Image: Small white butterfly on lavender

In his beautiful poem Blue Butterfly Day, the American poet Robert Frost described a group of butterflies as ‘flowers that fly’. With their vivid colours and intricate patterns, this description is a fitting one. Indeed, one of the collective nouns for butterflies is a ‘kaleidoscope’, a word which truly captures this colourful spectacle!

In the UK, there are 59 species of butterfly, and around 22 of these can be encountered in the garden. They have fascinating four stage lifecycles, transforming from a tiny egg into a caterpillar, then a pupa and finally a butterfly. For most species, the butterfly stage only lasts for two or three weeks – long enough for the insects to mate and for the female to lay eggs.

Image left to right: Brimstone, comma, peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies, all photographed by Martin Rogers at the Millennium Country Park

There are some exceptions though. Five species - the brimstone, comma, peacock, small tortoiseshell and red admiral – live longer because they go into a state of dormancy over winter, sheltering in nooks and crannies outside or in sheds, garages and sometimes houses. If a butterfly has chosen your home for the winter, you may encounter it fluttering around when you turn the heating on. The best thing to do in this situation is to carefully capture it in a shoebox or similar and then place it with the lid off in a cooler outdoor building so it can return to its dormant state until the warmer months arrive.

Most butterflies spend winter as either a caterpillar or pupa, tucked away in leaf litter underground, at the base of plants or in crevices in walls, fences and log files. The orange-tip butterfly overwinters as a pupa, which changes in colour from green to brown as the seasons progress.  

Attracting butterflies to your garden

A good way of encouraging butterflies into your garden is to plant the foodplants of different species, as most butterflies lay their eggs on plants that their caterpillars will eat when they hatch. A large clump of nettles in a sunny spot will provide a feast for the caterpillars of peacock, small tortoiseshell, red admiral, peacock, painted lady and comma butterflies.

Image: peacock butterfly caterpillar 

If you grow cabbages or any other plants from the brassica family, you’ll no doubt receive plenty of visits from small and large white butterflies looking for a spot to lay their eggs. You can try to tempt them away from your crops by growing nasturtiums around them.

If you’d like to attract buttery yellow brimstone butterflies – one of our earliest garden visitors – you’ll need to grow common or alder buckthorn, either as a tree or part of a hedge. In addition to providing a banquet for brimstone caterpillars, its flowers are favoured by bees and its berries are popular with birds, so it’s a real winner for wildlife.

As well as providing foodplants for caterpillars, you can make your garden welcoming for butterflies by offering a variety of nectar-rich plants for them to feed upon. Nectar provides them with energy which enables them to fly and find a mate. It’s important to have nectar-rich plants that flower throughout the season from spring until autumn. Spring flowers are vital for butterflies coming out of dormancy over winter and autumn flowers help butterflies build up their reserves for winter.

Buddleia, which is commonly known as the ‘butterfly bush’, is one of the best known plants for butterflies. It needs a sunny spot and is easy to grow. There are many different varieties to choose from, including compact forms which can be a better choice for a smaller garden.

Image: Brimstone on Buddleia, Martin Rogers, Millennium Country Park

Verbena Bonariensis is a stunning plant which is great for butterflies and a whole host of other insects. Tall and graceful, it works well at the back of a border, and flowers all through summer and well into autumn. It can easily be grown from seed and will also self-seed, so if you leave the flower heads on you’ll find it popping up again next year.

If you’re looking for something smaller, many herbs are great for butterflies too, and can be grown in pots on a balcony or patio. Marjoram is irresistible to many pollinating insects and is particularly popular with bumblebees as well as butterflies. It flowers in late July and August. Lavender is also an excellent choice, blooming right through summer. Small tortoiseshell, red admiral and peacock butterflies are particularly fond of its richly fragrant flowers. Make sure you keep all your potted plants well-watered, as this will help them to produce a steady supply of nectar for any winged visitors.

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