PacSci Perspectives

A Butterfly Buffet Or The Right Flower For The Right Butterfly

by | Oct 5, 2016

Pacific Science Center’s Tropical Butterfly House is home to many species of butterfly and many kinds of flowers. One of our wonderful challenges is making sure that flowers and butterflies match up with nectar sources for all kinds of butterflies with a diverse set of behaviors and body sizes.

Different butterflies have different eating patterns. Swallowtails prefer to eat while flying and will gladly drink nectar from ethereal Powderpuff flowers (Calliandra haematocephala) or Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) which are too slippery to land on. They also seem to have strong color preferences for red flowers and reliably try out any new red blooms we introduce.

Feeding on psiguria

Feeding on Powderpuff

The Longwing butterflies are more often found perched on their nectar source, working their long proboscis into the flower to access nectar. They famously love the Psiguria (Psiguria umbrosa) flowers but also like Jamaican Porterweed (Stachytarphenta jamaicensis). Interestingly, Longwings also seem to favor the Powderpuff – but only after the petals have wilted. Horticulturist Jenn Purnell admits to a conflicting urge to remove all spent Powderpuff flowers immediately and then leave them for the butterflies. Leaving a bit of untidy flower is a small price to pay for happy butterflies.


For a long time, Anartia amathea (Scarlet Peacock) had a longevity problem in our Tropical Butterfly House. Anartia are a cute, active butterfly that wasn’t thriving. Then we introduced the Crown of Thorns (Euphorbia milii) flower and started placing multiples of the plant in conspicuous areas. It turns out that the short proboscis of the Anartia is well adapted to this shallow flower while some of our other blooms were too large for it to access nectar. Now we are seeing great survival rates with some of our Anartia butterflies living for up to six weeks or even two months.

The Idea leuconoe (Paper Kite) butterfly has many flowers it goes to but it seems to simply adore the Golden Trumpet (Allamanda cathartica) flower. Like other butterflies, Idea is just as excited about the sepals after the flower has fallen off and seems to find a rich deposit of nectar that way. These butterflies also adorn the Golden Trumpet tree at night in roosting flocks.

Some butterflies seem to prefer the upper canopy when they feed. Our Chaya tree (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius) provides a great source of nectar that is high off the ground for those butterflies.


A new addition to our butterfly exhibit is the Firebush (Hamelia patens), an unexpected butterfly magnet for many smaller butterflies. This native of the coffee family was originally planted close to the exit door until staff began to worry about the potential risks of butterfly escapes. Horticulture volunteers have now moved the Firebush a safe distance away from the doors.


Not all of our butterflies feed on flower nectar. Look in the fruit dishes if you want to see Owl or Morpho butterflies. A fruit dish is a great spot for taking time and observing feeding behavior – without disturbing the butterflies, of course. You can see their probing proboscis sampling the fruit for juicy spots. Yum!

Next time you’re visiting our Tropical Butterfly House take time to observe which butterflies are attracted to which plants and how they consume their needed calories. You might be amazed at the selection of choices from the butterfly buffet.