, which include field pussytoes, cudweeds, and everlastings.

It is distinguishable from the Painted Lady butterfly by the 2 large eyespots on the underside of the hindwing, or by white dot on the middle edge of the upper forewings. They are present all year and pollinate a variety of plants.

American lady butterfly stages

Plants For Spring Flying Butterflies

There are a host of plants that can be panted and grown in gardens to attract spring flying butterflies. But most of these are spring flowering trees, shrubs, and ephemerals. Ephemerals are plants that grow quickly in the spring, before the tree leaves are fully developed, and set flowers and usually seed before dying to the ground in midsummer.

Native trees, shrubs, and ephemerals are best planted for these native butterflies, because we want our landscapes to attract pollinators and keep them around. The following lists of plants are great for attracting spring flying butterflies and other early pollinators.

Spring Flowering Trees for Butterflies

  • ServiceberryAmelanchier species
  • RedbudCercis canadensis
  • Flowering Dogwood – Cornus florida
  • Pagoda Dogwood – Cornus alternifolia
  • Hawthorn – Crataegus species
  • Kentucky CoffeetreeGymnocladus dioicus
  • TuliptreeLiriodendron tulipifera
  • Black CherryPrunus serotina
  • Black Willow – Salix nigra
  • SassafrassSassafrass albidum

Spring Flowering Shrubs for Butterflies

  • Black Chokeberry Aronia melanocarpa
  • Swamp DogwoodCornus ammomum
  • Roughleaf Dogwood – Cornus drummondii
  • Ninebark Physocarpus opulifolius
  • American Plum – Prunus americana
  • Chokecherry – Prunus virginiana
  • Fragrant Sumac – Rhus aromatica
  • ArrowwoodViburnum dentatum
  • Blackhaw – Viburnum prunifolium

Spring Ephemerals for Butterflies

  • Virginia Bluebells – Mertensia virginica
  • Cutleaf Toothwort – Cardamine concatenata
  • Bloodroot – Sanguinaria canadensis
  • Carolina Anemone – Anemone caroliniana


Once you know who our spring flying butterflies are, you can start looking for them in the spring. Start planting trees, shrubs, and ephemerals to attract these pollinators when many other insects are not yet out and about.

Happy planting!

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