Flowers to attract beautiful butterflies

Butterflies and summer gardens are inseparable. So, we eagerly anticipate first sightings every year and note the different species as they appear.

Saturday, 7th August 2021, 2:24 pm
Updated Saturday, 7th August 2021, 2:30 pm
Sunflower with Painted Lady. Picture by Tom Pattinson

When this information is shared with like-minded gardening friends in conversation, a general picture of local population numbers emerges.

Repeat the exercise on a national scale as the www.bigbutterflycount.org is currently doing over a three-week period until August 8, and we shall all see what the national butterfly situation is.

In a good year we can welcome ten different butterfly types to this garden, and if you add the night-time activities of moths, it all becomes a magical experience.

Peacock butterflies on buddleja. Picture by Tom Pattinson

One recent evening, as I stood near a group of valerian (centranthus) flowers, the latter were in an acrobatic feeding frenzy. It was a wonderful spectacle to watch.

They are immediately attracted to what I call helipad-type blooms that offer a flat landing surface covered with small inviting flowers. Yarrow (achillea) is currently showing in a range of colours.

Verbena bonariensis and the blooms of autumn-flowering ice plant (Sedum spectabile) are of similar structure. In between come the large heads of globe artichoke and those of sunflower, offering visitors refreshing nectar and the opportunity for a sound sleepover.

Butterfly bush (buddleja) speaks for itself as a shrubby attractant. It is generally the first port of call when the insects arrive in our garden and it’s presently in competition with groups of veronica (hebe) as we enter August.

We start the year by offering early bees a feast of winter heather nectar from plants that flower between January to April.

What follows is a continuous supply from bulbs, herbaceous perennials, shrubs, and annuals, that can serve bees, butterflies or both according to the flower structure.

Polyanthus, wallflower, aubrieta, sweet William, and valerian are my early season offering for butterflies. These are followed by scabiosa and knautia (pin cushion plants), also centaurea (knapweed).

And don’t forget golden rod (solidago) and phlox. Many more could join this list, but there is only so much room in a garden!

PLANTS SERVE AS BREEDING GROUNDS

There are several butterfly favourites that can be relied on to bloom continuously from August until autumn. Add any to your garden, and you should have the camera ready in anticipation of a winged visitor.

Cosmos is a half-hardy annual that offers a wide colour range and how well it stands up to autumnal days.

The so-called cone flowers, rudbeckia and echinacea must be on your butterfly plant list, if only for the tremendous colour range and non-stop blooms. Helenium is worthwhile too.

Marjoram and the golden leaved oregano are typical herbaceous plants that can be propagated via division. They have just commenced flowering and have butterflies in attendance.

Various lavender groups are creating a blue haze in the garden, and that’s not going unnoticed by our favourite insects. As if this were not enough, there are heleniums, helianthus and asters waiting in the wings.

Many more butterfly-friendly plants could be added to this offering but having provided enough to hold their interest, the next step is to secure future sightings. This amounts to providing plants on which they can breed.

An orange tip butterfly appeared in early July unaware that the visit was part of our cunning plan. We’d introduced two of the plants they lay their eggs on, honesty (Lunaria annuum) and cuckoo flower (Cardamine pratensis), a few years ago.

Red admiral, peacock, small tortoiseshell and comma all lay theirs on young nettle leaves. The elusive painted lady, when she arrives, has a choice of nettles or thistles. Yes, we have them all growing under reasonable control in a spare part of the garden.

This is why, protective gloves to hand, I’m currently examining the thistle, nettle and honesty leaves for caterpillars!