Plants for butterflies fall into two different categories:
- Plants to provide food for the adult butterflies
- Plants to provide food for caterpillars
I have to confess, I’m not a fan of caterpillars. I don’t like what they do to my cabbages and I don’t like their creepy-crawly-ness. But I do love butterflies so I suppose have to compromise.
Peacock butterfly caterpillars thrive on stinging nettles
Caterpillars are incredibly fussy about what they eat. This is why habitat loss is such a major concern. It’s not about butterflies finding food, it’s about the specialist plants they need to complete their life cycle.
Most butterflies on the other hand simply need a source of nectar to keep their energy levels up. What’s matters about these flowers are the shape – the nectar must be accessible – it’s no good having it all hidden beneath layers and layers of petals, the creatures need to be able to get to it.
Here Are My Ten Favourite Plants For Butterflies And Caterpillars
- Sedum: Adult butterflies seem to adore sedum flowers. The wide-open, star-shaped florets are full of nectar and attract lots of different butterfly species. A great way to bring butterflies into your garden is to install a living green roof on your shed.
- Common knapweed: The purple flowers of this British wildflower appear in high summer and appeal to bumblebees as well as butterflies. They look great planted in herbaceous borders but I like mine in my little mini-meadow where they mix with grasses and plantains to help create a butterfly-friendly eco-system
- Field scabious: Not just a beautiful plant – and it IS a beautiful plant. This one was used by our ancestors to treat skin diseases. I plant it amongst other flowering plants in an island bed in my garden and it also pops up from time to time in my little wildflower meadow. I love the colour.
- Buddleia: The good old butterfly bush. Every summer the one in my garden is absolutely plastered with peacock butterflies, honeybees, bumblebees and cabbage white butterflies.
- Native grasses: Growing grass in your garden doesn’t sound very inspirational does it? But some of our native grasses have the most beautiful seedheads and grown en-mass they provide superb habitat for butterflies and moths. Many of whom like to lay their eggs in the protected environment of long grass. Mixing native grasses with wildflowers gives a wonderfully serene effect reminiscent of that 1970’s chocolate advert with the lady in a wildflower meadow.
- Ribwort plantain: A fully looking little plant which I didn’t find attractive at first, but, if you’ll excuse the pun, it’s growing on me. I grow it amongst meadow plants because it’s such a valuable food plant for caterpillars. Photographing the flowers from above has shown me that they actually have quite a fascinating form – flowers don’t need brightly coloured petals to be beautiful. I’m told that ancient farmers valued plantains because they are incredibly drought tolerant. Sheep can graze on plantains when the grass is suffering from lack of water. I don’t have any sheep (yet) but I am interested in the history and heritage of our native wildflowers.
- Red clover: Some of the most protein-rich pollen in the plant world is to be found in the flowers of red clover. That makes it brilliant for bees who feed their larvae on pollen. These flowers are also abundant in nectar which makes them a favourite with butterflies too.
- Stinging nettle: Just like plantains, if it weren’t for their value as caterpillar food for the peacock butterflies I would eradicate stinging nettles from my garden completely. But I can put up with a little patch of them behind the shed, they’re not doing any real harm PLUS I can use nettles to make an awesome feed for the plants in my polytunnel. It smells awful but it grows terrific tomatoes.
- Holly: I love holly and have several bushes in my garden. It’s great for winter colour, I can cut it to make Christmas decorations and it’s an important plant in the lifecycle of the holly blue butterfly. What’s not to like?
- Yarrow: Such an easy plant to grow and so popular with the butterflies in my garden. I use the coloured cultivars “achillea summer berries” in the island bed and the wild white yarrow in the wildflower meadow and beneath the hedgerows. Historically used to treat tendon injuries – hence the Latin name “achillea” after the Greek God Achilleas.
What Is The Best Way To Support Butterflies?
- Plant plenty of nectar-rich flowers. Opt for single blooms if you can (as opposed to double-blooms where the centre of the flower is hidden by petals) so that the butterflies can easily get to the food they need.
- Include plants that provide food for caterpillars
- Avoid using pesticides that might kill butterfly larvae
- Leave a little bit of the garden to go wild
- If you have room, create a mini wildflower meadow with native grasses and flowers.