San Diego Natural History Museum--Your Nature ConnectionSDNHM Field Guide

Vanessa cardui
Painted Lady, Thistle Butterfly, Cosmopolite

Family: NYMPHALIDAE (Brushfooted Butterflies)


The Painted Lady has a wingspan of about 2 to 2 1/2 inches (5 to 6 cm). The upper side is orange and black, and the underside is rose pink with black and white patterning and four eyespots on its hindwing. The shaggy body and adjacent wing surface are tan.

Range and Habitat

The Painted Lady is the most widely distributed butterfly in the world, which is reflected in one of its common names, Cosmopolite. Hostplants for the spiny caterpillars are diverse, ranging from composites to Boraginaceae, Malvaceae, Fabaceae, Verbenaceae, Rosaceae, Polygonaceae, Apiaceae, and Rhamnaceae--making them easy to rear. Nectar plants are also diverse, with a preference for thistles.

Natural History

They survive through the winter in the southwestern United States, Baja California, and Sonora. Farther north, the first frost destroys the populations and might stimulate some to migrate south for the winter, but this does not happen regularly.

If adequate rain occurs in the winter it can stimulate a northerly dispersal and repopulation of the butterflies in the United States, Canada, and Iceland. This spring dispersal can sometimes be quite phenomenal, with millions moving through a region over a seven to eight week period. They come to rest for a quick nectar break on a diversity of plants before continuing their northward movement.

Related or Similar Species

Two closely related and very similar species in our region are Vanessa annabella, the West Coast Lady, and Vanessa virginiensis, the Virginia Lady.

Underside of Painted Lady butterfly, photo by Bob Parks
Underside of the wings

Upperside of Painted Lady butterfly, photo by Bob Parks
Upperside of the wings

Michael Klein, Volunteer, Entomology Department
Photographs by Bob Parks

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