Life Home & Garden

Monday 21 January 2019

Tips to encourage garden butterflies to visit

Gerry Daly

There is not a butterfly to be seen during these chilly months of the year, unless perhaps you disturb a small tortoiseshell butterfly that has been overwintering in the folds of your curtains. This butterfly species is sometimes found flitting against the glass of a window if a room is heated more than it usually is.

There are more than 30 species of butterfly found in Ireland. Some are resident while some are migrants from the continent. Some are common and others are quite rare. Many kinds of butterflies visit gardens, including small tortoiseshell, peacock, red admiral, meadow brown, common blue, painted lady, fritillaries and, of course, the less desirable cabbage white butterflies.

Butterflies visit gardens to find food plants for the larvae to feed on at the caterpillar stage. Nettles are a favoured food of small tortoiseshell, red admiral and peacock butterflies, while the painted lady likes thistles. The common blue likes bird's foot trefoil. Meadow brown and speckled wood caterpillars feed on grasses. It might be possible to leave some wild plants in a suitably sunny corner.

While the caterpillars generally favour wild native plants, with the exception of cabbage whites which feed on any cabbage family plant, the adult butterflies use many foreign plants that are good sources of nectar. Butterfly bush, from China, provides a rich source of nectar and is visited by many kinds of butterfly, often several species at the same time. It is commonly found growing on derelict sites. Purple top verbena, native to South America, has small clusters of tiny tubular purple flowers that are constantly visited by butterflies in summer and autumn.

Joe Pye weed or eupatorium is a North American plant that can reach 2m in damp ground and is much visited by butterflies. It has feathery pale purple flowers at the tops of the stems. A shrubby relative of the Joe Pye weed, Eupatorium ligustrinoides, is as good as butterfly bush, though hard to find to buy, and it is only for mild gardens. From the Mediterranean region, red valerian is a good nectar source.

The native plant wild marjoram is very good for butterflies. Plants of the thyme family, such as thyme, catmint, teucrium and sage are also good nectar plants and all of these can be grown in well-drained soil in sunshine. Ice plant, or sedum, has small tubular flowers in broad clusters and is much visited by butterflies.

Sheltered areas encourage butterflies to visit because the air is warmer and less turbulent. A flat rock, raised a little off the ground, is used by butterflies to warm up, opening and closing their wings, before flying.

The plants mentioned can be planted any time now in flower beds and borders when conditions improve.

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