Gardening for butterflies and moths

Hints on how to garden to attract butterflies and moths


Butterflies and moths need two things:

  • Nectar for the adults, and
  • Plants for the caterpillars to eat

There are some general rules to attract and keep not only butterflies but all sorts of wildlife in your garden:

Don't be too tidy

  • Leaf litter is  where some butterfly/moth chrysalises will be found
  • Many “weeds” are superb for butterflies/moths both for nectar and for food for the caterpillars.
  • The dark, dusty corners of your shed are where some butterflies will hibernate


Have a variety of plants and habitats

  • Flowers (preferably single not double flowers and must be in a sunny spot) 
  • Grass (native British grasses are the foodplant of many butterflies/moths)
  • Trees and shrubs (Huge numbers of moth species use these to breed)
  • A pond (not a prime habitat, but some moths breed on pond plants and its great for all sorts of other wildlife)

Red Admiral

Go organic – pesticides and herbicides are one of the reasons our wildlife is declining

This garden has not had any pesticides or herbicides used on it for the last twelve years, and the only fertiliser used is garden compost.


Be tolerant - we share this planet with all the other species, we don't own it

Some of the other species are pretty amazing - this is a Vapourer moth caterpillar.

Vapourer moths are quite common, so you may find one of these in your garden.

Vapourer moth caterpillar


There are a few general rules for good butterfly flowers:

  • Single, not double, flowers are more likely to have nectar, and the shape allows the butterfly to get at it

Small Tortoiseshell

  • Old fashioned flowers tend to be best – modern ones have sometimes been developed for their looks and have lost their nectar


  • Some shapes are winners – daisy type flowers and scabious type flowers are usually good

Small Heath

  • Different butterflies go for different flowers/colours, so have a variety.
  • Aim for a long season of flowers – Spring and Autumn can be a difficult time for early/ late species.
  • Moth attracting flowers have one thing in common – they bloom at night, and are usually highly scented to attract the moths

Plants to grow for nectar

  • Aubretia
    Good early nectar.
  • Sweet Rocket (hesperis matronalis)
    Nectar and caterpillar foodplant for the Orange Tip and Green-veined White; evening scented, old-fashioned plant.

Sweet Rocket

  • Perennial wallflower (erysimum)
    The usual one you find is “Bowles Mauve”. Flowers on and off all year.
  • Herbs
    Marjoram, mint and thyme especially.
  • Knautia Macedonica
    Small scabious flower – leave the seedheads for the birds.

Small scabious

  • Buddleia
    If you can fit in more than one, prune them at different times so they flower in turn.

    For some info on the best buddleias to grow see news of the Dorset buddleia trial.


  • Verbena bonariensis
    Superb for butterflies and flowers for months.

  • Valerian (centranthus rubber)
    The plant you see in walls. Will flower for a long period if you take off the early seedheads.


  • Ice plant (sedum spectabile)
    Pale pink and white are the best colours.

Ice plant

  • Michaelmas Daisy
    (and other asters).

Michelmas daisy

  • Teasel
    Good nectar for butterflies and bees, then leave the seed heads for the Goldfinches.


  • Tobacco plant, honeysuckle, evening primrose and night-scented stock for the moths.
  • Willow (salix)
    A very important source of early nectar.


Hawk mothNative plants are best – butterflies and moths can’t use exotic species.

“Wild” flowers are often favoured by butterflies and moths, but some can suit an ordinary garden – try bird’s foot trefoil, primrose and red rose campion.

Nasturtiums are used by the Large and Small Whites, but whether this will keep them off your cabbages is debatable!


Moth plants include delphinium, sweet william, goldenrod and fuchsia.

Foodplant for the Holly Blue butterfly and good shelter for hibernating insects - Ivy is the key late nectar source (if you let it flower) for butterflies, and is also good for bees and hoverflies.


Grasses – native British species are excellent – hundreds of moth species and quite a few butterflies use them.