Saturday, 31 March 2018

Butterflies in the garden

Now that I'm starting to do some serious gardening again, I am trying to think what plants and garden features are beneficial to resident and visiting wildlife. In this post, I am going to focus on butterflies. I like to observe wildlife including butterflies and often record what I see using either iRecord or during the Big Butterfly Count. Here, I will use the photos taken in the garden and elsewhere to identify which plants are attractive to butterflies.

Gatekeeper - making the most of July warmth.
Many of my photos show butterflies basking in the sun - on sunlit leaves, fences, grasses, rocks, bare earth etc. So places where they can find warmth are important.

The summer banquet

The Butterfly Conservation people have a page on Gardening with butterflies in mind.  They list the best plants for summer nectar and these are very much in line with my expectations. One of the more useful hints is to plant nectar rich plants in sunny parts of the garden.

Peacock on Verbena Bonariensis - July
One of the plants they recommend is Verbena Bonariensis, which also comes right at the top of my personal list of flowers attractive to butterflies. This is consistent with the results of a more general survey I did in 2014.

Holly Blue on Marjoram - July
Another summer favourite is wild Marjoram.  The browns seem to particularly attracted to this plant if it is growing close to long grass.

Snacking through the rest of the year

Small Copper on Aster - September
As the days shorten and the summer flowers fade away, Asters and Sedums are a good source of nectar.  Butterflies will also feed on fruit. The Natural History Museum page - How to attract butterflies to your garden - suggests putting fruit on the compost heap for them. Our compost heap is in a shaded corner, so I drop overripe or fallen fruit into a sunny patch. I've sometimes seen Red Admirals feeding on it.

Red Admiral on Mahonia - November
On the subject of Red Admirals, these can be seen flying during the winter months and are likely to need a winter snack. Mahonia is very popular with these butterflies and many other pollinators. Be sure to get the type with the long spikes of flowers that bloom during the winter months. Avoid the type that blooms in spring when there is plenty of other food around.

Brimstone on Sweet Violets - March
Butterflies will take nectar from early spring flowers such as Violets.  Many will visit Blackthorn blossom and Lesser celandine but these two are thugs that will swamp garden plants.

Speckled Wood on Bowles Mauve Perennial Wallflower - May
The Perennial Wallflower, Bowles Mauve, appears on the Butterfly Conservation summer nectar list andit starts flowering in April and so bridges the gap between the early spring flowers and the classic, summer butterfly flowers.

Caterpillars need to eat too

Peacock on Stinging Nettle - June
Sorry, I'm a bad nature lover and have no intention of having a nettle patch in our garden. Luckily our neighbour doesn't cut the nettles in his parking area and I think this is where our steady supply of Red Admirals and Peacocks comes from.  The Butterfly Conservation gardening page links to a list of food plants (pdf) and the Natural History Museum page advises allowing your garden to be wild around the edges. I suggest wild corners rather than edges. The difference between a wildlife-friendly garden and a mess is tidy edges, a prominently positioned log pile and a bird box.

Metamorphose in peace 

Green-Veined White on Garlic Mustard - I check old stems before composting
When a caterpillar is changing into a butterfly it protects and disguises itself in a pupa. They hide away in all sorts of places so be careful what you clear away. I cringe whenever I think about the way that I used to carefully leave Garlic Mustard (Jack-in-the-Hedge) as a food plant for Orange Tip and Green-veined White caterpillars and then cleared away the stems that probably had pupa attached.

Do butterflies dream of electric flowers?

I don't know if butterflies sleep but they do need somewhere hide away at night. If I brush against our hedge as I pass it first thing, a cloud of brown and orange butterflies - Meadow Browns and Gatekeepers - appears.  While taking evening walks along the A45, which runs alongside a hotel I regularly stayed in while at Birmingham, I saw Large Whites disappear into the canopies of trees alongside the road. So hedges, shrubs and trees provide butterflies with useful shelter.

Next steps

I think we are doing reasonably well with our butterflies but I need to focus more on caterpillar food plants. Of those mentioned in the Butterfly Conservation (pdf) list, we have all sorts of rough grasses, Bird's Foot Trefoil, Garlic Mustard, Violets, Blackthorn, Sorrel/Dock, Holly and Ivy. This means I have both butterflies and food plants. The next step is to find out if the butterflies are breeding in the garden - and that means getting down on my hands and knees to find caterpillars.

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