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: if you need to sweep it up, put it somewhere out of the way, not on the compost heap.
- 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)
Go organic – pesticides and herbicides are one of the reasons our wildlife is declining
The garden (below) had not had any pesticides or herbicides used on it for the last nineteen 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.
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
- Old fashioned flowers tend to be best – modern ones have sometimes been developed for their looks and have lost their nectar
- Butterflies will like lots of small flowers all together, so they don’t waste energy moving between them: buddliea flowers, for example, or cone flowers (echinacea/rudbeckia) where the centre is actual lots of flowers and the ‘petals’ are actually sepals, or scabious.
- 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
This section goes in time-of-flowering order.
- Willow (salix)
A very important source of early nectar.
Good early nectar.
- Sweet Rocket (hesperis matronalis)
Nectar and caterpillar foodplant for the Orange Tip and Green-veined White; evening scented, old-fashioned plant.
- Perennial wallflower (erysimum)
The usual one you find is “Bowles Mauve”. Flowers on and off all year.
Marjoram, mint and thyme especially.
- Knautia Macedonica
Small scabious flower – leave the seedheads for the birds.
If you can fit in more than one, prune them at different times so they flower in turn. The ordinary lilac colour is best, though white is also good; the very dark ones tend not to attract butterflies. Different varieties like Buddleia Weyeriana can be useful – this one tends to have some quite late blooms.
- Verbena bonariensis
Superb for butterflies, and it flowers for months.
- Valerian (centanthus rubra)
- Ice plant (sedum spectabile)
Pale pink and white are the best colours
- Michaelmas Daisy
(and other asters)
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.
Foodplants are for the caterpillars to eat and it’s probably even more important you grow these than the nectar plants: lots of people grow flowers which give nectar because they are attractive, while some of the foodplants are not so immediately favoured by humans.
- Native plants are best – butterflies and moths are often not adapted to 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 good for Large and Small White caterpillars.
- Ivy is the foodplant for the Holly Blue butterfly and good shelter for hibernating insects – it is a key late nectar source (if you let it flower) for butterflies as well as lots of other insects.
- Grasses – native British species are excellent – hundreds of moth species and quite a few butterflies use them.
- Moth plants include delphinium, sweet william, goldenrod and fuchsia
- Bramble is the foodplant for over sixty species of moth caterpillar.