Best Plants for Butterflies

Did you know that Butterflies need our help?

76% of British native and visiting Butterflies have declined since 1976

Changes to the British landscape have affected the habitat and food supply that our butterflies need. Destruction of habitat is thought to be the prime cause with changes in agriculture and horticulture coming a close second. These are the main reasons that Britain is not as Butterfly friendly as it was 40 years ago:

  • housing construction
  • road building
  • farming methods
  • woodland management
  • use of pesticides and herbicides

I believe that it’s pointless getting hung up on what’s gone wrong in the past. Looking forward to the future to see how we can make some simple positive changes is much more up my street. In the UK there are organisations already working to provide protected habitats for Butterflies and Moths and other wild creatures that need help. That’s brilliant but it’s clear that we don’t need to leave it to professional bodies to make all the necessary changes. Last year we decided to add more wildlife friendly plants to our garden.

The good news is that because of their short life cycles Butterflies, Moths and most insect populations can recover quickly given the right conditions. All they really need from us gardeners is need food and shelter.

What do Butterflies need?

Some butterflies hibernate throughout winter so they need undisturbed places to hide.

Adult butterflies need food (nectar) from the moment they come out of hibernation in February or March until the end of autumn. They have a long tube for feeding (proboscis) which is like drinking though a straw for them.

They also need specific plants to lay their eggs on that their larvae (caterpillars) can eat.

10 things to help Butterflies in your Garden

  1. Grow a wide range of nectar rich flowers. Choose plants to bloom at different times of the year from February to November when Butterflies are active so that they can always find food. For the best range choose early flowering plants such as perennials (Primula vulgaris) and Biennials (Wallflowers & Hesperis) followed by summer flowering annuals and autumn flowering half hardy annuals.
  2. Choose plants to attract butterflies specific to your area of the country. For example there’s no point growing Heather for the Silver Studded Blue Butterfly in our garden because we are miles away from known colonies and the heathland habitat they prefer. However it would be worth adding Holly and Ivy plants for Holly Blue Butterflies which are more widespread in hedgerows and woodlands in Lancashire.
  3. Water your plants thoroughly once a week in dry conditions. Well watered plants produce more nectar. It’s also well worth deadheading plants to prevent them setting seed and to encourage flower production.
  4. Create shelter for protection from the wind. You’ve probably noticed that Butterflies are most active on sunny still days. A mixed hedge of native shrubs such as Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Hazel, Viburnum, Brambles, Honeysuckle & Roses will help to slow the wind and create a sheltered area inside the garden. This winter you can buy bareroot hedging plants for around £1 each.
  5. Grow evergreen climbing plants up sheds, fences and walls for shelter. Butterflies and Moths need protection year-round from rain and wind and from frost in the winter. Plants such as Ivy and Pyracantha are ornamental and great for wildlife.
  6. Make a log pile or construct a special wildlife shelter. It’s easy to provide shelter using prunings or leftover building materials. To Build a Bug Hotel have a look at these first.
  7. Allow a strip of grass to grow long and flower. Many butterflies and moths lay their eggs on these long grasses as they are food plants for their caterpillars.
  8. In autumn leave some autumn leaves under garden hedges and fallen fruit on the ground. Butterflies are camouflaged and sheltered amongst dry leaves and also enjoy feeding on rotting fruit such as apples
  9. Allow wildflowers and weeds to grow in a sunny sheltered spot. Add some pretty wildflowers such as Ox-Eye daisies and Red Campion and let some of the weedier wildflowers grow too. Fresh young nettles are the larval food of Comma, Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock The Small Copper lays it’s eggs on Sorrel or Dock leaves.
  10. Choose Organic Gardening methods. There really is no need to spray chemicals around. They are designed to kill wildflowers and insects. Why would you want to do that? A recent survey found that many garden centre plants labelled Perfect for Pollinators were in fact laced with a cocktail of harmful chemicals. To be safe it’s best to grow your own flowers from seed if you can so you know that there are no harmful chemicals on them for wildlife or your family to breathe in.

What are Best Plants for Butterflies?

It’s easy to grow plants for Butterflies. Choose plants that provide food in the form of nectar. Butterflies like open centred flowers such as Cosmos and Scabious that are easy to land on and have plenty of nectar. They don’t necessarily need to be native plants. For example Butterflies love Dahlia flowers too (see pink flower above) Dahlias originate from Mexico… their simple open flowers are great for accessibility. Butterflies have a long proboscis which they use like a straw to suck up liquids. They also love plants with tiny tubular flowers such as Verbena and Buddleja. You can buy Buddleja inexpensively from most good plant nurseries and garden centres. Or you can make some new plants. Winter is an excellent time to grow Buddleja from Hardwood Cuttings.

Are you planning to grow plants specifically for Butterflies this year?

I’d love to know about your favourite plants to attract them to your garden. Your suggestions are most welcome!

Love Gillian x


8 thoughts on “Best Plants for Butterflies

  1. I have lots of butterfly friendly plants in my garden, however they don’t seem to like Echinacea which I grew especially for them. I guess there’s nicer offerings for them to indulge in!

  2. Gillian this year I renovate the garden and I already have it planned. I will plant Cosmos, Echinacea purpurea, three types of Dahlia, Lavandula, Gypsophila elegans Covent Garden, Veronica and a lot more plants, not counting the bulbs. I have two animal shelters, one for insects and the other for larger animals. There are also evergreen bushes such as Brambles and Rosa canina. There is a kind of pergola in the shape of a house that is only open in front that is completely covered by normal Lonicera, Lonicera Japonica and Ivy. On the ground there are planted hydrangeas. There are always birds inside because the ivy has covered the ground. It is a good refuge. My garden is ecological. I have never used any chemical product and I myself manufacture the fertilizer and herbs with my garden if some plant is sick. I have a lot of nettles and I like them. Greetings from Margarita.

    1. Good for you Linda! Anything we gardeners can do is a bonus for wildlife and selecting open or single flowers is such an easy thing to do isn’t it?

  3. Lovely piece Gillian. We already have a buddleia and am planning to grow cosmos, dahlias and ox-eye daisies this year. We are in Sussex and if we are very lucky may see a chalk hill blue in our garden.

    1. Thanks very much Ciar. Your garden sounds really lovely and you are so lucky to have blue butterflies around you. There’s nothing so exotic looking here in West Lancashire!

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