Having been asked to write a post, by a couple of people, about the larval food for butterflies, I thought I had better start with how to attract the adults to the garden in the first place, because without the adult butterflies, there will be no eggs and therefore no caterpillars. The adults just have four requirements – sun, shelter, food and moisture.
Butterflies fly best when their body temperature is between 85 and 100 degrees F. Quite often they rest on rocks, paving, or gravel to sun themselves, we quite often see them on our gravel areas. If you place a few rocks or stones where they catch the morning sun, the butterflies will soon come to use them regularly. Sunny borders are where the butterflies come to feed, flowers in shade are not often visited by the butterflies.
Butterflies need shelter from wind, rain and predators. I can hear someone in the NW of Scotland laughing because of all the gales that she frequently gets up there but maybe there are little sheltered areas behind the wonderful shelterbelt of trees that are there. Apparently they shelter from the rain and bird predators by hanging underneath twigs and branches.
Butterflies lead simple lives, they mate, the female lays her eggs, then they spend the rest of their lives drinking nectar. If you plant nectar bearing plants and they are passing overhead, then they will come to your garden. This means planting single flowers as opposed to doubles so that the nectar is available and planting flowers which are shaped like a helicopter landing pad, eg. verbena bonariensis, daisy type flowers, achillea, echinacae etc. and of course buddleia. These flowers are composed of hundreds of tiny tubular flowers which the butterfly can feed from with its proboscis. You could also have a variety of plants which flower over many months, such as rock cress in spring, verbena and buddleia in summer and sedum in autumn.
Butterflies can’t drink water from ponds or bird baths but they do like a muddy puddle! One way to provide this is to fill a shallow container with mud or sand and keep it topped up with water, or if you have any over ripe bananas or pears, then put them out for the butterflies. In the autumn of course they make the most of windfall apples, seeming to get quite drunk in the process!
Last of all, you should never use any pesticides as you will kill the adults as well as the larva.
Having now attracted the butterflies into the garden, now we have to make sure that we can provide the plantfood that the caterpillar likes, otherwise the butterfly will go elsewhere to lay its eggs. If you are lucky you will see the caterpillar laying her eggs and you will be supporting the next generation of butterflies. Remember though , these plants will be eaten, there will be holes etc. in the leaves, maybe best to plant these plants in a more inconspicuous place.
I put “Butterfly larva plant food” into my search engine and found 3 websites which I think might help with the choice of plants to feed the caterpillars-
www.ukbutterflies.co.uk/foodplants.php this had a super list of larval foodplants.
Here are the butterflies that I have managed to photograph in our garden and that seem to live here. Europe, down to the Meditteranean, will have some of these but also lots more that don’t visit as far north as the UK. Some in our garden don’t get as far north as Scotland, so people in NW Scotland will have some northern ones that we don’t have.
This is a Tortoiseshell butterfly which lays its eggs on nettles, I feel there are enough nettles in the field next door without me having to grow any!
Commas lay their eggs on nettles, hop or elm. We have a golden hop over an arbour in the back garden, does the butterfly mind what colour it is?
The larva of Gatekeeper butterflies feed on grasses.
We have seen 3 Ringlets tumbling over and over each other, were they trying to lay claim to the grass that we had allowed to grow longer, in order to lay their eggs there, as the larva like to eat grasses?
I don’t think Brimstone butterflies lay their eggs in our garden, their larval food plant is the alder buckthorn, which we don’t have and I don’t think my neighbours have either. Maybe we just get butterflies passing over who think our garden looks as though it has plenty of nectar, they would be right !
Peacocks are another butterfly that lays its eggs on Nettles.
We often see The Speckled Wood butterfly dancing in the woodland in patches of sunshine, they lay their eggs on grasses.
The bane of the Vegetable gardener’s life as the Large White lays it’s eggs on all the brassica family. Always have so many of these butterflies in the garden.
Female Silver Washed Fritillary butterflies actually crawl along the woodland floor looking for suitable sites with dog violets. She then flies to the nearest tree and lays an egg in a crevice of the bark, it is believed that this provides a suitable microclimate for the overwintering larva. 2 weeks later the egg hatches and the larva moves further into the crevice and spins a silk pad where it then hibernates. The following spring the larva descends from the tree for its first meal of young, juicy leaves of the dog violet. After moulting 4 times it then pupates for 2 to 3 weeks before emerging as a beautiful butterfly- amazing! We have loads of violets in the garden and plenty of trees for them to take their choice.
The Holly Blue butterfly is such a small butterfly, compared to the others, but so pretty. This butterfly uses both the Holly and Ivy plants for it’s larva to feed on. Spring larva feed on the flowers of the holly bushes and autumn larva feed on ivy buds. We have quite a few of both species so plenty of food for lots of caterpillars.
There are also a few butterflies which I havn’t managed to photograph yet. Orange Tips fly in early spring, they lay their eggs on cuckoo flower and honesty. I have already planted the cuckoo flower for them, must sow some honesty seed this year. The meadow brown butterfly lays its eggs on an assortment of grasses. We have been told by our village butterfly expert, that we must have Purple Hairstreaks as they live at the tops of Oak and Ash and we have 5 of each, but they are not the sort of butterfly that comes down into gardens to find their nectar, apart from coming to bramble blossom. The eggs are laid in the tree tops and the larva eat the tree leaves. We do sometimes get Painted Ladies, but these are summer visitors from France and don’t breed here yet. The Common Blue butterfly is also sometimes seen here, the larva like to eat trefoils and legumes. I don’t understand why the Duke of Burgundy Fritillary is so rare in the UK, apparantly it is the 2nd rarest butterfly here in spite of the larval food being cowslip and primrose and we have hundreds of those plants in the garden, they are welcome to come any time!
Quite a few little brown butterflies are here over the summer, just havn’t been able to identify them and photograph them yet. I seem to spend a lot of time during the summer, with this little butterfly book in one hand and camera in the other following butterflies round the garden, never quite fast enough ! So, wherever you live, I think the best thing to do is first of all, either buy a good butterfly book or go on to the internet, from there you should be able to find out which butterflies like which plants where you live. Once you know which plants the butterflies lay their eggs on, then you can get sowing or planting and creating your own butterfly heaven! I wish you joy, butterflies really do add an extra dimension to any garden.
Thank you to Alberto and Frances for asking me to write this post, it was fascinating finding out about the life cycle of the Silver Washed Fritillary, would never have known all those facts, what an amazing life they lead!