Gorgeous wild flower that is good for butterflies and moths

25 March 2013

I don’t know why the common bird’s foot trefoil  (lotus corniculatus) is not grown more in gardens. It is a native British plant, found in chalk and limestone habitats in the wild. It has pretty yellow flowers, that are reddish in bud, and when it sets seed, the parts of the seed heads spread out in different directions, like the claws on a bird’s foot – hence its name. It only grows a few inches tall, but can spread over quite an area. Its flowering period is not as good as, say, lobelia, but it does flower for some weeks, and will come back year after year. You can even grow it in grass and mow it, and as long as you don’t completely scalp it, it will keep coming back.

Bird's-foot trefoil along the front of the greenhouse, and close-up with a bee.

Bird’s-foot trefoil along the front of the greenhouse, and close-up with a bee.

I’ve got it in grass, in the corners of the patio steps (self seeded) and have grown it both as a border plant and in a hanging basket – the last is good because you can get a really up-close look at the flowers. You can see in the photo on the left above, taken in August 2006, that this was a very dry and hot period and the grass is looking very sorry for itself, but the bird’s-foot trefoil is still blooming away. Although it comes from chalky habitats, it will grow in most soils unless they are very acidic, and as long as they aren’t too fertile, when it can get overwhelmed by other vegetation. It will do well in poor, infertile places where a lot of plants will struggle – the sunny edge of a gravel path, for example.

It is a very important butterfly plant, serving as the caterpillar food plant of several butterflies and many moths, and as a nectar source for more. In practice, in gardens, the most likely species to use it are the Common Blue and the Five or Six-spot Burnet moth. It is so easy not to know that you have caterpillars on a low plant – I only found the ones in the greenhouse border above were host to some when I got right up close to chop the grass back.

I’ll leave you with two colourful photos to brighten things up a bit in this depressing and dull weather. You won’t get these butterflies in your garden, and they aren’t my photos, but I can’t resist sharing a couple of shots of butterflies on bird’s-foot trefoil by the amazing photographer Ken Dolbear with you.

Left: Green Hairstreak. Right: Silver-studded Blue. Both on bird's-foot trefoil.

Left: Green Hairstreak. Right: Silver-studded Blue. Both on bird’s-foot trefoil.


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