Spring Butterfly Guide

Look for these eight early spring butterflies in the Philadelphia region.

Lengthening days, crocuses popping up through the snow, and a rise of the morning bird chorus are all signs of the turning of the season from winter to spring. As the weather warms, the insects too begin to rouse from their winter dormancy. Certain butterfly species are the first to take advantage of the favorable weather. They too are a sign of spring. Have you seen them? We present 8 of these species below! 

The photos of museum specimens in this post were taken by curatorial staff in the Academy’s entomology research collection. The work is part of the Lepidoptera of North America Network (LepNet) initiative to photograph and transcribe the data of 1.7 million moth and butterfly specimen records. The result is a collection of digitized moth and butterfly data that is ready to be used for systematic, ecological, and global change research.  The LepNet photos have also been used to calibrate AI moth and butterfly identification. Download and try out the app, “Leps” today!  https://leps.fieldguide.ai/

Dorsal side – top of the butterfly
Ventral side – bottom of the butterfly

1. Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) 

The dorsal (top) side of a Cabbage White butterfly.
The photos of scientific specimens include a scale bar for size, a color plate for color calibration, a barcode and human-readable unique code for specimen identification, and a label with collection information such as locality, date, and the collector’s name.
The ventral (bottom) side of a Cabbage White butterfly.

Interesting facts:  The Cabbage White is the most abundant butterfly in North America, but is an introduced species from Europe. It arrived in North America in 1860 in Quebec and was already in Philadelphia by 1873 as shown in our historic  Peale Collection of Butterflies and described as common in Philadelphia by 1889.  It has remained so. 

What do I plant to encourage it?  It needs no encouraging! If you have planted cabbage, broccoli and other similar plants in the Cabbage/Mustard family then you have likely seen the caterpillars, or their feeding damage on your plants!  It is a pest of home gardens and farms. But they will feed on wild members of this plant family as well. 

Where can I see it? This species is common everywhere as early as March including urban and suburban gardens.  If you are out in more natural areas then you might look closely at white butterflies to see if you have seen the following species, the Falcate Orangetip.

2. Falcate Orangetip (Anthocharis midea 

The dorsal tip of the male Falcate Orangetip butterfly’s wings are bright orange!
The wings of dorsal side of the the female Falcate Orangetip butterfly are less colorful.

Interesting facts:  This species can be common but very locally distributed – so keep your eyes out for a white butterfly with a flash of orange (the orange tip on the male wings!).  The forewing shape, the marbling on the underside of the hind wing, and the bright orange spot on the forewings of males easily distinguishes this species from the much more common Cabbage White.  Adults have a more limited period of daily activity than the Cabbage White, flying from about 10:00 AM to 2:30 PM on warm Spring days. 

What do I plant to encourage it?  The invasive Garlic Mustard has crowded out its native plant hosts. You can support this native butterfly through cultivating a variety of wild North American mustards, including Arabis spp. (rock cress) and Toothwort a.k.a. crinkle root, Cardamine [formerly Dentaria] diphylla.

Where can I see it? Visit woodland areas in southern New Jersey.   

 3. Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) 

The dorsal side of the Mourning Cloak butterfly’s wings are brown with a fringe of blue and yellow, which contributes to the funeral cloak look that gives them their common name.
The ventral side of the Mourning Cloak butterfly’s wings are less dazzling in coloration.

Interesting fact: They hibernate as adults! Therefore, they are ready and able to emerge in the winter on sunny days to fly and feed. Adults shelter for the winter under bark, in the hollow of a tree or the crack between stones, and sometimes even in garages or garden sheds!  They also aestivate (a form of summer “hibernation”) during midsummer. 

The common name (a direct translation of the German colloquial name Trauermantel ) refers to the funereal color of the adult wings, but the British call this widespread species by a happier name, the “Camberwell Beauty” (after the former Borough of Camberwell in South London where an entomologist first discovered this rare stray to the British Isles in 1748.) 

What do I plant to encourage it?  Host plants for the caterpillars of this species include Salix spp. (Willows), Ulmus spp. (Elms), and Celtis spp. (Hackberry). 

Where can I see it? Woodlands in the region.  The forest trails behind Pennypack Environmental Center are a reliable place to see this butterfly. 

4. Comma (Polygonia comma) 

The dorsal view of the Comma butterfly.
The ventral view of the Comma butterfly. See the “comma” on the lower wings?

Interesting fact: Like the Mourning Cloak, adult butterflies hibernate and emerge on warm days in the winter. So named Comma because of the silver “comma” mark visible on the hind wing when the wings are closed.  This species exhibits polyphenism (different color patterns in different generations), with the summer generation “form” having much darker dorsal hindwings than the overwintering generation that emerges in late Summer/Fall. 

What do I plant to encourage it?  Caterpillars feed on nettle and elm families of plants, but like those of us brewing their own beer this species also loves hops! In fact one of the older common names for this species is The Hop Merchant. 

Where can I see it? Woodlands in Fairmount Park and suburban Philadelphia, e.g. forest trails behind Pennypack Environmental Center.   

5. Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis) 

The dorsal view of the Question Mark butterfly.
The ventral view of the Question Mark butterfly. There is a subtle question mark shaped marking on the lower wings.

Interesting fact:  Like the Mourning Cloak and Comma, the adult butterflies hibernate and emerge on warm days in the winter.  The adults exhibit polyphenism like the Comma, with the summer generation having darker dorsal hindwings than the overwintering generation. 

This species is named Question Mark because of the silver “question mark” visible on the hind wing when the wings are closed.   

In freshly emerged specimens there is a beautiful violet cast to the wings. 

This species is more likely to feed on rotting fruit or tree sap then to visit a flower for nectar. 

What do I plant to encourage it?  Caterpillars can be found on stinging and false nettles but also hackberry and hops.   

Where can I see it? Woodlands in the region. 

6. Elfins:  Brown Elfin (Callophrys augustinus), Pine Elfin (Callophrys niphon)

The dorsal view of the Brown Elfin.
The ventral view of the Brown Elfin.
The ventral view of the Pine Elfin.
The dorsal view of the Pine Elfin.

Interesting facts:   As their name implies, these are small butterflies, with intricate brown, grey and silvery wing patterns which match well when they land on a sandy path or leaf litter.  Males of the Pine Elfin often perch and fight for territories on the upper branches of sunlit pine trees from mid-day to late afternoon. 

There are four species and we are showing the two commonest species, the Brown Elfin and the Pine Elfin. 

What do I plant to encourage it?   These two elfin species have quite different host plant requirements.   

Brown Elfin: Caterpillars feed on blueberries (Vaccinium spp.) and mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia).  

Pine Elfin: Caterpillars feed on young needles of native pines (Pitch and Virginia pines). 

Where can I see it? New Jersey Pine Barrens is best.  Both species can be found at the Franklin Parker Preserve near Chatsworth. 

Brown elfin photo by Stephen Mason
A “fresh” Brown Elfin ovipositing an egg on a Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) flower bud. Like many Gossamer-winged butterflies (Lycaenidae), the caterpillar feeds on flowers, so by the time the egg hatches, there will fresh flowers for it to feast on. Photo by Stephen Mason.

7. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) 

The ventral view of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. See why it has “tiger” in the name? Check out those stripes!

Interesting fact: Females can be found in two color forms, the yellow and black striped as in the male (“tiger” striping), but also an overall dark form (dark stripes can be still slightly visible).  It is thought this dark form is mimicking the Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor ), which is distasteful to birds.   

What do I plant to encourage it?  Tulip Poplar/Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) is commonly used by caterpillars, but Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) is also commonly used.  

Where can I see it? Woodlands in Fairmount Park and suburban Philadelphia in early spring, but this species can be a common visitor to suburban gardens in the summer. 

8. Zebra Swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus) 

The dorsal view of the Zebra Swallowtail. They have black and white stripes like a zebra.

Interesting fact:  This is a very early emerging species from overwintering pupae with adults flying in late March and early April before there are leaves on trees. 

The adults of the Spring generation are quite small compared to most other swallowtails. This Spring brood adults typically have shorter hindwing “tails”,  and the subsequent generations have proportionally longer “tails” on their hindwings.   

What do I plant to encourage it?   Pawpaw trees (Asimina triloba).  This is a sought after native tree in suburban yards for its unusual edible fruit. 

Where can I see it? This species is rare in Philadelphia and its immediate vicinity but can be readily seen further south where pawpaw grows in the forest in Delaware and the Elk Neck peninsula of northeastern Maryland. 


Have you seen these butterflies out and flying yet? Let us know in the comments below. 



Additional Remarks and Resources: 

If you like photographing butterflies, you see and want some help in identifying, you might enjoy this app for your phone which has a built-in algorithm to identify the species from a photo you submit: iNaturalist https://www.inaturalist.org/  

If you want a paper field guide to have around the garden or out on your walk, we recommend this one for this region: 

A Field Guide to Eastern Butterflies (Peterson Field Guide Series). By Paul A. Opler In paperback. 512 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN: 0395904536 

https://smile.amazon.com/Field-Eastern-Butterflies-Peterson-Guides/dp/0395904536

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/a-field-guide-to-eastern-butterflies-roger-tory-peterson/1119268694 
If you choose to purchase through Amazon, consider purchasing through AmazonSmile. Amazon will donate .5% of your purchase amount to the Academy if you designate us as your preferred charity. Now, we know that .5% doesn’t sound like a lot—but it adds up! 

Some references with more information on butterflies for our region include: 

For the most recent sightings of butterflies in New Jersey check out the South Jersey Butterfly Project https://sjbutterflies.org/ 

Butterflies of Pennsylvania: A Field Guide. 2017, by James L. Monroe and David M. Wright.  In paperback. https://upittpress.org/books/9780822964551/  

Butterflies of New Jersey.  1997. by Michael Gochfeld and Joanna Burger.  in paperback.  https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ISBN=0813523540/103-2305405-0687859  

Butterflies of the East Coast: An Observer’s Guide.  2007.  by Rick Cech and Guy Tudor. In paperback.  Princeton Univ. Press. https://smile.amazon.com/Butterflies-East-Coast-Observers-Guide/dp/0691090564 

Butterflies & Skippers (Lepidoptera: Papilionoidea, Hesperioidea) of the Franklin Parker Preserve, Burlington County, New Jersey.   2015. By Stephen C. Mason Jr. Transactions of the American Entomological Society, 141(3):351-368  download http://taes.entomology-aes.org/modules/articles#/manuscripts  

Butterflies and Moths of North America:  https://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/

5 comments

  1. I loved the pictures of the Butterflies. I’m sad to say there were a number that I don’t remember seeing. I know I do see some small white ones but not quite like the ones pictured. I’m going to print some of the pictures and keep them handy when I am outside in my yard. I like that the focus of the article was butterflies that you can see in our area. I also liked the comments under “interesting facts” and “how to attract the butterflies.” I will look more carefully and critically now when I see a butterfly

  2. Thank you, This guide is very useful for identifying butterflies and deciding what plants to grow in my yard.

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