A butterfly you can tempt to breed in your garden

9 May 2013

At last – the first Orange Tip! Although some other butterflies may be seen early in the year, the season really starts for me when the first Orange Tip arrives. I also had my first Holly Blue – it’s wonderful what a bit of sunshine will do.

The Orange Tip is a lovely little butterfly – and I mean little: it is smaller than the Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock etc., though bigger than some of the blues. The male has a very pronounced orange tip to the upper wing, but the female is all white on the top side. Both, however, are mottled underneath on their hind wings, as you can see in the phto below. The caterpillar is often found sitting along the tops of seedheads during the day.

Left: Orange Tips mating. Right: Orange Tip caterpillar.

Left: Orange Tips mating. Right: Orange Tip caterpillar.

There are several food plants for the Orange Tip caterpillar you can easily grow in your garden. A good wild flower is garlic mustard, or jack-by-the-hedge; this is a bienniel: i.e. it comes up one year and flowers the next, then dies. Mine are just starting to flower now, but by July or August it will have gone,  leaving room for later-flowering plants. The one thing I would say is that when you clear the dead plants away, they may have chrysalises on them (and you’ll never spot them) so if possible, tuck them out of the way somewhere and leave them there until next spring, rather than composting or binning them – the butterfly stays as a chrysalis all through the winter with the adult emerging in April/May. Garlic mustard will seed itself fairly copiously, but the plants are easy to pull up.

There is a second wild flower they use a lot: cuckoo flower (cardamine pratensis). This needs a fairly damp environment, and also goes back below ground early in the year. It is smaller than the other plants mentioned here: only 10-12″ high (25-30cm).

Left: garlic mustard. Right: cuckoo flower (not my photo)

Left: garlic mustard. Right: cuckoo flower (not my photo)

A good garden plant is Sweet Rocket (not the herb – you are looking for hesperis matronalis), which I’ve featured several times in this blog. It’s very pretty, the flowers lasting for weeks, and it usually survives 2-3 years. It is easy to grow from seed, but if you have got a plant of it, have a look at it in autumn, and you will often find some of the stems have flopped over, and where this has happened little plantlets have formed. Remove these plantlets and they will grow: if you can give them cover, your success rate will be very high, but even if you have to leave them outside, a little bit of cover will allow a good proportion to survive. I put some in the vegetable garden one year, put a cloche over them, and about half got through the winter. Pot up the rooted plantlets and you will have flowers the same year, though the plants will be bigger the following year.

Honesty: lunaria annua 'Coru Blue'

Honesty: lunaria annua ‘Coru Blue’

The other garden plant to try is honesty. I never had much luck with honesty until I discovered one called lunaria annua ‘Corfu Blue’. Despite the “annua” in the name, it is a short-lived perennial, and it is easy to take some of the seeds and germinate them in the autumn for the next year. Don’t be fooled by it being called blue – it is buer than most honesty, but not really blue – fortunately, it has lots of flowers to make up for it.

Most of these plants (I’m not sure about the honesty) are  known to also be food plants not only for the Orange Tip, but also for the Green-veined White, so if you don’t get one breeding on your plants, you might get the other. Try growing some and see…


6 Responses to “A butterfly you can tempt to breed in your garden”

  1. Hey Lyn, been a little hectic over the week too, but finally got a chance to comment on this post. I’m taking down the names and planning on getting a few as I’ve seen Orange tips nearby in the woods, mainly on bluebells, I hope to tempt them down from the woods into the garden… It’s still a bit of a distance, but one can hope.

    Still only seen a small white and an unverified sighting of a small tortoiseshell butterfly, it went by a bit fast on the strong Edinburgh winds!

    With your great advice I hope to have a wildlife friendly garden sorted in the next few years and seeing a lot more butterflies and will have to get better at IDing moths as keep finding them in the house!


    • Hi KiwiGav – good for you! It certainly can be done – although we are in the countryside, when we moved here the garden was nothing but grass with the odd bush or tree, and in the first few weeks all I saw was a pair of blackbirds. With creating good habitat and feeding the birds year round, we now have a constant stream of birds flitting around the garden, as well as the butterflies, bees etc. It’s such a more vibrant garden than it used to be and a constant source of pleasure. Lyn

      • Thanks Lyn, I hope we manage to get a bit of country in the city! Already put a nest box up, it was meant for sparrows as it’s a terraced one with 3 different nesting sections, however a Blue Tit family got in early and took the centre box. more nest boxes next year.

        Also have a pair of blackbirds nesting in the front garden right outside my bedroom window, quite excited and worried as it’s a low nest and a favourite thoroughfare for the neighbourhood cats.

        Was at the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh (photo here: http://www.wbist.com/archives/1677/_s2j0252 ) and got to see a blackbird taking back food for it’s young, hoping for the same with the nest in my garden.


      • Sounds like a jolly good start.

  2. What a peculiarly shaped caterpillar!


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