Butterflies in your garden
Butterflies can be supported in gardens by providing flowers where they will feed on nectar. A few species have caterpillars that will feed on garden plants too.
Timing March to October
What are butterflies?
Butterflies and moths are insects that form the insect order Lepidoptera. There is no consistent way of telling butterflies and moths apart. Butterflies are all day-flying and belong to eight families of the Lepidoptera. Most moths fly at night – however there are several colourful moth species that fly by day.
Many species of moths can also be found in gardens. They too can be pollinators, and are a vital part of the food chain and garden biodiversity – only a handful can cause noticable damage to garden plants as larvae. The larvae are usually known as caterpillars and they feed on the foliage and flowers of their host plants. When fully fed, they crawl away to sheltered places where they pupate and later emerge as adult butterflies or moths.
There are 59 butterfly species resident in Britain, plus up to 30 others that come here as occasional or regular migrants from elsewhere in Europe.
Some species require specialised habitats, such as chalk downland or coppiced woodland and so are unlikely to be seen in gardens. The species most likely to found in gardens include Red Admiral, Peacock, Brimstone, Painted Lady, Comma, Green-veined White, Small Tortoiseshell, Small White and Large White.
Only the last two are potential (vegetable) garden problems as they have caterpillars that feed on cabbages, other brassicas and nasturtiums. The caterpillars of the Comma can sometimes be found on hops and currants. Its orange white and black spiky caterpillars resemble bird droppings but do not cause significant damage to host plants.
Less frequent garden visitors include Orange-tip, Speckled Wood, Meadow Brown, Small Copper and Holly and Common Blues.
How to encourage butterflies
To see butterflies in your garden, you need to entice them with the right flowers. Adult butterflies feed on nectar that they will take from a wide variety of wild and garden flowers, particularly those growing in warm sheltered places. Butterflies can be encouraged to visit gardens by growing a range of suitable flowers from March until frosty weather ends the butterfly season in October-November.
- Download a free butterfly gardening guide from the Wild About Gardens website.
- Click here for the RHS list of plants that are Plants for Pollinators
Four more ways to help butterflies
1. Leave fallen fruit under fruit trees. In late summer butterflies, such as Red Admiral and Painted Lady, will feed on fruit juices in fallen over-ripe pears, plums and apples
2. If possible, avoid the use of pesticides, especially on or near plants that are in flower or larval food plants
3. Plant larval food plants. Many of the flowers listed as Plants for Pollinators will attract the more common and mobile species of adult butterfly but most are unsuitable as food plants for the larvae. The caterpillars eat leaves and often have a narrow range of plants. With the exception of the ubiquitous large and small white butterflies, the larval food plants are often wild plants. Not all butterflies will lay eggs and breed in gardens, even if the appropriate food plants are provided. Some butterflies, such as the fritillaries, need woodland conditions that cannot be created elsewhere.
The following plants will provide food for the larvae of those species that might breed in gardens, although some butterflies tend to fly in restricted areas and will not readily colonise a new suitable habitat unless it is very close to existing butterfly colonies.
Some British butterfly larval food plants;
- Alder buckthorn and purging buckthorn: Brimstone
- Birdsfoot trefoil: Common Blue
- Cabbage, other brassicas, nasturtium: Small and Large Cabbage Whites
- Currants, elm, hop and willows: Comma
- Docks and sorrels: Small Copper
- Garlic/hedge mustard and lady’s smock: Orange-tip and Green-veined White
- Holly and ivy: Holly Blue caterpillars eat holly flowers in late spring and ivy flowers in autumn
- Mixed grasses grown as a meadow: Speckled Wood, The Wall, Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown, Marbled White, Ringlet, Small Heath, Large Skipper, Small Skipper and Essex Skipper. The habitat requirements of these butterflies vary, particularly regarding the types of grass, the height of the sward and whether it is dry or damp grassland. Generally the grass should be left uncut during the growing season and scythed in the spring, leaving a good basal growth on the tussocks
- Stinging nettle: Peacock, Red Admiral, Comma and Small Tortoiseshell. Large clumps needs to be grown in a sunny position (which is impractical in many gardens), small clumps of nettles are unlikely to attract egg-laying females. Prevent seeding by cutting down in mid-summer after the first brood of the Small Tortoiseshell has developed
- Thistles (welted, creeping and giant thistles (Onopordum spp.)): Painted Lady
Some butterflies such as peacock and small tortoiseshell overwinter as adults. They seek sheltered dry places and can often be found in garages, sheds and other outbuildings. Occasionally some will overwinter in heated buildings and can become active. If this happens attempt to capture the butterfly in a suitable container and release it in an unheated outbuilding. Remember to leave a window ajar or other gap so that the butterflies can escape in the spring.
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