Friday, 11 April 2014

Which flowers are best for butterflies?

A walk in the woods reveals a host of yellow butterflies

Yesterday afternoon I loaded my 3 dogs into the back of the van, grabbed my camera and headed off to the woods.  The weather was warm and sunny and as soon as I opened the van door I was struck by the scent of the mahonia-like flowers that grow wild in this area.

Stupidly, I got caught up in the moment and left my camera on the passenger seat as Spud, Rosie, Lola and I made our way through the gate and into the wide "rides" of Thetford Forest. We call them rides in Norfolk, in Hertfordshire where I grew up they were called fire breaks. 

Red dead-nettle.  My husband thinks it's a weed.
The butterflies disagree.
In recent years the forest rides have been managed in such a way as to encourage wild flowers to thrive; and it seems to have worked. There are red dead nettles, tiny blue speed wells, dandelions and a myriad of different grass species. But the real spectacle was not the wild flowers, beautiful as they were; it was the butterflies that really captured my attention.

The bright yellow brimstones were in abundance and I'm pretty sure I saw a common blue or two. I did see a lonely orange-tip too.



Comma butterfly.
I found this picture on wildlifeinsight.com
Flying in and out of the trees were several " brown jobs".  They were too high and too fast for an amateur like me to identify but then, joy of joys, one settled, just for a second and I could see the distinctive wing shape of a comma butterfly.

Returning home, I made a brew and took it out into the garden to ponder how I could get such a wonderful display in my own back yard.


Butterflies in the Garden


Honesty growing in my garden - brimstone and orange-tip butterflies seem to love it.
I do have brimstone butterflies in my garden, they like the honesty that grows under the apple tree.  I also get small tortoishells visiting the herbaceous borders.....I think they hibernate in the tool shed. Likewise peacock butterflies and the dreaded cabbage whites are frequent vistitors

Later in the year the sedums, the asters and the verbena bonerensii will bring butterflies in their droves

But as usual, me being me, I want more beautiful butterflies...(but not if they're planning to lay their eggs in me brassicas)!

So I consulted a few books...to see if I' m growing everything I can be growing to attract butterflies.

Good plants for butterflies


Purple and yellow seem to be the butterfly's' favourite colours with pinks and whites coming close second.  They seem to ignore reds.

Don't be afraid to leave a few weeds here and there.  As I saw in the woods, red dead nettle and dandelion are popular with butterflies. We just need to re- tune ourselves to thinking " wild flower" instead of "weed".

Think on several different levels....only last week I was treated to a display of small tortoishells feeding high on a willow tree. Shrubs, trees and hedgerow plants are valuable too.   Have you got a shed? How about covering it with sedum matting to bring in lots more pollinating insects.

Attracting adult butterflies into your garden is great....but remember to have food plants for their babies too.  This is where native plants come into their own. Caterpillars are very fussy eaters!

A list of food plants for caterpillars


Birdsfoot trefoil is a valuable nectar plant for bees and butterflies.
It's also a laval food plant for some butterfly species.
Birds foot trefoil....for dingy skipper caterpillars
Tall grasses, preferably native species.  For skippers, gatekeepers and meadow browns. Moths too.
Stinging nettles are favoured by the peacock butterfly, the small tortoishells and the comma.
Garlic mustard and/or Honesty for orange-tips

These don't sound like very exciting plants to have in a garden, but a swathe of long grass can look stunning - especially with a path mown though it......or even a maze - if you have room.

Garlic mustard is a fairly innocuous looking plant - it likes damp shade, so allow some to grow under the hedge or behind the shed.  You never know, you might grow to like it just as much as the brightly coloured wallflowers and sweet williams that are blooming at the same time.

Honesty is beautiful.  I thoroughly recommend it.  Not least for the silvery penny-like seed heads that shine out on dull autumn days.

A list of flowering plants to attract adult butterflies


Ageratum.   Pink or blue flowers.  Not frost hardy but great when used as summer bedding.  Grow it from seed to save money.
Allium...the flowers from anything in the onion family are super.  Chives are a super butterfly food that double up as a culinary herb.  Again, they're easy to grow from seed.
Aubrietia. A very easy to grow, perennial plant often found on walls and in rock gardens. Purple flowers in spring and early summer.
Bellflower There are lots and lots of different types of these.  The native harebell is exquisite. I've just sown seeds for a taller variety in mixed pinks, whites and blues.
Birds foot trefoil. A native species that is too often overlooked as a garden plant. Cheery yellow flowers on a low growing plant. Also great for bees
Peacock butterfly feeding on buddleja.
My colleague Debs took this picture in her garden

Buddleja. The butterfly bush. It's a must. If you don't have much room , try one of the new dwarf varieties.
Daisy.  All too often we dismiss these jolly blooms as being lawn weeds. They're lovely. Especially in containers.
Honesty. An easy to grow biennial with purple flowers.  Because it is nectar rich and is a laval food plant, honesty supports the whole life-cycle of the orange-tip butterfly.
Scabious. Bees love it, butterflies love it, I love it. Every garden and every meadow should include scabious.
Small tortoishell butterfly feeding from a scabious flower

Knapweed. Ignore the name, it's not a weed. It's an important plant for our pollinators.
Marigolds...but not the double-flowered ones. Butterflies can't fight their way through the petals to get to the nectar.
Sweet William. My granddad's favourite.
Yarrow. The native one is beautiful, then again so are it's cultivars. Ask at the garden centre for achillea. You can't go wrong with it.


Encouraging butterflies into your garden is rewarding and it's not difficult.

If you have enough room, a mini-wildflower meadow could be just what you need.  A 50cm wide strip of native flowers and grasses beside a sunny wall, a hedge or around the lawn will bring you many happy hours of butterfly watching for very little work.

Take a look at this video and you'll see how a mini- meadow was planted in my garden. I'm not in the film though....while the boys were working hard I was out shopping for doughnuts.



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