Thursday, 14 June 2012

Butterfly gardening means the right flowers and food plants too

Monarch butterflies reared on a balcony

Everyone loves to see pretty butterflies in their gardens and flying around wherever they live or travel to but sadly very many species are dropping in numbers fast.  Habitat destruction, pesticides and herbicides, as well as Climate Change are all taking their toll.

Fortunately many people who want to help with the conservation of nature and to do their bit, are getting interested in gardening for butterflies. This is a wonderful idea because these beautiful insects need all the help they can get.

A lot of people think that having plenty of colourful flowers and flowering trees and shrubs like the Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii) will help, and this is true, up to a point. You see, whilst it is vitally important to provide nectar-bearing flowers for the adult butterflies to get their food from, we also need to provide food plants for the mother butterflies to lay their eggs on. If this is done it can work very well because the butterflies that have been attracted to your garden because of the flowers, will stick around to lay their eggs if they can see the right food plants also growing there.

If the right plants are grown in sufficient quantities you may well end up with an ongoing breeding population of various types of butterfly in your own garden. In the UK, Europe, North America and other countries where Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica) grow, having a clump of this plant growing in your garden is a wonderful help to the butterflies because many species have caterpillars that feed on it.  For example, the Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae), Peacock (Inachis io) and Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) butterflies all use the Stinging Nettle as a food plant.

Red Admiral at rest

In countries where the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) lives these magnificent insect can be attracted and encouraged to breed by simply planting any of the many species of Asclepias that can be easily obtained by searching on the Internet, or maybe from a garden centre near where you live.  Here in Tenerife the Scarlet Milkweed or Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) is the species that is grown in gardens and parks here.  The easiest way to get seeds is to buy them on Amazon. If you don’t have garden even just a balcony or terrace will do, if you cultivate the plant in pots. I managed to have as many as 50 adult butterflies emerge in the same week after the caterpillars had fed on Milkweed I had grown on my balcony.

Monarch caterpillars

If you have a wild part of your garden then make sure you leave plenty of grass to grow in it. You may be surprised to know that there are very many of the Brown butterfly family (Satyrinae), such as the Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina) and the Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus), that come into this category.  The Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria) is another butterfly in this group with a caterpillar that feeds on grasses.
Blue butterflies often like grassy lawns that are allowed to have wild flowers growing in them. Birds-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) is the food plant for some species of these pretty little butterflies. 

Here in Tenerife the African Grass Blue (Zizeeria knysna) has actually benefited from the lawns that people have in gardens and for hotels and other resort developments.  This is because these lawns often have the weed White Clover (Trifolium repens) growing amongst the grass and their caterpillars can feed on this plant as well as on Oxalis species.

White Clover patch that supports a colony of African Grass Blue butterflies

And of course it is not just butterflies that need the right food plants for their caterpillars because moths too need specific plants for their larvae to feed on.  If you really want to help the butterflies and moths in your area it is a good idea to get a good insect book that will tell you what each species needs and then to cultivate these plants in your garden.

Good luck with your efforts at butterfly gardening and I hope you end up seeing far more of these beautiful creatures where you live! 

Copyright © 2012 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.


Jamie said...

Unfortunately, plants are not just beautiful; they have a greater purpose. Flowers were not meant for aesthetic effect only. The beautification it provides is just a consequence of its ultimate purpose - biodiversity. Flowers were made to be vibrant and colorful because they need to attract insects which facilitate pollination. Without pollination, plant cannot reproduce, and that has a great impact on the food chain as they are the primary food source of everything that lives. Hence, gardeners should re-conceptualize "gardening." If they want to take care of plants, they need to take care at least one of their allies - the caterpillars. Besides, no butterfly would be flying if there had been no caterpillar crawling on some garden plant at one time.

Jamie Keifer

Bard of Ely said...

Thank you, Jamie! I agree!

Charlotte Tree Service said...

Did you purposely let them feed on the milkweed outside? That picture is very powerful

-Tony Salmeron
Tree Removal Charlotte

Bard of Ely said...

Yes, Charlotte, the caterpillars fed on plants I had growing in pots here. The butterflies in the photo were some that had just emerged.