Butterflies don’t just need a nectar cafe. Their pretty, flying, forms are only one stage of their life cycle. Caterpillars need food too.
While just about any flower with nectar could be a boon for butterflies – cottage garden plants especially – it is a slightly different story with caterpillar food plants (known as host plants). For most butterfly species there is only a short list of host plants. This is possibly because eating leaves and stems is a more tricky business, with plants evolving chemical and physical defences against this kind of munching. It may also be that caterpillars need particular chemicals from that plant to bring out their warning colouration as butterflies.
Growing host plants in the garden is not necessarily guaranteed to attract the relevant butterflies. Sheffield University’s BUGS research project found that nettles in containers were not colonised by many caterpillars. However, butterflies do breed in gardens, and it is worth experimenting with different host plants to see what species might find your garden suitable.
It is also worth remembering that some butterflies and caterpillars overwinter, so shelter in the garden is also important – for example in thick growths of ivy.
Plants for breeding butterflies
|Comma||Common nettle, hop, currant, gooseberry|
|Common blue||Common bird’s foot trefoil, other small legumes|
|Dingy skipper||Common bird’s foot trefoil, horseshoe vetch|
|Green-veined white||Cabbage family, cuckoo flower, charlock, nasturtium|
|Holly Blue||Holly, ivy|
|Large skipper||Cock’s foot, false brome|
|Large white||Cabbage family, nasturtium, wild mignonette|
|Meadow brown||Grasses: Fescue species, meadow-grass, bents|
|Orange tip||Cuckoo flower, garlic mustard|
|Painted lady||Thistles, common nettle|
|Red admiral||Common nettle|
|Ringlet Cock’s foot||False brome, tufted hair-grass, common couch|
|Small copper||Common sorrel, sheep’s sorrel|
|Small skipper||Yorkshire fog|
|Small tortoiseshell||Common nettle|
|Small white||Cabbage family, nasturtium, hedge mustard, garlic mustard|
|Wall||False brome, cock’s foot, Yorkshire fog, wavy hair grass|
For more information about butterfly borders and host plants download our leaflet.