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Butterflies: encouraging into your garden

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last updated Dec 30, 2013
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Peacock butterfly on buddleja

Butterflies are attractive insects and they give added interest to gardens when they visit flowers to feed on nectar. A few species have caterpillars that are garden pests, but most have larvae that feed on wildflowers.

What are butterflies? Back to top

Butterflies and moths are insects that form the insect order known as the Lepidoptera. They have caterpillar larvae that feed on the foliage and flowers of their host plants. When fully fed, they crawl away to sheltered places where they pupate and later emerge as adult butterflies.

There are 59 butterfly species resident in Britain, plus up to 30 others that come here as occasional or regular migrants from elsewhere in Europe.
Some species require specialised habitats, such as chalk downland or coppiced woodland and so are unlikely to be seen in gardens. The species most likely to be seen in gardens are Red Admiral, Peacock, Brimstone, Painted Lady, Comma, Green-veined White, Small Cabbage White and Large Cabbage White.

Only the last two are potential garden pests as they have caterpillars that feed on cabbages, other brassicas and nasturtiums.

Less frequent garden visitors are Orange-tip, Speckled Wood, Meadow Brown, Small Copper and Holly Blue. The Small Tortoiseshell used to be a common garden butterfly, but its numbers in southern England have declined greatly in recent years.

How to encourage butterflies Back to top

To see butterflies in your garden, you will need to entice them with the right flowers. Adult butterflies feed on nectar that they will take from a wide variety of wild and garden flowers, particularly those growing in warm sheltered places. Butterflies can be encouraged to visit gardens by growing a range of suitable flowers from March until frosty weather ends the butterfly season in October-November.


Click here for a list of plants for butterflies, all of which can be grown in gardens.


Gardening for Butterflies, bees and other insects by Jan Miller-Klein (Saith Ffynnon Books 2010, ISBN 0955528801).

Three more ways to help butterflies Back to top

  1. Leave fallen fruit under fruit trees. In late summer butterflies, such as red admiral and painted lady, will feed on fruit juices in fallen over-ripe pears, plums and apples
  2. If possible, avoid the use of pesticides, especially on or near plants that are in flower
  3. To increase butterfly numbers, it is necessary to cater for the needs of the caterpillar stage. The following plants are the host plants of butterflies that do or may visit gardens:
  • Alder buckthorn and purging buckthorn: Eaten by Brimstone butterfly caterpillars
  • Birdsfoot trefoil: Food plant for Common Blue caterpillars
  • Cabbage, other brassicas, nasturtium: Eaten by caterpillars of Small and Large Cabbage Whites
  • Docks and sorrels: Food plants for Small Copper caterpillars
  • Garlic/hedge mustard and lady’s smock: Eaten by caterpillars of Orange-tip and Green-veined White
  • Holly and ivy: Holly Blue caterpillars eat holly flowers in late spring and ivy flowers in autumn
  • Mixed grasses grown as a meadow: Provides food for the caterpillars of Speckled Wood, Wall butterfly, Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown, Marbled White, Ringlet, Small Heath, Large Skipper, Small Skipper and Essex Skipper
  • Stinging nettle: Eaten by caterpillars of Peacock, Red Admiral, Comma and Small Tortoiseshell. Needs to be grown in a sunny position to attract egg-laying females, preferably in large clumps
  • Thistles: Painted Lady lays eggs on welted and creeping thistles, also on giant thistle (Onopordum spp.)

Quick facts

Suitable for Encouraging butterflies by providing them with nectar sources and suitable host plants for the larval stages
Timing March to October
Difficulty Easy