Plants to attract butterflies to your garden

26 April 2016

Patrick Barkham, author of The Butterfly Isles, explains the best plants to attract butterflies into your garden.



Nettles

What's the most butterfly-friendly garden plant? The answer is a little painful for many of us.

We usually plant flowers to attract butterflies, and most adult butterflies do replenish their strength by drinking nectar. But it is better to consider introducing plants for when a butterfly is growing – when it's a caterpillar. The caterpillars of five British species – small tortoiseshell, peacock, red admiral, painted lady and comma – will feed on nettle. It must grow in a sunny south- or west-facing bank.

It's hard for some gardeners to tolerate a ‘nettle patch’ because the plant is so quick to spread. One solution is to sink an old bath into the soil, which confines the nettle roots within it.

Buddleia

The best-known butterfly magnet, the buddleia is also known as ‘the butterfly bush’. Most homes can have one now there is a dwarf variety - Buzz - that can be grown in pots and window boxes.

Some varieties, such as the Dartmoor or weyeriana, are more attractive to butterflies than others. Late-flowering buddleia is much more useful to butterflies like small tortoiseshells and peacocks, which drink nectar to build up strength for hibernation. Make your buddleia bloom later by cutting it back hard in April.

Related: how to grow buddleia

Wildflowers in your lawn

Wildflower meadows are increasingly popular but many gardeners still struggle to relinquish a ‘tidy’ lawn. But if you throw away fertilisers and pesticides, and sow native wildflower mixes, you'll instantly have a wildlife-friendly garden and you can sit back and enjoy all your extra free time!

Trim your long lawn on a high cut from September to November. Yellow rattle is a particularly brilliant wild flower because it swamps grass and creates space for more wild varieties.

Ringlets, meadow browns, gatekeepers and large and small skippers are all grass-feeding butterflies. The delightful common blue and small copper also like rough grassland.

Related: getting started with British wildflowers

Common blue butterfly on yellow rattle

Ivy and garlic mustard

These two overlooked plants that attract butterflies can grow in almost every small garden.

The holly blue caterpillar feeds on ivy. Don’t cut it back until winter, when these caterpillars will have pupated. Its flowers are also a great source of autumn nectar for red admirals.

Garlic mustard is a food source for the orange-tip, an unmistakable spring butterfly. The plant grows in hedgerows and in shady areas, is easy to control, and is one of those pretty ‘weeds’ you'll grow to love.

Trees

It is easy to forget, but some of our most brilliant butterflies live in trees.

If you have a big enough garden, a Wych elm is ideal for white-letter hairstreaks. And almost every mature oak is home to purple hairstreaks. If you live in Sussex or Hampshire, plant a thicket of sallow (goat willow) and you might even attract a spectacular purple emperor to lay eggs in your garden.

Smaller garden? Plant alder buckthorn for the beautiful brimstone – traditionally the first butterfly of the year to emerge in spring.

White-letter hairstreak

Native or non-native?

Native British species tend to be better for butterflies but non-natives can be great sources of nectar, too.

Cotoneaster is a popular non-native, and fashionable Verbena bonariensis is brilliant. If you prefer native species, butterflies love feeding on marjoram, lavender and traditional Michaelmas daises.

If you've got chalky soils, plant horseshoe vetch, bird's foot trefoil and wild thyme – all beloved of beautiful blue butterflies.

Related: how to grow hardy verbenas

Cabbages

This will sound like sacrilege to prize cabbage growers, but why not give one or two of your vegetables over to the butterflies? Large and small white caterpillars devour cabbages, kale and other brassicas, as gardeners are only too aware.

Protect some cabbages with netting then plant a few extra for caterpillars to feed on. You won't be overrun the next year – parasitic wasps periodically attack Large Whites in particular, so their numbers never spiral out-of-control. Butterflies also feed on nasturtiums, so planting these on your vegetable bed is a good deterrent.

Monitor butterflies

If butterflies visit your garden, one of the most conservation-friendly things to do is to record them. They are the best-studied group of insects in the world, thanks to a small army of volunteer recorders, and all this data gives scientists valuable insights into the impact of agriculture and climate change on not just butterflies, but bees and other insects too. The national charity Butterfly Conservation recently launched a user-friendly new online recording scheme for garden butterflies: gardenbutterflysurvey.org

Patrick Barkham is the author of The Butterfly Isles (Granta, £9.99)

For Patrick’s brilliant article on the people working to save Britain’s butterflies, read the May issue of Saga Magazine

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.