Posts tagged ‘Sweet rocket’

May 9, 2013

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…

April 2, 2013

Bees and blackbirds

2 April 2013

We’ve actually had some sunshine over Easter! It was even warm enough to sit outside for a cup of tea, albeit well wrapped up (us, not the tea). It still feels too early to me to do much planting out of stuff which is often out by this time of year:  better to wait a little longer than put them in when the soil is too cold.

A few gardening jobs got done – including a bit more chopping down of last year’s growth, which I leave on all winter to give insects a protected place to hide. We also got round to moving some foxgloves from the vegetable beds to other locations; I’d have liked to do it earlier, but the weather never seemed to permit it. I got tempted one year to leave some Sweet Rocket (not the salad veg, the one grown for flowers) at the end of a vegetable bed, but never again: it was a superb hiding place for the snails, who all came out at night and ate whatever was in reach. Having cleared the space in this veg bed, we’ve covered the soil over for now, and I’ll get the onion sets in before long.

Sweet Rocket (hesperis matronalis) - highly recommended as a good plant for butterflies and for giving masses of white or purple flowers. Photo May 2009.

Sweet Rocket (hesperis matronalis) – highly recommended as a good plant for butterflies and for giving masses of white or purple flowers. Photo May 2009.

Saw one bumble bee visiting the hellebore foetida, and found another buzzing around the greenhouse; I’ve got a tried-and-tested way of gently removing them, by putting a see-through plastic cup over them, then slipping a bit of card under the cup to hold them safe while I transport them outside. No butterflies, though; we have had Orange Tips in early April before now, but I rather hope they won’t turn up too early: there is very little caterpillar foodplant for them of any size yet this year.

The bird activity is high at the moment: it can’t be easy starting a family when the weather is so cold. We are being quite regularly visited by three or four male blackbirds and two females, who are VERY eager to get at the food when we put it out – I’ve been giving them a later-in-the-day top-up recently and when I put some out the other day, one must have been watching me and bounced across the ground towards it faster than I’ve ever seen a blackbird move on the ground – though not as fast as they can fly when a sparrowhawk is after them, when they are positively jet propelled.

I also got some work done in the greenhouse, including pricking out the antirrhinums (snapdragons), and while I was doing it, there were two blackbirds hunting around outside for whatever wild food they could find – see the photos below.


Blackbirds. In the right-hand photo you can also see the hellebore foetida which the bees like so much

February 25, 2013

Gardening for butterflies – adults v caterpillars

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.

Painted Lady on Sweet Rocket

Painted Lady on Sweet Rocket

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.

Orange tips- left to right: mating pair on sweet rocket, caterpillar on sweet rocket and adult on bluebell

Orange tips- left to right: mating pair on sweet rocket, caterpillar on sweet rocket and adult on bluebell

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.