25 February 2013
When people say they want to attract more butterflies to their garden, they are nearly always talking about the adult stage of the insect – the one we see flying around in the sunshine (remember sunshine?). In a small garden, attracting the adults may be all you can sensibly aim at, providing them with nectar-rich flowers to give them energy to fly around and mate, which is very well worth doing.
It is good if you can, though, to also provide some plants which will serve as foodplants for caterpillars. I can hear you all groaning at the idea of having to have a garden full of nettles – quieten down! Nettles are good if you can accommodate them, but the butterflies are quite fussy about the nettles they use, which need to be in a sheltered, sunny position, so it’s not as easy as leaving a few behind the shed: do it if you can, but don’t worry about it if you can’t.
What you do have to do, though, is accept that the holes left in the leaves by the munching caterpillars will be visible – but what are a few holes when you’ve had the fun of watching the munching?
The most practical plants to grow to encourage butterflies to breed include:
Sweet rocket/honesty/lady’s smock for the Orange Tip and Green-veined White. Sweet rocket is very easy, comes in white or purple, and lasts for 2-3 years. You could also grow garlic mustard, a native wild flower which blooms early and has disappeared by the middle of summer – I’ve got some in the garden, and I can find caterpillars on it or my sweet rocket most years.
Holly and ivy for the Holly Blue, which uses both, at different times of year, for it’s egg-laying. You will struggle to see the egg or the caterpillar, though, so look out for the female flying around the bush.
Buckthorn for the Brimstone: this is a shrub and not very exciting to look at, but it does provide nectar in its flowers and berries for the birds, as well as leaves for the Brimstone butterfly, which is said to be able to find buckthorn from a considerable distance. There are two types of buckthorn, and you need to use the one which is good for your soil: purging buckthorn for chalky soils and alder buckthorn for acid soils.
British native grasses are also good – I’ll cover them in more detail in another post, as well as plants for moth caterpillars.
I’ll give the latin names of the flower plants I’ve mentioned here, in case you have difficulty identifying them by the common names, which tend to be different in different parts of the country: Sweet rocket – hesperis matronalis. Honesty – lunaria annua. Lady’s smock – cardamine pratensis. Garlic Mustard (also often called Jack-by-the-hedge) – Alliaria petiolata.