There’s a sunny corner of my garden where creeping thyme grows in a gravel path. It may be barely 8cm tall, but still provides a valuable oasis of nectar amongst acres of fields where few flowers grow. This tiny butterfly magnet demonstrates that even paths, containers, and window boxes planted with nectar-rich flowers can play a vital role in supporting butterflies, by providing an essential pit stop for them to refuel as they travel across fields, towns or cities.
Beautiful flowers for butterflies
Butterflies get their energy from nectar, and we can help them by growing nectar-rich flowers from spring until autumn. In March, butterflies may be seeking nectar after hibernation or migration, so consider growing crocus, Aubrieta, sweet rocket (Hesperis matronalis), flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), or Pyrus calleryana ‘Chanticleer’, the ornamental pear that bears pretty white blossom.
In autumn, butterflies need nectar to fuel migration or to help them get through their long winter hibernation. Butterflies love daisies and fortunately for them, autumn is daisy time, with Rudbeckia fulgida var. deamii, Helenium, and Michaelmas daisies in full swing.
We expect to see plenty of butterflies in summer, and there’s a wide range of nectar-rich flowering plants that will help to make our plots and pots beautiful while also sustaining butterflies. Scabiosa ‘Butterfly Blue’ flowers from spring until autumn in my garden. It happily grows in a container or window box, as does Scabiosa columbaria subsp. ochroleuca, with its dainty lemon flowers held atop grey-green filigree foliage.
Scabiosa columbaria flowers later in the season than ‘Butterfly Blue’, and gently seeds itself around. In my garden, it has made itself at home in gravel, softening the edges of a path. Sea thrift (Armeria maritima) will also grow in a gravel path. It flowers from March until August and requires very little space, so it can thrive on a city balcony, or even between paving slabs.
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) has never been a weed in my garden, but it does bring in the butterflies, while the butterfly bush (Buddleja) can be a bit of a pest, seeding itself into walls and along railway lines. It is, however, a wonderful shrub for butterflies, as is lavender.
It is possible to have beautiful flowers and provide nectar for butterflies for the price of a packet of seeds. Biennials such as sweet Williams and wallflowers are attractive to butterflies. Selecting annuals for butterflies can be tricky, as some have had nectar bred out of them in the quest for longer flowering periods.
Orange Californian poppies (Eschscholzia californica) and Cerinthe major ‘purpurascens’ are easy to grow. Both will happily seed themselves around, providing valuable nectar for years to come. If you have the space, try sowing Tithonia rotundifolia ‘Torch’. Butterflies love the vibrant orange flowers of this large annual that blooms from July until the first frost.
Designing for butterflies
• When planting for butterflies, select the sunniest, most sheltered site available. Observe the sun when placing pots and hanging baskets, and attach window boxes under the windows receiving the most sun.
• Plant in the largest groups possible to make it easier for butterflies to find the nectar-rich flowers.
• If possible, grow flowers by a lawn or seating area to give butterflies space to fly.
• Paving, rocks, or simply bare earth in a sunny spot will provide butterflies with the opportunity to bask in the sun.
• Grow leafy plants or shrubs for butterflies to hide under on rainy days, and create a log pile to provide shelter for Commas.
• Leave a patch of grass unmown for butterflies such as skippers, meadow browns and speckled woods.
• Allow herbs such as thyme, marjoram, mint, or chives to flower so they provide nectar for butterflies as well as delicious leaves for the kitchen.
Butterflies in the kitchen garden
It may be difficult to imagine welcoming butterflies into the veg patch if you have had your brassicas decimated by caterpillars, but brassicas aside, we can still do our bit to help them by growing nectar-rich runner beans, and leaving rotting fruit for them to drink.
We can’t have butterflies without caterpillars, but thankfully not all of them trash every leaf they see. Unlike butterflies, which are opportunistic feeders, caterpillars have specific host plants on which they feed. The holly blue, for example, lays eggs on holly and ivy, but the caterpillars only eat the flowers and berries. It’s a small price to pay for a brood of holly blues! So if you have space, consider planting holly and ivy.
It’s very straightforward to give your plants ‘butterfly-specific’ care. Nectar supplies do reduce if plants are allowed to dry out, so keep them well watered, and remember to deadhead regularly to prolong flowering. Avoid pesticides if you possibly can. Beyond that, there’s no need to do anything outside your normal plant care routine.
More wonderful butterfly magnets
There’s a wealth of nectar-providing, butterfly-friendly plants you can choose from – here are just a few from the wide selection of flowers these beautiful insects love:
Catmint from 30cm tall Nepeta nervosa ‘Blue Moon’ to Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ at around a metre
Sea holly (Eryngium)
Single-flowered hardy geraniums
What are your favourite plants to attract butterflies into your garden? Share your top picks as well as your flower and butterfly photos with us on our Facebook page.