Time to count butterflies

By Tamsin Westhorpe

What is it about watching a butterfly in the garden that makes your heart go all a flutter?

My conclusion is that their transformation from a wiggly caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly is the stuff of fairy tales.

Their journey from chrysalis to flying beauty is nothing short of a miracle. It’s also a fact that a flurry of butterflies and moths indicates a healthy environment, so if we don’t see them panic sets in.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been studying the butterflies that visit my garden. I’ve failed miserably to photograph them as they’re quick to fly off as soon as I approach.

The trick, I’m told, is to try and photograph them on an overcast day as they are less active. My intention has been to see which plants are the most attractive to them.

Much to my disappointment I haven’t spotted any unusual butterflies but those that land on my floral runway regularly include the rather dashing peacock, red admiral, small tortoiseshell, large white and the very occasional holly blue.

According to Butterfly Conservation there are 59 species of butterflies in the UK so I’m falling well short of that!

The reason why butterflies and moths visit gardens is to look for food, places to overwinter and places to breed. It’s vital that we help to provide butterflies and moths with an environment that suits them as over the last few years numbers have declined dramatically.

It’s far from a one-way street, however gardeners benefit from their presence. Butterflies are helpful pollinators and they are an important part of the circle of life in the garden.

By this I mean that garden birds are very reliant on caterpillars as food and gardeners love to welcome birds as much as butterflies to the plot.

My interest in butterflies and what to plant to pull them in has been encourage by a new book, Planting for Butterflies by Jane Moore.

I asked Jane what plants she wouldn’t be without. ‘When it comes to planting for butterflies, buddleja is the obvious choice to pull in all the flamboyant butterflies of high summer such as the peacock, red admiral and small tortoiseshell.

I’m a great fan of asters too as they’re such good garden plants – as long as you steer clear of the mildew prone New York asters and pick varieties with single flowers, so the nectar is on show. After that I like the herbs such as lavender and marjoram as they’re great for bees as well as butterflies and are incredibly useful as well as attractive.’

It’s not just what you grow, it’s where you grow that helps to pull in a crowd. The best butterfly borders are in full sun in a sheltered spot.

Butterflies are cold blooded so rely on heat absorbed by the sun. Place a flat stone in a sunny border and you’ll often see them sunbathing and building up energy to take flight.

To encourage early and late season butterflies your planting should include nectar-rich spring and autumn flowering plants and it goes without saying that you should avoid garden chemicals.

Your aim is to plant nectar-rich plants that offer a flower shape that makes landing easy. The flat heads of achilleas and echinacea are perfect. Planting in large clumps also encourages activity. In my garden there is a huge drift of the rather invasive Lysimachia clethroides.

It’s covered in butterflies and in the evening the white flowers attract the moths. Another that is a constant source of entertainment is Origanum vulgare. When it comes to annuals the pot of bright orange tithonia by my back door is a winner.

Big Butterfly Count

Don't forget to join in this year's Big Butterfly Count.

Top ten list of butterfly plants

- Borage officinalis

- Buddleja davidii

- Centranthus ruber

- Erysimum ‘Bowles’s Mauve’

- Hesperis matronalis

- Hylotelephium spectabile

- Lysimachia clethroides

- Origanum vulgare

- Tithonia rotundiflora ‘Torch’

- Verbena bonariensis

Recommended course

Gardening for Wildlife taught by Andy McIndoe

Gardening for wildlife teaches you how to create a garden to attract birds, bees, insects and small wild animals.

View courseAll Gardening courses

Tamsin Westhorpe

With over 25 years’ experience in the horticultural industry, Tamsin has plenty of practical, hands on advice to share. Her career has seen her edit The English Garden magazine for six years, write scripts for TV gardening, lecture at Kingston Maurward College in Dorset and care for parks and gardens. She is now a freelance writer and curator and gardener of Stockton Bury Gardens, Herefordshire (listed by The Times in the top 20 gardens to visit July 2017). Tamsin is also an RHS Chelsea Flower Show Judge, co-Chair of The Garden Media Guild and a prolific speaker at many high profile events. She has recently written her first book ‘Diary of a Modern Country Gardener’ published by Orphans Publishing and is the voice of the popular Candide Gardening podcast ‘Fresh from the pod’.

Stay updated

Receive free updates by email including special offers and new courses.

You can unsubscribe at any time


Related posts

Our best selling courses

Awards & Accreditations

  • Good Web Guide
  • Red Herring Winner
  • Education Investor Awards 2021 - Finalist
  • CPD Accredited (provider 50276)