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Butterflies - Black Swallowtail

Updated on January 7, 2016
naturegirl7 profile image

Yvonne has been photographing and studying birds for 40+ years. She maintains bird and butterfly gardens in her Louisiana backyard habitat.

Black Swallowtail Laying on Bronze Fennel

Eastern Black Swallowtail Female
Eastern Black Swallowtail Female | Source

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)

The Eastern Black Swallowtail is a common garden butterfly in the south as well as the east and desert southwest. It's larval food plant are both wild and cultivated members of the parsley family including dill and fennel so it can be found where ever there are culinary herbs.

The female Eastern Black Swallowtail is often confused with other blackish swallowtails like the Pipevine and the Spicebush.

Here you will find photographs of some Black Swallowtail butterflies and information about identifying and attracting Eastern Black Swallowtail butterflies. Photos of the stages of the life cycle of this butterfly are also included.

The study of the life cycle of the butterfly and observing nature is an excellent topic of study for children, whether home school or in the classroom.

Eastern Black Swallowtail

Female with worn wings
Female with worn wings | Source

Laying Eggs

Laying eggs on Fennel
Laying eggs on Fennel | Source


E. Black Swallowtail Caterpillars on Fennel
E. Black Swallowtail Caterpillars on Fennel | Source


Black Swallowtail Chrysalis
Black Swallowtail Chrysalis | Source

Butterfly Life Cycle

Female and Male Eastern Black Swallowtails are marked differently. The males have mostly black "shoulders" with a bright yellow band along the lower margin. In females the yellow band is reduced to small spots on the forewing and is replaced by blue scaling on the hindwing. This blue area makes them look similar to pipevine swallowtails and even spicebush.

If you see a black butterfly with blue scaling on the hindwing laying eggs on members of the parsley family (both wild and domesticated), dill or fennel, you can rest assured that it is an Eastern Black Swallowtail.

The eggs are cream colored and round. When they hatch in a few days, the caterpillars are so tiny and dark, that you can hardly see them.

As they grow, the green, yellow and black striping becomes more apparent.

Some butterfly gardeners who also enjoy parsley, dill and fennel will plant a patch just for the swallowtails in the back of the garden and move the caterpillars to that area. We usually just plant three times more than we can eat, so there will be enough for all.

If they are not eaten by a predator or picked off by a gardener, they form a chrysalis.

After a few weeks in the pupal stage, the chrysalis splits open and the butterfly emerges.

Home school teachers may want to plant a patch of parsley, dill and/or fennel and have their students make daily observations, recording when the eggs were laid.  The size of the caterpillars from hatching to pupating, etc.  Scientific observation is an important and useful learning skill.

Spicebush Swallowtail

Spicebush Swallowtails have a blue streak in the row of orange dots.
Spicebush Swallowtails have a blue streak in the row of orange dots. | Source

Pipevine Swallowtail on Vervain

Pipevine Swallowtails are also confused with E. Blacks.
Pipevine Swallowtails are also confused with E. Blacks. | Source

Other Blackish Swallowtails

The Spicebush Swallowtail (top picture) is often confused with black swallowtails. The best way to tell them apart is to look at the underside of the hind wings. The Spicebush has a blue scaling in a fan shaped pattern among the orange spots. The black swallowtail has a curved line of orange spots.

In addition, the larval food plants of the Spicebush include spicebush, sassafras and other laurels.

Pipevine swallowtails (bottom pictures) are also often confused with other black swallowtails. Again, a good way to tell the difference is to look at the underside of the hind wings. The orange spots are very large and more pronounced than the others. Also on the top side of the wings, the blue scaling covers more area and there are no yellow spots.

The larval food plant of the Pipevine are pipevines.

Click to buy Pipevine Swallowtail by naturegirl7 at

Black Swallowtail on Viola Flowers

Male Black Swallowtail on Viola flowers.
Male Black Swallowtail on Viola flowers. | Source

Plants that Attract Black Swallowtails

Black Swallowtail on Viola postcard by naturegirl7 on Zazzle.

Black Swallowtails will drink from many kinds of flowers. Native and old-fashioned types usually contain more nectar (and are easier to grow) so we stock our garden with such plants as Zinnias, Marigolds, Viola, Butterfly Bush, Butterfly Weed, Lantana, Salvia, Helianthus (sunflower family) and other composite flowers.

Host plants include Queen Anne's Lace, Carrots, Parsley, Dill, Fennel and other members of the parsley family. With the exception of Queen Anne's Lace which is poisonous to humans, the others are tasty additions to salads and other dishes. Make sure to plant enough for you and the butterflies.

Pipevine Swallowtail

Pipevine Swallowtail showing blue scaling
Pipevine Swallowtail showing blue scaling | Source

Butterfly Field Guide

Butterflies of North America (Kaufman Focus Guides)
Butterflies of North America (Kaufman Focus Guides)

I feel that Kaufman's Butterflies of North America is the best butterfly guide that I have ever owned.


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    • profile image

      Kitty 5 years ago

      Thanks naturegirl17

      The mimosa are in full bloom here and are very beautiful this year. The crepe myrtle seem to be early, but are beautiful as well.

    • naturegirl7 profile image

      Yvonne L. B. 6 years ago from South Louisiana

      We may not be able to grow lilacs, but the number of butterlies and hummingbirds that one mimosa tree can attract is something to behold.

      I totally agree with you about the cabbage white caterpillars. It's either them or my broccoli and I always choose the broccoli.

      Thanks for the lovely story about your Mother.

    • profile image

      Kitty 6 years ago

      The comment about the lilacs reminded me of my mom. She always had the most beautiful lilacs in the Appalachian mountains. My mom always tried and usually succeed with many plants. She was an avid gardener. She had kept a mimosa tree which never seem to do well until the summer I took her home for a visit while she was on hospice in my home at the time in the south east. (And yes I miss having lilacs here, too.) When we went out into the backyard, the mimosa tree was huge, in full bloom, and the most beautiful I had ever seen it. To add to the beauty and awe of the moment, the mimosa tree was covered with hundreds of black swallowtails. It was a moment I will always cherish.

      My little garden of dill is host to 6 Black Swallowtail caterpillars right now. I love to watch them grow. It is a great homeschool experience for my daughter. I did not notice any caterpillars until the second year when the dill came up voluntarily. I did not even know what the caterpillar looked. I have enjoyed learning more about this butterfly since finding the caterpillar in my garden last year.

      My broccoli is host to the cabbage white butterfly caterpillar - even though this is an interesting cat to learn about - I am not sure I am as happy about these little guys being in my broccoli, because they can destroy the plant. Black swallowtail caterpillars do not seem to eat much dill and I always have more dill than I need anyway.

    • naturegirl7 profile image

      Yvonne L. B. 7 years ago from South Louisiana

      Thanks manny, That means a lot coming from you.

    • mannyrolando profile image

      mannyrolando 7 years ago

      You take the most magnificent photographs of butterflies and your hubs are very informative! I look forward to more of your hubs!

    • naturegirl7 profile image

      Yvonne L. B. 7 years ago from South Louisiana

      Oh, I wish that we could grow Lilacs in the deep south. What a lovely story you tell.

    • Silver Poet profile image

      Silver Poet 7 years ago from the computer of a midwestern American writer

      I love swallowtails. Once the local feed store had a sale on lilac bushes, and those bushes were literally covered with black swallowtails (and two yellow tiger swallowtails to boot). I joked and asked if the butterflies came free with purchase of the flower bushes.

      Two weeks later my mom bought the bushes and put them in the back of a pickup truck, and those butterflies followed her bushes all the way home. Next morning after they were planted, the purple flowers were so covered with black fluttering wings that you almost couldn't see the flowers.