Three quarters of British butterflies are in decline and 56 species are under threat from environmental change, which are two good reasons to provide food and shelter for these beautiful insects in our gardens. The third reason is, of course, simply because we just love to see them fluttering around the flowers.
Get the planting right and you could attract more than 20 different species. That’s the message from the charity Butterfly Conservation, which has organised a survey for garden owners to record and report on visiting butterflies over the course of a year.
For more details, see www.gardenbutterflysurvey.org
The good news is that you don’t need the broad, buffet-like appeal of a butterfly border: even a window box, planted with nectar-rich plants, can make a fine pit stop, while Butterfly Conservation suggests planting a container specifically for butterflies, moths and other pollinators.
Nectar is the fuel insects need to fly, so even one pot can be a refuelling feast.
Take your pick from the recommended selection, and place the pot in a sunny, sheltered position, because butterflies love warmth and little wind: Salvia nemerosa, cosmos, catmint, liatris, agastache, echinacea, leucanthemum daisy, cranesbill geranium, Stachys byzantina and the wild oregano — not the decorative varieties.
Grow a purple patch
To this list I would add the pretty summer bedding plant, Lantana camara, which is such an exceptional draw for butterflies that it is used in research at butterfly breeding stations. Be sure to use peat-free compost, available at every garden centre, because peat bogs are important habitats for many species.
In summer, it’s easy to include nectar-rich plants that butterflies adore and as a very rough guide, note that many of the butterfly’s favourite flowers are in the colour range of blues and purples, such as lavender, phlox, viper’s bugloss, polemonium, Erysimum Bowles’s Mauve, salvias, catmint, hyssop, hebe, Verbena bonariensis and the butterfly bush, buddleia.
If you don’t have border space for a buddleia, you could buy a plant or three of the new compact Buzz range.
As another general rule, butterflies’ most popular food sources are perennials, biennials and shrubs, simply because annuals seldom produce enough nectar to meet their needs. Single, open flowers are better butterfly bets than hybridised doubles, so that a single-flowered rose such as Complicata is a good nectar source, and so are single-flowered cosmos.
Adopt a more relaxed attitude to your garden and you will bring in the butterflies. Let a patch of grass grow long, leave the dandelions and buttercups be, grow butterfly-friendly blooms in large drifts, not insignificant dots, and avoid pesticides.
Commas, red admirals and small tortoiseshells lay their eggs on stinging nettles, a favourite food source for caterpillars, but this may be a step too far, though you could keep a patch in a large container, treating it as a mini nature reserve.
Consider a mixed native hedge that will act as a wildlife corridor, protecting butterflies and moths from the wind. Grow not-so-neat climbers up walls to provide shelter, such as honeysuckle, which gives a town garden instant country appeal, and ivy, allowing it to flower and be a great late nectar source.
The butterfly-friendly garden has a wide spread of nectar sources from March to November — in spring, nectar helps butterflies refuel after hibernation and in autumn, it helps them build their energy reserves for winter.
Early in the year, key plants include forget-me-nots, primroses, grape hyacinth, aubretia, biennial wallflower, ajuga, pulmonaria and the blossom of apple, pear and plum trees; later in the year, sedums, Michaelmas daisies, single-flowered dahlias, echinacea and flowering ivy make welcome feeding stations.
Get in the mood — and discover more native flowers that attract British butterflies and other wildlife — by visiting the nectar-rich wildflower meadow surrounding the huge Tropical Butterfly Dome at this week’s Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, which ends on Sunday.
The meadow also features plants on which butterflies lay their eggs and caterpillars feed, such as thyme, holly, honeysuckle, ivy and foxglove.
- Garden queries? Email our RHS expert at firstname.lastname@example.org
- For outdoor events this month, www.visithomesandproperty.co.uk/events