Let your garden be a pick'n'mix banquet for butterflies

These delicate creatures are on the decline so encourage them with the plants they love
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Common Blue butterfly on a meadow buttercup
© GAP Photos/Richard Bloom
The male Common Blue butterfly settling on a meadow buttercup
Many butterfly species are in deep decline, which is not surprising when you consider that in the last 70 years, 97 per cent of Britain's wild flower meadows have been destroyed — mainly due to intensive farming, housing developments and new roads.

You can help protect these beautiful creatures, and enjoy more of them on your patch, if you think of your garden as a butterfly pit stop. Supply the right fuel — plenty of nectar-rich plants — and it will bring them in.

Perhaps you can't recreate a wild flower meadow, but even a small patch of bare ground, sown with wild flower seed mix, will be a main attraction. Or simply let the grass grow, adding plugs of wild flowers into the lawn, and cutting at the end of summer. Be less vigilant in routing out weeds coming up in the grass: what we call weeds — bird's foot trefoil, dandelion, red clover — are a pick'n'mix banquet to butterflies.


Even stinging nettles are a draw for Comma, Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock, because they lay their eggs on this food plant of their caterpillars. And if you fancy seeing the pretty Holly Blue fluttering about the flowers come summer, note its caterpillar feeds on ivy as well as holly.

Growing a wide variety of herbs, perennials and shrubs is bound to bring in the butterflies; the more varied the plant mix, the wider the variety of butterfly species. What make better nectar are simpler, single flowers rather than showy hybrids. Plant in sunny, sheltered positions, because butterflies like to be in the warmth, and plant in blocks, which will make great big, easy-to-spot welcome signs.

Several buddleia — not for nothing are they called butterfly bushes — are a great start; the Butterfly Conservation names buddleia the number one nectar plant, and links it to 18 appreciative species, including Peacock and Painted Lady. Be sure to prune buddleia hard early in the year for maximum flower power in high summer.

Verbena bonariensis, with flat mauve flowers on tall, pin-thin stems, takes little space but is beloved by butterflies, while the gauzy lavender-blue flowers of catmint, are, well, catnip to them. Draw up a seat alongside a patch of flowering red valerian in high summer and it won't be long before you enjoy the fluttery chorus.

Nectar-rich flowers
© GAP Photos/Julia Boulton
Plant a diverse range of nectar-rich flowers to bring in the butterflies
However, butterflies also need later flowers to help them build up their reserves for winter, and spring flowers for when they emerge from their winter hibernation.

Plants with long flowering periods, such as Scabious Butterfly Blue, which blooms from late spring to autumn, are useful where space is tight. Right now, if you do nothing more, buy one of the fabulous sedums — ice plants — that are on sale at every garden centre.

The wide, flat, nectar-rich flowers of Sedum spectabile varieties in varying shades of pink are ambrosia to butterflies, and are a fine addition to the autumn border.

While you're there, you might also want to pick up a great late-flowering hardy shrub, blue-bloomed Caryopteris clandonensis, just one-metre high, that is another high-nectar hit. For early in the year, wallflowers, primulas, forget-me-not, aubretia and honesty can be lifesavers.

Even a window box, with the right plants, can be a grazing ground for butterflies. Bring them into your balcony or terrace with a dwarf buddleia such as Nanho Purple or Buzz Sky Blue, which has the usual big blooms, but on a small plant; perfect for containers.

Flowering herbs, including oregano, thyme, chives, sage and lavender, are magnets for butterflies as well as bees, and make a great one-pot mini herb garden. Give mint a bucket or half-barrel, and let it flower.

Lantana camara is a tropical flowering shrub with open flower sprays in bright colours that blooms till the first frosts, provided you keep deadheading. Butterflies just adore lantana, so much so that it is even used in butterfly breeding programmes. Over winter keep lantana under glass, and you might even be able to start your own.

* For the Butterfly Conservation's listing of the 100 best butterfly nectar plants, visit butterfly-conservation.org

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