079: Plant a butterfly garden

Cost of taking action: £/$/€ LOW

Butterflies are easy to attract and beautiful too

This is a great action to take if you have a reasonable sized garden space and kids will love to see the results.

Simply set aside a small area of your land for plants that are particularly attractive to native butterflies. You will be amazed how many, what varieties, and how quickly you will see them.

They are truly beautiful creatures … click on our photo for a larger image.


What’s involved?

To attract butterflies to your garden, you need to provide nectar-rich plants for the adults to feed on, and larval food plants for their caterpillars. You could also provide shelter for the butterfly species that overwinter as adults. If possible, choose a variety of plants – perennials and shrubs – to attract a range of species from spring to late autumn. Butterflies are cold-blooded and need warmth, so plant your shrubs in a sheltered, sunny spot.

Oh … and avoid using pesticides, as these can kill butterflies (and we don’t like chemicals in the garden anyway!)

Below are some suggestions for the plants you could use.

Why is this important for our environment?

Many butterfly habitats in the wild are in decline, and a few choice garden plants can provide some species with both food and breeding opportunities.

The worrying picture of declines in many butterfly species seems to have emerged after record numbers of people took part in Butterfly Conservation’s 2020 Big Butterfly Count, a UK citizen-science survey aimed at helping assess the health of our environment simply by counting the amount and type of butterflies we see. The project took place in July and August of 2020, with nearly 150,000 observers making 15-minute counts of butterflies in parks, gardens, woods and nature reserves across the country. Despite the high number of observers the survey reported the lowest average number of butterflies per count – just over 10 – since recording began a decade earlier.

Dr Zoë Randle at Butterfly Conservation is quoted as saying “2020 results illustrate the perilous state of wildlife in the UK” and similar decline is being seen in other countries too.

Insects generally are in long-term decline as we plough up their habitats and drown what’s left in a vast amount of pesticides. According to government statistics published in 2018, species that tend not to fly far from their favoured landscapes had declined by 77% since 1976, and wider countryside species by 46%.

Butterflies are pollinators too, so although not as efficient as bees in that role they have a role to play in our wider ecosystems.

What to plant

Involve the whole family in planning and planting your butterfly garden. Ideal plants include:

  • Buddleja: the best-known nectar flowers for adult butterflies
  • Red valerian: often flowers early and continues into summer
  • Verbena: tall, with purple flowers and rich in nectar
  • Pink sedum: Produces nectar when it flowers in autumn
  • Hebe: an evergreen shrub that attracts bees too
  • Wild marjoram: delicate pink flowers for butterflies and bees
  • Common knapweed: bright violet flowers attract a range of butterflies
  • Hemp-agrimony: icy-pink flowers will attract red admirals and others
  • Field scabious: and other scabius too
  • Erysimum: also known as ‘Bowles’s Mauve’

Also, caterpillars benefit from nettles, hops, lady’s smock, holly, ivy and meadow grasses.

The details of all of these can be found at the Gardeners’ World website at https://www.gardenersworld.com/plants/10-plants-for-butterflies/

Also, you can learn about the interesting life cycle of caterpillars and butterflies at this National Geographic link: The butterfly life cycle (National Geographic Kids)

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