Attracting Butterflies.

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.

Silver washed fritillary

Butterfly book

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-     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.

Speckled Wood

We often see The Speckled Wood butterfly dancing in the woodland in patches of sunshine, they lay their eggs on grasses.

Large White

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.

Silver washed fritillary

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.

Holly Blue

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!

Butterfly book

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!


This entry was posted in Hints and Tips and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Attracting Butterflies.

  1. Butterflies sunning on the gravel path, is a sneaky way to get the camera to take a picture – before they fly out of sight.

    • Pauline says:

      Believe you me, Diana, it is far easier to photograph the butterflies on the flowers and bushes , than to get down on the gravel with my old bones!

  2. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Brimstone or a Speckled Wood butterfly but they may not get this far north. And the butterflies that do are often later than south. I saw some orange tips last year but they never stayed still long enough to photograph. Lovely post.

    • Pauline says:

      Glad you liked it Janet,looking through my book, I have only found the Scotch Argus, which flies in damp coniferous forests, mountains and moorland, larva eat grasses, and the Mountain Ringlet, also mountain grassland and moors which you should have that we don’t. So many beautiful butterflies for Europe, but they don’t come to Britain, but who knows what will happen with a bit of global warming, maybe they will feel the urge to pop over the Chanel!

  3. What a timely post Pauline, I have been meaning to research what the caterpillars eat to encourage more butterflies in this garden and you have given me the nudge I need to make it happen this year.
    Happy New Year.

    • Pauline says:

      Glad to have been of use Karen! We have certainly noticed an increase in numbers since we have planted the cuckoo flower and encouraged all the violets in the woodland strip, hope your numbers increase this year!

  4. Liz says:


    My biggest discovery this year was Erysimum which all species of Butterflies except the Peacocks fed from – small and large whites, gren-veined white, small and large skipper, small tortoiseshell, red admiral, gatekeeper and speckled wood. It will definitey have a place in my garden from now on.
    I also leave my privet to bloom as not only do the Bees love it, but so do many of the Butterflies and I often get gatekeeers, skippers, speckled wood and meadowbrowns on it.

    • Pauline says:

      Your garden sounds like butterfly heaven already Liz, I just wish some of the smaller butterflies would slow down so that I can identify and photograph them! My Erysimum plants are surrounded by Verbena bonariensis so have only noticed the butterflies on the Verbena, will watch in future to see if they go to the Erysimum.Thanks.

  5. catmint says:

    butterfly heaven in your garden, so many varieties. I welcome them and grow verbena and buddleia but don’t have so many varieties. As to them nibbling leaves – I’m now really pleased when I notice nibblings because it means wildlife are making themselves at home in the garden. Muddy water not a good idea here though because of the mosquitoes.

    • Pauline says:

      So glad to find someone else who doesn’t mind holes in their leaves Catmint! You must have totally different butterflies from us, my books don’t cover your part of the world ubfortunately, good point about the mozzies though!

  6. Hello Pauline. I enjoyed your post very much. I love reading and writing about butterflies and their caterpillars. Your pictures are beautiful!

    • Pauline says:

      Thanks for visiting Debra, glad you liked the post and that you like butterflies as much as I do. They certainly bring extra colour to the garden don’t they?!

  7. wonderful post Pauline, thank you, the large white (well I think that is the what the white butterfly is) is the only one I see in my garden , it loves the big blue geranium flowers,
    on the second book cover you show it has the magpie moth, there were lots of them in my garden last summer, first time I ever saw them,
    I’ve found out that there are few butterflies on the outer hebrides, like no ladybirds, I miss seeing them, the tweenie garden between my big trees gets the morning sun and is protected from the south westerlies so that would be the place for me to plant butterfly food and set some big stones in, it’s the garden I posted about in my end of year post, oh and a mud puddle, Frances

  8. Alberto says:

    Thank you for this beautiful post. You gave me the ignition I needed to do some more research on local butterflies. Those who lay on grasses shouldn’t have problems in my garden!
    The pictures you posted are amazing! Yesterday I was potting roses and I saw an orange butterfly. I’ve never seen a butterfly so early in the year, maybe it’s due to this weird weather… I wondered what she could find to eat

    • Pauline says:

      Glad to have been of help Alberto. Your butterflies will be very happy with all your grasses, hope the caterpillars don’t eat them all!! How fantastic to have such an early butterfly in your garden, I’m sure you have something in flower for her to have her fix of nectar, if not, then you will have to get planting!!!

  9. wellywoman says:

    Great post. I love butterflies and had a bumper year 2 summers ago when I recorded 10 different species. Verbena bonariensis is such an amazing plant for butterflies, along with buddleia. I know they’re not butterflies but I was so chuffed to have 2 visits from hummingbird hawk moths this summer these were to the Verbena as well.

    I’ve never seen a brimstone it is such a beautiful colour.

    • Pauline says:

      This is the first summer WW, that we havn’t seen hummingbird hawk moths in the garden, they usually come to the Valerian flowers. We usually have Brimstones early on, so must plant some alder buckthorn for the caterpillars to enjoy, the females are almost white. So pleased that you have so many species to enjoy, I love them fluttering around the garden.

  10. Cyndy says:

    What a wonderful post – having relocated to a warmer climate, I’m hoping to see plenty of these fluttering by next summer. Love your photos, they’re really outstanding 🙂

    • Pauline says:

      Thank you Cyndy, I hope your garden is full of colour next summer, from flowers and butterflies.It’s so wonderful to see them fluttering everywhere when the sun shines, lots of extra colour when they visit.

Comments are closed.