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10 Favorite Plants for Attracting Moths, Our Beautiful Unsung Pollinators



The Cecropia Moth is perhaps one of the most magnificent of our native species.

Source: Moths of North America



It's National Moth Week! This means folks from all over the world are participating in a global citizen science project, taking photos of moths they attract or find, and sharing them with conservation organizations. Don't know how to attract moths via moth lights or baiting? Wondering why you should care? Find them fascinating and want to learn about events in our area to geek out with others? Visit the National Moth Week website for plenty of info!


We (the Owens) have always been moth appreciators, and are thrilled to see them getting more media exposure for their importance not only as bioindicators but as critical pollinators (see Brad's recent blog during Pollinator Week). Moths account for over 90% of the Lepidoptera class (only 10% are butterflies), and we've learned that moths pollinate at a faster rate than day-flying insects. They also work harder to get to nectar, visiting many plants that day-flying pollinators ignore. In addition to pollinating lesser-visited plants, they also feed from many of the same species that butterflies, bees and other daytime pollinators visit; this overlap in pollination could be critical at a time when we are observing major declines in pollinator populations. When we consider the massive population of moths combined with their speedy pollination skills and diverse plant selection, that’s quite the argument for planting to attract and feed moths!


In order to support moths as pollinators, we need plants that feed not only the adults, but also their young (note that some adult moths don't eat). Host plants are those you plant for moths and butterflies to lay their eggs on, and they then provide food for the caterpillar life stage. Host plants are essential to support a diversity of moths and butterflies, and indirectly, birds (a baby bird can eat over 500 caterpillars in one day!). The host plants that make the biggest impact are native trees, but many shrubs, grasses and perennials are also vital (and easier to fit in smaller yards).


Below, we list 10 favorite native plants for supporting WNC moths, including both host plants and nectar-producing plants. For a much more extensive list of plants for moths, we highly recommend the book Gardening for Moths.



Witch Hazel, Hamamelis Vernalis or Hamamelis Virginiana

Zone 4-8

H vernalis = 6-10’ tall & 8-15’ wide, H virginiana = 15-20’ tall & wide

Full sun to part shade

Hamamelis vernalis likes moister soils (great for rain gardens), while Hamamelis virginiana prefers lightly moist but well drained soils


A great larval host plant as well as nectar source for over 60 species of moths (including the below Friendly Probole), Witch Hazel also serves as a nesting site and provides seed to several bird species. Various parts of the plant have been used for a range of medicinal purposes by Native Americans as well as modern commercial uses. It’s also beautiful – the yellow or orange, feathery, fragrant blooms cover the branches in late fall to early winter (Common Witch Hazel), or late winter to early spring (Ozark Witch Hazel & many cultivars).

The Friendly Probole is a dainty moth with lovely scalloped wings and detailed patterning.




White or Red Oak, Quercus alba or Quercus rubra

Zone 4-8

50-80’ tall & wide

Full Sun

Dry to medium water, good drainage ideal but can handle a range of soils


Oaks are incredible host plants – providing food to over 550 species of moths and butterflies (including the below Rosy Maple)! Oaks provide beautiful fall color and serve as excellent shade trees once mature (which can take a bit, so be patient!). Acorns are an essential food for a variety of bird and mammal species.


The Rosy Maple Moth is an adorable, vibrantly colored favorite. Look at that fuzzy head!



River Birch, Betula nigra

Zone 4-9

40-70’ tall & 40-60’ wide

Full sun to part shade

Medium to wet soil (great for rain gardens & streamline restoration)


River Birch hosts almost 320 species of moths and butterflies. It grows relatively fast, so can be a faster way to add shade and height to your landscape. The attractive bark, growth habit, silvery leaves, and pretty blooms make it ornamental as well as beneficial.


The Imperial is a glorious and uniquely colored large moth -

our team member Kimberly loves it so much, it's tattooed on her shoulder!




Swamp Rose Mallow, Hibiscus moscheutos

Zone 5-9

3-7’ tall & 2-4’ wide

Full sun

Medium to wet soil (great for rain gardens)

Blooms July - September


Photo credit: US Fish & Wildlife Service, Bob Glennon


This native hibiscus supports 28 species of moths and butterflies. Easy to grow in a range of soils as long as it isn’t allowed to dry out completely. Blooms best in full sun, featuring large showy flowers in shades of white to pink (and cultivars include blooms in rich reds, ombres and deeply contrasting throats). Blooms are also critical for bees, hummingbirds, orioles and more.


The Delightful Bird Dropping Moth definitely fits its name. Yes, that's really its name.




Pussy Willow, Salix discolor

Zone 4-8

Height 6-15’ & Spread 4-12’

Full sun to part shade

Medium to wet soils (great for rain gardens & streamline restoration)

Blooms March-April



Pussy Willow hosts 18 butterflies and moths. It’s also a lovely ornamental shrub, and can be pruned to more of a bushy shape if desired. The catkins, which look like fuzzy kitty toes and make cut flowers, produce an abundance of pollen appreciated by early foraging bees, lepidoptera and other pollinators, while the foliage creates a dense cover that serves as nesting sites for a variety of birds. Varied parts of the plant have been used for centuries for medicinal purposes as well as weaving and wickerwork.




An Io moth - famous for it's massive eyespots.



Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis

Zones 5-9

Height 5-12’ & 4-8’ spread

Full sun to part shade

Moist to fully wet soil

Blooms June



Great for wet areas, placed prone to flooding, rain gardens etc. In June, they’re covered in spherical, fragrant white blooms resembling ornaments, which will be as covered with butterflies, hummingbirds, bees and other pollinators during daylight hours as they will be with moths at night. A fabulous ornamental for naturalizing, preventing erosion, or creating a rain garden , with many wildlife benefits.



A Hydrangea Sphinx - such stunning green! Source: Moths of North Carolina



Highbush Blueberry, Vaccinium corymbosum

Zone 5-8

Height 6-12’ & spread 8-12’

Full sun to part shade

Consistently moist soil w/good drainage & acidic pH is ideal

Blooms May, Fruits Summer


Source: Gardenia.net


Native highbush blueberries host 223 species of lepidoptera, and the nectar supports many bee species as well. The berries are critical food for native and migrating birds, bears, and mammals, and in our diet offer many medicinal benefits in addition to being delicious. Blueberries offer lovely blooms in spring and fall color in addition to the berries; they can be used as hedges or incorporated into an ornamental landscape for both beauty and ecological benefit.


The Polyphemus, a large, showy Silk Moth with giant eye spots to deter predators.




Aromatic or Smooth Aster, Symphyotrichum oblongifolium

Zone 3-8

Height 1-3’ & spread 1-3’

Full sun to part shade

Dry to medium soil moisture

Blooms August – September


Source: Gardenia.net


This aster is host to dozens of lepidoptera as well as many bee species. Blooming in early fall, it is an important nectar source for a wide range of pollinators during a period when many other plants are fading. Aromatic aster is a tough native plant that can tolerate a range of conditions. It is often used in ornamental landscaping as a taller border and is a popular flower for wildlife habitat restoration. The lovely daisy-like blooms are a rich purple-blue, and the foliage is fragrant, making a great cut flower. If you want the wildlife benefits but a less rangy growth habit, there are many lovely nativars with more compact habits.


The Wavy Lined Emerald Moth - small, delicate, and stunning coloration.




Showy Goldenrod (and most Solidago), Solidago speciosa

Zone 3-8

Height 2-3’ & spread 2-3

Dry to medium soil moisture

Blooms July – September



Goldenrod is a host plant to over 120 species of lepidoptera, provides nectar to a range of pollinators including many long and short tongued bees, and the seeds are excellent food for a variety of songbirds. Like asters, it is commonly used in wildlife habitat restoration. Depending on the species, it may bloom anywhere from mid summer to mid fall, and will produce more blooms if deadheaded. The showy, gold blooms will attract and support butterflies galore as well as supporting many moths.


The False Crocus Geometer - another small, delicate moth with unique patterning.




Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium

Zone 3-9

Hieght 2-4’ and spread 1.5-2’

Full sun

Dry to medium soil moisture

Seed heads/blooms August – Winter


Photo credit: Grownative.org, Mervin Wallace


Up to 50 moth species will feed and house in Bluestem and other native prairie grasses. Very ornamental, with a variety of colors within one clump of grass and airy seed heads. A great medium to taller border. Good in rain gardens but can also be drought tolerant once established and overall tolerates a range of conditions. Great support for bees, pollinators and birds alike both providing food and housing.

The Large Yellow Underwing - very camouflaged until it flashes the bright mustard lower wings.




Join me in geeking out about Moth Week, and in gardening for moths! Below is one of my all-time favorite moths (both the larval and adult form) - host plants include Ash, Walnut, Sumac, Sweetgum and Persimmon trees. We raised them several times as kids, and those caterpillars sure are a hit - Dad took one to his office and people didn't believe it was real!


The Hickory Horned Devil Caterpillar


The Royal Walnut Moth is the adult.


Last but not least, a photo of an Imperial Moth in Betsy's garden this week -

just look at that cute, fuzzy face!




Sources:

‘Gardening for Moths – A regional guide’. Jim McCormac & Chelsea Gottfried


‘Moths are more efficient pollinators than bees, shows new research’


Moths do the pollinator night shift – and they work harder than daytime insects’


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