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
Chestnut brown butterfly on yellow dandelion

Peacock butterfly on dandelion. Photo: Lyn Pullen

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)
Black, red and white butterfly on small pink flowers on a bush

Red Admiral on Viburnum Bodnantense in November

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.

Profusion of differnt flowers.

Garden flowers. Photo: Lyn Pullen

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.

Caterpillar with toothbrush-like bristles on its back

Vapourer moth caterpillar. Photo: Lyn Pullen

Nectar

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.
Two brown and orange butterflies on a bright pink flower with an orange centre

Meadow Browns on an Echinacea flower. Photo: Lyn Pullen

  • 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.
  • 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.

    Orange black and white butterfly on white flowers

    Painted Lady on Sweet Rocket. Photo: Lyn Pullen.

  • 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.
Orange black and white butterflies on small magenta flower

Painted Lady on Knautia Macedonica. Photo: Lyn Pullen.

  • Buddleia
    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.

    Orange butterfly on yellow flower

    Comma on Buddleia Weyeriana. Photo: Lyn Pullen

  • Verbena bonariensis
    Superb for butterflies, and it flowers for months.
White butterfly on purple flower head

Large White on Verbena Bonariensis

  • Valerian (centanthus rubra)
White butterfly with some black markings on bright pink flower head

Large White on Valerian. Photo: Lyn Pullen

  • Ice plant (sedum spectabile)
    Pale pink and white are the best colours
Two different butterfies on pale pink sedum flowers

Small Tortoiseshell (top) and Comma on Sedum Spectabile flowers

  • Michaelmas Daisy
    (and other asters)
Orange butterfly with black markings on purple flower

Small Copper on Aster Frikartii Monch

  • Teasel
    Good nectar for butterflies and bees, then leave the seed heads for the Goldfinches.
Black red and white butterfly on pale purple flowerhead

Red Admiral on Teasel flower. Photo: Lyn Pullen

  • Tobacco plant, honeysuckle, evening primrose and night-scented stock for the moths.

Foodplants

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.
Six green and black caterpillars on two leaves

Large White caterpillars on Nasturtium. Photo: Lyn Pullen

  • 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.