Plants for butterflies: the best butterfly-friendly plants for the garden
What would a garden be without butterflies? We can hardly bear to think about it! Here are 10 butterfly-friendly plants that are sure to attract some beautiful garden friends.
Not only are butterflies beautiful, they are also very important pollinators. Wild plants and even some crops depend on butterflies for reproduction. However, you might be concerned about attracting butterflies to your garden, and then having to deal caterpillar leaf damage. But have no fear! Caterpillars prefer wild plants such as stinging nettle (Urtica), dock (Rumex) and grass, not garden plants. In the rare case that caterpillars do infest a garden plant, they may indeed leave unattractive holes all over the plant. However, the plant is unlikely to die. In fact, most plants recover quickly and, for your bravery, you may be rewarded with some colourful garden visitors!
What makes a butterfly-friendly plant so friendly?
Firstly, butterfly-friendly plants should be butterfly friendly, not just caterpillar friendly! It sounds obvious, but it is easy to mistake. Caterpillars tend to find enough food in stinging nettles and wild herbs without much help, and the young larvae usually do not require specialty beds. Instead, focus on butterflies, who can struggle to find nectar.
Both butterflies and caterpillars will be happy to have an overgrown corner of the garden where wild plants are free to spread. However, if you prefer more contained flowers, here are ten of the best plants for butterflies!
1. Globe thistle
With its spectacular globe flowers that seem to float high above the ground on slender stems, the globe thistle (Echniops ritro) is other worldly. Like almost all thistle species, globe thistle is a vital source of nectar for butterflies, especially the painted lady butterfly!
Privet (Ligustrum vulgare) can be found in many gardens. This will come as no surprise – the plant makes for an ideal hedge; it is undemanding, robust and can be pruned into just about any shape! What is more, for many butterfly species, such as the meadow brown or small tortoiseshell, the privet’s nectar-filled, white flowers are an ideal food source. With so many advantages, it is worth making some space for a privet!
The phlox (Phlox) plant provides a veritable sea of nectar rich flowers. It is a magnet for bees and one of the most important food sources for butterflies. Also referred to as the flame flower, phlox produces fireworks of colour from June to September. Despite its dramatic appearance, this flower is relatively easy to care for, making phlox a favourite among gardeners.
4. Spiked loosestrife
The stunning spiked loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) has large, dark-pink flowers, which thirsty butterflies, like the comma and small tortoiseshell, adore. Abundant with nectar, moths are also drawn to this plant, and it is essential fodder for caterpillars.
5. Evening primrose
Upon hearing “butterfly”, a colourful, daytime butterfly probably comes to mind. However, about 80% of all butterflies are in fact moths. Moths are nocturnal, and so are particularly attracted to plants that produce their aroma at dusk. Evening primrose (Oenothera) is a wonderful example that attracts moths with radiant flowers that bloom from June to September.
The perennial valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is known best as a holistic remedy for anxiety and insomnia. From June-July, however, this medicinal plant produces beautiful, large, white and pink flower umbels. These flowers have a wonderful aroma, which not only attracts people, but butterflies. False heath fritillary caterpillars, in particular, use this plant as a food source, and most species of butterfly adore the flowers’ nectar. Additionally, this herb is very popular with cats, who treat it like catnip (Nepeta).
With its unique appearance and irresistible scent, lavender (Lavandula) transforms every garden into a Mediterranean oasis. This plant is a jack-of-all-trades. It is extremely easy to care for, has soothing properties and is edible. Lavender also repels mosquitoes, and attracts butterflies! From the Pieridae to the small tortoiseshell, almost every butterfly species uses this plant for food, though caterpillars will refuse to feed on it.
8. Purple stonecrop
For butterflies, finding enough food in late summer can be a challenge; most flowers have already bloomed. Fortunately, the purple stonecrop (Hylotelephium telephium) offers a solution. From July onwards, this plant’s large, umbrella-like inflorescences begin to bloom and will not wither before winter. This provides butterflies, like the peacock and comma butterfly, plenty of food, even in autumn. Purple stonecrop is also a succulent. As such, it is not only beautiful but very hardy – drought, heat and temperatures down to -20°C will not bother this butterfly-friendly plant.
9. Goat willow
Goat willow (Salix caprea), also known as pussy willow or great sallow, is an important source of nectar for butterflies and bees – it is the only native willow species that grows outside of swamps and floodplains. Salix caprea begins to bloom in March and April, providing butterflies with food in the spring. The peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies, amongst others, are particularly attracted to goat willow. Many moth caterpillars and a few diurnal butterfly caterpillars will also enjoy snacking on the willow’s leaves.
Many gardeners will have already planted sage (Salvia) for medicinal use or as a herb. This undemanding plant bears striking purple flowers from June to August that butterflies love. The flowers store their nectar deep, providing only long-trunked insects, like butterflies, the food – so there is plenty for them! Meadow sage (Salvia pratensis) is particularly popular with common blue butterflies and the famous swallowtail.
To help butterflies even more, you might want to build an insect house. And to attract bumblebees to your garden, be sure to plant some bumblebee-friendly plants!