Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly Host Plant: Your Ultimate Guide

folder_openInsecta, Lepidoptera
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The zebra swallowtail butterfly is a stunning species with greenish-white wings marked by bold black stripes. As a butterfly enthusiast, you may be interested in creating a garden that attracts and supports these beautiful creatures. One essential element to consider is the host plant, which serves as a vital resource for the zebra swallowtail’s caterpillar stage.

In the case of the zebra swallowtail butterfly, their caterpillar host plant is the pawpaw (Asimina triloba) tree. By incorporating this native plant into your garden, you can provide a suitable habitat that encourages the growth and development of zebra swallowtail butterflies. Pawpaw trees also have the added bonus of producing delicious fruit that you can enjoy.

When you create a space that includes native host plants like the pawpaw tree, not only will you be supporting the lifecycle of the zebra swallowtail butterfly, but you’ll also contribute to a thriving ecosystem that benefits various pollinators and wildlife.

Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly – An Overview

The Zebra Swallowtail butterfly, scientifically known as Protographium marcellus, is a unique and remarkable butterfly. You’ll be enchanted by its distinct black and white stripes.

As you observe its triangular wings, you’ll find blue spots and long tail-like extensions on the hindwings. While both males and females have these features, there may be slight differences between them.

Zebra Swallowtails have a fascinating life cycle. They primarily rely on pawpaw trees as their host plants, where they lay their eggs. When the caterpillars hatch, they feed on the pawpaw leaves. As they grow, they eventually morph into the striking adult butterflies you see fluttering around.

It’s essential to maintain a friendly environment for these butterflies, as they contribute to pollination. By planting pawpaw trees in your garden, you can invite these captivating creatures into your space. Just remember to cherish their presence responsibly and appreciate the role they play in nature.

Life Cycle of the Zebra Swallowtail

The life cycle of the zebra swallowtail butterfly consists of four stages: eggs, caterpillar, chrysalis, and adult butterfly.


Zebra swallowtail butterflies lay their small, green eggs on the leaves of their host plant, the pawpaw tree. Once laid, it takes about a week for the eggs to hatch.


When the tiny caterpillars emerge from the eggs, they are green with a black stripe across their humped third segment. As they grow, they develop yellow and white bands across their bodies. This coloration provides effective camouflage as they feed on the green pawpaw leaves. After several weeks of munching on their preferred food, the caterpillars will have grown considerably and will be ready to transform into a chrysalis.


In this stage, the zebra swallowtail caterpillar forms a chrysalis, which can appear either green or black depending on its surroundings. This protective casing helps them blend in with their environment, providing additional camouflage. The caterpillar remains in the chrysalis for about two weeks, undergoing a remarkable transformation.

Adult Butterfly

Once the metamorphosis is complete, the fully-grown zebra swallowtail butterfly emerges from the chrysalis. With their stunning black and white stripes and long hindwing tails, these butterflies are truly a sight to behold. As adults, they begin searching for mates to continue the life cycle and lay the next generation of eggs on the pawpaw tree leaves.

The Zebra Swallowtail and Its Host Plant

Zebra swallowtail butterflies are an exquisite species with black and white stripes on their wings. But have you ever wondered what their host plant is? Well, the answer is the Pawpaw tree.

Pawpaw trees are the primary larval host plant for zebra swallowtail caterpillars. These trees provide a perfect environment and appropriate nutrients for the growth and development of the caterpillars. As a result, zebra swallowtails heavily rely on pawpaw trees for their survival.

Some key features of the pawpaw tree include:

  • Small to medium-sized tree
  • Large, drooping leaves that turn yellow in the fall
  • Produces sweet, fragrant fruit

As a zebra swallowtail enthusiast, you might want to plant a few pawpaw trees in your garden. By doing so, you’ll create a haven for these beautiful butterflies, allowing them to lay eggs and flourish. In return, you’ll have the opportunity to observe and enjoy their charming presence in your backyard regularly.

Have fun witnessing the beautiful zebra swallowtail butterflies and learning more about their intriguing relationship with pawpaw trees!

Feeding Habits and Diet

In their caterpillar stage, zebra swallowtail butterflies rely on a specific host plant. Their larvae feed primarily on pawpaw (Asimina triloba) as their main diet. As caterpillars, they munch on the leaves of this plant to grow and develop.

Adult zebra swallowtails, however, have a different diet. They feed on flower nectar from various plants, which provides them with energy. This nectar serves as a source of essential minerals, amino acids, and salts for the butterflies.

Some flowers that attract zebra swallowtails include:

  • Milkweed
  • Phlox
  • Butterfly bush
  • Lantana

As they drink flower nectar, these butterflies also obtain moisture, which is crucial for their survival. In addition to nectar, zebra swallowtails may occasionally consume fruits to obtain more minerals and nourishment.

Here’s a comparison table showcasing the feeding habits and diet of zebra swallowtails in different life stages:

Life stage Diet
Caterpillars (larvae) Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) leaves
Adult butterflies Flower nectar, fruits, minerals

In conclusion, zebra swallowtails have varying feeding habits depending on their life stage. Caterpillars feed exclusively on pawpaw leaves, while adult butterflies rely on flower nectar, fruits, and minerals for sustenance.

Habitat and Distribution

You can find Zebra Swallowtail butterflies in various regions across the United States and even in some parts of southern Canada. These butterflies prefer habitats that are moist and filled with low woodlands, such as fields and meadows.

As a nature enthusiast, you might have come across a field guide offering insights into different butterfly species. While exploring the various habitats, you’ll likely spot Zebra Swallowtail butterflies in these moist, low woodland areas.

For example, some common locations to find them include:

  • Along the edges of woods and streams
  • In meadows and open fields
  • In parks and gardens with proper host plants

When it comes to their host plants, Zebra Swallowtail caterpillars primarily rely on the leaves of Passionflower vine for nourishment. By providing these host plants in your garden, you can contribute to the conservation and thriving of these beautiful butterflies.

Compared to other butterfly species, the Zebra Swallowtail has a relatively specific habitat preference. So, as you explore the outdoors, keep an eye out for these mesmerizing butterflies in moist, low woodland areas.

Threats and Predators

Zebra swallowtail butterflies, like other butterfly species, face numerous threats in their environment, particularly from predators.

Birds are one of the primary predators of these butterflies. Some of the avian species that prey on these winged beauties include robins, bluejays, and mockingbirds. Birds are attracted to their colorful wings and can easily catch them in flight or while they are stationary.

Camouflage plays an essential role in the survival of zebra swallowtail butterflies. Their distinct black and white stripes enable them to blend in with the natural environment, reducing their visibility to predators. This vital adaptation helps them avoid predation and prolong their lives.

Other predators of zebra swallowtail butterflies include spiders, praying mantises, ants, and even some species of moths. These invertebrate predators will often attack the caterpillars or pupae stage of the zebra swallowtail life cycle.

To help zebra swallowtail butterflies thrive, it’s essential to educate ourselves about their host plants and their predators. Awareness and conservation efforts can contribute to a healthy ecosystem that supports these beautiful creatures and their essential role as pollinators. And as an added benefit, maintaining host plants in your garden can attract more butterflies, providing a mesmerizing display of color and grace all season long.

Role in the Ecosystem

As a zebra swallowtail butterfly, you play a crucial part in the ecosystem as a pollinator. Your journey from caterpillar to butterfly revolves around your host plant, the pawpaw (Asimina triloba). As a caterpillar, you feed on its leaves, ingesting the plant’s natural toxins, which help protect you from predators.

During your transformation into an adult butterfly, you contribute to the pollination process while searching for nectar in different flowers. As a pollinator, you aid in the reproduction of various plant species, positively affecting the health and biodiversity of your ecosystem. In this role, you are part of a larger group of insects and arthropods that also serve as pollinators.

Some key points about the zebra swallowtail butterfly’s role in the ecosystem include:

  • Host plant: Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)
  • Protection: Ingesting plant toxins helps deter predators
  • Pollination: Contributes to the reproduction and health of various plant species
  • Ecosystem health: Supports biodiversity alongside other pollinators

In summary, your role as a zebra swallowtail butterfly is vital in maintaining ecosystem balance. As you go through your life cycle, you help sustain the host plant and contribute to the pollination process, supporting the growth of countless other plants. Your presence encourages the well-being of your ecosystem alongside the efforts of countless other insects and arthropods.

Creating a Suitable Environment in Your Yard

To attract the beautiful Zebra Swallowtail butterfly to your yard, it’s essential to provide a suitable environment. One important aspect is to have their host plant, the pawpaw tree, which they rely on during their caterpillar stage.

Pawpaw trees are understory trees, meaning they thrive in the shade provided by taller trees. So, to create an ideal butterfly garden, consider planting pawpaw trees in a partially shaded area of your yard. To help your pawpaw trees grow, follow these tips:

  • Plant the trees in well-draining soil.
  • Ensure they receive some dappled sunlight throughout the day.
  • Maintain a consistent moisture level in the soil.

In addition to pawpaw trees, fill your butterfly garden with a variety of nectar-rich flowering plants. Here are some examples:

  • Purple Coneflower
  • Butterfly Bush
  • Lantana
  • Milkweed

These plants not only support the adult Zebra Swallowtails but also provide food sources for a diverse range of pollinators.

Finally, provide shelter and resting spots for the butterflies:

  • Put up flat stones for them to bask in the sun.
  • Create small, shallow puddles for the butterflies to get water and nutrients.

By following these steps, you can create a welcoming environment in your yard, and help support the lifecycle of the stunning Zebra Swallowtail butterfly.

Scientific Classification and Studies

The zebra swallowtail butterfly, scientifically known as Protographium marcellus (formerly Eurytides marcellus), belongs to the family Papilionidae within the order Lepidoptera, making it a member of the insect world 12. As part of the Arthropods phylum, its classification is as follows:

  • Phylum: Arthropoda
  • Class: Insecta
  • Order: Lepidoptera
  • Family: Papilionidae
  • Genus: Protographium (Previously Eurytides)
  • Species: P. marcellus (Previously E. marcellus)

This unique butterfly has been studied by experts like Donald W. Hall and Jerry F. Butler at the University of Florida3. It has also been mentioned in works published by esteemed institutions like Harvard University and Oxford University Press4. Some early documentation of this species was carried out by Cramer, who described it under the name of Papilio Ajax5.

The zebra swallowtail butterfly relies on two primary plant families as host plants for their caterpillars: Rosaceae and Annonaceae6. These caterpillars feed on the leaves of these plants, attaining nourishment necessary for their growth and transformation into butterflies.

Key Characteristics of Zebra Swallowtail Caterpillars:

  • Bluish-green color
  • Crossed with yellow and white bands
  • Wider black band across the humped third segment
  • Feeds on Rosaceae and Annonaceae plants

In your garden, you can attract the beautiful zebra swallowtail butterfly by planting varieties from these host plant families. This way, you contribute to the conservation of this species while also creating a visually enchanting space for you to admire.

Asimina Triloba and Other Varieties

Asimina triloba, commonly known as pawpaw, is a deciduous tree native to North America. It serves as the primary host plant for the zebra swallowtail butterfly. These butterflies lay their eggs on the leaves, and once hatched, the caterpillars feed on them. Other species of the Asimina genus, like Asimina angustifolia, are also utilized as host plants, especially in the deep South source.

Pawpaw trees thrive in moist, well-drained soil, and can grow up to 40 feet in height. When planting Asimina triloba or Asimina angustifolia, it’s crucial to provide these conditions to support healthy growth for both the plant and its zebra swallowtail residents.

  • Asimina Triloba:
    • Primary host for zebra swallowtail butterflies
    • Can grow up to 40 feet tall
    • Thrives in moist, well-drained soil
  • Asimina Angustifolia:
    • Utilized as host plant in the deep South
    • Prefers similar growing conditions to Asimina triloba

The leaves of Asimina trees contain a group of compounds called annonaceous acetogenins. These compounds deter predators and pests, protecting the tree from harm. Acetogenins are not only beneficial to the plant but also to the zebra swallowtail caterpillars. By feeding on the leaves, the caterpillars can incorporate these compounds into their bodies, making them toxic to potential predators. This provides a unique advantage for the zebra swallowtails, as their association with Asimina trees offers natural protection.

To summarize, pawpaw trees like Asimina triloba and Asimina angustifolia are essential hosts for zebra swallowtail butterflies, providing them with a safe haven for their lifecycle. By ensuring the adequate growing conditions for these plants, you can create a suitable environment to support zebra swallowtails in your garden.

Comparison with Other Butterfly Species

When exploring the world of swallowtail butterflies, you’ll find the zebra swallowtail (Protographium marcellus) stands out for its unique features and host plant preferences. Let’s compare it to other swallowtail species, such as the tiger swallowtail.

  • Zebra swallowtails have distinct black and white stripes, while tiger swallowtails are primarily yellow with black stripes.
  • The zebra swallowtail caterpillars feed exclusively on pawpaw (Asimina triloba) plants, whereas the black swallowtail caterpillars prefer parsley, dill, fennel, and other plants in the parsley family1.

While both swallowtails belong to the order Insecta, they have some differences in their distribution and preferred nectar plants. For instance:

  • Zebra swallowtails are found in the eastern United States, while tiger swallowtails are found throughout North America.
  • Both species are attracted to butterfly bushes, but zebra swallowtails also enjoy nectar from verbena and milkweed plants.

Let’s look at a comparison table to summarize the main differences:

Feature Zebra Swallowtail Tiger Swallowtail
Wingspan 6-10 cm (2.4-3.9 inches) 7.9-14 cm (3.1-5.5 inches)
Distribution Eastern United States Throughout North America
Host Plant(s) Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) Parsley family
Nectar Plant(s) Butterfly Bush, Verbena, Milkweed Butterfly Bush

Now you know the main differences between zebra swallowtails and other swallowtail butterfly species. This knowledge can help you choose suitable host and nectar plants for your butterfly garden to attract these beautiful creatures.

Red Spot and Other Unique Features

The Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly is a fascinating creature with some truly unique features. One of its most striking characteristics is the red spot on its hindwing. This vibrant spot adds a pop of color to the butterfly’s otherwise black and white pattern. Let’s take a closer look at some of the other interesting aspects of this butterfly:

  • Bold black and white stripes: The Zebra Swallowtail has distinctive black and white stripes, making it easy to recognize and one of the most beautiful swallowtails.
  • Long hindwing tails: These butterflies have elongated tails on their hindwings, which can vary in length depending on the season. Summer individuals have wider black stripes and longer tails than spring individuals.
  • Greenish-white wings: The wings of the Zebra Swallowtail have a greenish-white hue, adding to their eye-catching appearance.

When it comes to their habitat, Zebra Swallowtails rely on specific host plants. The caterpillars feed on the leaves of Pawpaw trees, which help them grow into vibrant adult butterflies. As nectar plants are essential for adult butterflies, you’ll often find Zebra Swallowtails visiting wildflowers to sip nectar.

In summary, the Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly is a unique and beautiful species characterized by its red spot, black and white striped pattern, and long hindwing tails. These features, alongside its specific host plant needs, make it a captivating subject to study and observe in nature.


  1. https://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/bfly/zebra_swallowtail.htm 2

  2. https://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/zebra-swallowtail

  3. https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/wildflowers/butterfly/zebra-swallowtail/

  4. https://www.uky.edu/hort/butterflies/Zebra-swallowtail

  5. https://www.fws.gov/story/2022-06/beautiful-zebra-swallowtail-butterfly

  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2606702/

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Zebra Longwing and Bordered Patch


I hate winter
While I know it’s winter in the USA I thought you might like some photos that were actually taken in the good ole USA. These were taken earlier this year when it was actually warmer and things were moving around. The country or as we think of it is Texas. Austin that is. I do enjoy seeing bugs from around the world though. You guys are great and very helpful. Can’t wait for it to warm up and see what appears in my yard this year. Hope you all have a great 2008.

Zebra Longwing Bordered Patch

Hi Scott,
Thanks for sending us your butterfly images. Though we have received previous images of both the Zebra Longwing and the Bordered Patch, they are underrepresented on our site.

Letter 2 – Zebra Longwing Caterpillar


What’s this caterpillar?
Hi! I’m glad I found your website. I was out weeding and found several of these caterpillars on morning glory leaves in Miami, FL. I didn’t see any others on your website. What is it? Thanks,

Hi Bill,
We were just going through some older emails we did not have a chance to open earlier in the week and discovered your photo. We are thrilled to have received your image of a Zebra Longwing Caterpillar, Heliconius charitonius, but we wonder if you have mistaken its typical food plant, the Passion Vine, for a Morning Glory.

Letter 3 – Zebra Longwing Caterpillar


Subject: White Caterpillar with black spots
Location: South Florida
April 11, 2014 12:58 pm
Hey bugman!
We have a few of these critters outside of our office building just hanging out in the bushes. I live in South Florida and this is my first time seeing this kind of bug. We’re not sure if it will be a moth or butterfly.
It is a white caterpillar with black spots and black spines. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated!
Thanks in advance
Signature: Amber K

Zebra Longwing Caterpillar
Zebra Longwing Caterpillar

Dear Amber K,
This distinctive caterpillar is a Zebra Longwing Caterpillar,
Heliconius charithonia, and some of the bushes outside your office building must have passionflower growing on them.  Adult Zebra Longwings are lovely brown and yellow striped butterflies with forewings nearly twice the length of the hindwings.  See BugGuide for additional information and images.

Zebra Longwing Caterpillar
Zebra Longwing Caterpillar

Letter 4 – Zebra Longwing emerges from Chrysalis


Subject: Newly Emerged Zebra Longwing
Location: Orlando, Florida
August 5, 2012 2:00 pm
Hi Bugman. I couldn’t resist sharing this photo of a Zebra Longwing that I raised in a habitat and released after it’s fourth instar. It soon made it’s chrysalis on our passion vine and came out beautiful. We have a problem with large ants, wasps and lizards and lose a lot of caterpillars when they are young. So, I decided to rescue this one right after it hatched. I feel like a proud parent.
Signature: Elizabeth

Zebra Longwing emerges from Chrysalis

Hi Elizabeth,
Because of your positive intervention in the life of this Zebra Longwing, we are tagging this posting with the Bug Humanitarian Award.

Letter 5 – Zebra Longwing Metamorphosis and Mating, and Julia Caterpillar


Follow-up on Zebra Longwing caterpillar
I just love your site! 🙂 Thanks again for letting me know that I had Zebra Longwing caterpillars on a passion vine. I had followed them through the stages and have attached additional pictures of the cacoon and adults on a cacoon.

Lastly. I have now found a SECOND different caterpillar on the same passion vine. It has the same spikes as the Zebra Longwing but it is differently colored. Do you know what this caterpillar is? Thanks.
Miami, FL

Wow Bill,
That is one impressive looking Chrysalis. We have never seen the Chrysalis or Pupa of a Zebra Longwing. It is very ornate. It appears that the Zebra Longwing adults are mating, and we suspect the caterpillar might be the coloration of an earlier instar. Caterpillars molt four times, once after each of the five instars or growth phase. On many species, each instar is a different color with different markings. After the fifth molt is the Chrysalis stage. Your metamorphosis series is a fabulous addition to our site.

Correction: (08/14/2007) caterpillar id
hello there!
I have long looked through your site and never contacted you! I have been interested in bugs for some time since I was little, and now i’m 17 and going to Cornell U for entomology (which was my dream!)! I’ve worked at a butterfly vivarium for 5 years now, and I’m very much into rearing and raising moths and butterflies, especially the Saturniids!! I have a bunch of Actias selene (indian moon moth) eclosing at the moment, which I will gladly photograph and send in!! My email actually pertains to a picture I came across on your caterpillar page! it was on the caterpillars 10 link, and the date was 6/29/2007, of the zebra longwing chrysalis and butterflies. The caterpillar is not an early instar of the zebra; it’s a julia butterfly (Dryas iulia) caterpillar. The zebras remain white with black spots for their entire life, except when they are first and second instar babies, and look sort of yellowish! I hope you don’t mind my input!!
Jeff Petracca

Letter 6 – Zebra Longwing Metamorphosis and Mating, and possibly early instar Caterpillar


Follow-up on Zebra Longwing caterpillar
I just love your site! 🙂 Thanks again for letting me know that I had Zebra Longwing caterpillars on a passion vine. I had followed them through the stages and have attached additional pictures of the cacoon and adults on a cacoon.

Lastly. I have now found a SECOND different caterpillar on the same passion vine. It has the same spikes as the Zebra Longwing but it is differently colored. Do you know what this caterpillar is? Thanks.
Miami, FL

Wow Bill,
That is one impressive looking Chrysalis. We have never seen the Chrysalis or Pupa of a Zebra Longwing. It is very ornate. It appears that the Zebra Longwing adults are mating, and we suspect the caterpillar might be the coloration of an earlier instar. Caterpillars molt four times, once after each of the five instars or growth phase. On many species, each instar is a different color with different markings. After the fifth molt is the Chrysalis stage. Your metamorphosis series is a fabulous addition to our site.

Letter 7 – Zebra Spiders and Fly


Who rang the dinnerbell?
Hi again Bugman,
In answer to your question to my previous email with the toe-biter, Yes I do quilt 🙂 After showing my five year old that our "Mr Snickers" had made it onto your website, and was now "Famous" he wanted to go out to look for more bugs. I said ok figuring we wouldnt get anything any good. Im certain the title of my email spells it out. Im sure that these must be some kind of jumping spider…my house and garage are usually bombarded with these all summer..they move quite quick in jumping type movements…and are all different colors and patterns. They are relatively small. I watched these guys after snapping the picture, and the one with the fly wanted to make sure the other knew that possesion is 9/10ths of the law. It took a bit of a lunge at the lurking foodless guy, and he turned spider tail and beat all his spider feet out of there. figured you might like it for your foodchain page 🙂
May Cross
Alanson MI
ps..are these spiders venoumous? but not worried either way as these dont seem to bother anyone anyway

Hi again May,
We suspected you were a quilter when we saw the grid you used for the Toe-Biter. We have become obsessed with buying fabrics with insect prints and making quilts from them. Your spiders are in fact Jumping Spiders in the family Salticidae. All Spiders have venom, but Jumping Spiders are not dangerous as their venom has at most a mild effect on humans, if they are even capable of breaking the skin. Eric Eaton wrote in: ” The jumping spiders are the cute little Zebra Spider, Salticus scenicus.”


  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

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  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

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Tags: Zebra Swallowtails

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3 Comments. Leave new

  • I believe the orange caterpillar pictured is a Julia . The other orange spiked caterpillar that feasts on passionvine is a Gulf Fritillary. I raise and release these native butterflies, here in South Florida, along with monarchs, and
    black swallowtails.

  • I believe the orange caterpillar pictured is a Julia . The other orange spiked caterpillar that feasts on passionvine is a Gulf Fritillary. I raise and release these native butterflies, here in South Florida, along with monarchs, and
    black swallowtails.

  • The ants just ate a new chrysalis of a zebra longwing. What to do? Must I re-locate each chrysalis?


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