Nothing evokes summer more than seeing wildlife like our native butterflies and other pollinators go about their business in our gardens. But you may notice that some gardens attract more than others. If you find your own garden lacking these wonderful visitors, then planting to attract more of them is a great way to do it.
Besides the visual impact – they are lovely – did you know just how incredibly helpful butterflies are to our environment and helping plants to thrive? Like bees and moths, butterflies are pollinators too, and they play a crucial role. From the biggest parks, to award winning gardens, to the beds in our back yard, and the smaller plants in pots we keep on the patio or balconies; we wouldn’t have them without pollinators. Butterflies are key in this. They contribute immensely to the health of our plants, flowers, and crops, and to the wider biodiversity of our environment.
Even though we don’t really think about it in such a way, our gardens are extremely important territory for butterflies, providing them with a source of nectar and pollen to help them thrive throughout their active months. You might think, what can I do with just one garden? Well, did you know our gardens cover nearly half a million hectares of land in Britain? This an area greater than all our nature reserves combined! By growing a mixture of flowering plants in our gardens – pots and containers work just as well too – we can provide a wealth of nectar and pollen for all our native bees pollinators. They’ll really appreciate it and will in turn keep your garden lush and healthy, not to mention keep our environment and economy healthy too.
So, if you’d like to attract more butterflies to your garden, then this is the guide for you. We’ll provide lots of suggestions on flowers that are great in the ground or in containers and pots. If you can attract more butterflies, you’ll generally attract more pollinators, so you’ll be helping a variety of important species do their thing and in turn, help us too.
Why are Butterflies Important?
While bees are the heavyweights of pollination, butterflies are no slouches by any measure. Butterflies typically fly longer distances than bees, covering large areas of plants in a single trip. Monarch Butterflies, the largest in Britain, are known to travel 50 – 100 miles in a single day. Butterflies gather pollen and when they land on a flower to drink nectar. They are unable to collect as much pollen as bees, meaning they are not as prolific as bees at pollination, but they are known to aid more in the genetic variation of plant species that they collect nectar from, largely thanks to their long-distance travel. It means that pollen will be shared across differing groups of plants that are sometimes hundreds of miles away from one another.
How do they do it? Well, as butterflies go on to travel from flower to flower, they also pollinate them. Unlike bees, they don’t carry pollen over their bodies, instead collecting via their legs when they visit plants to drink nectar. When the butterflies visit the next flower, some of this pollen rubs off onto the female reproductive organ of the flower. The whole process of transferring pollen enables plant and flowers and trees to produce seeds or fruit.
What Butterflies Do We Have in the UK?
In the UK, there are about 60 species of butterfly. However, we typically only see up to 22 in gardens. They are cold-blooded creatures which means they require ideal temperatures to be able to fly. Therefore, they are most seen in spring and summer.
Some of the most common butterflies we have in the UK are:
The most seen butterfly in the UK. Painted lady butterflies have a pale-orange background colour to the upper wings. The forewings have black tips marked with white spots; the hindwings have rows of black spots. The undersides are pale with blue eyespots.
The peacock butterfly has brownish-red wings, each with a single, large peacock-feather-like eyespot – used to scare predators. It rests with its wings closed, showing the almost black, well-camouflaged underside.
The large brilliantly coloured Monarch butterfly is among the most recognisable. Their wings are a deep orange with black borders and veins, and white spots along the edges. The underside of the wings is pale orange. They can have a wingspan of three to four inches.
The small white has brilliant white wings, with small black tips to the forewings and one or two wing spots. The undersides are a creamy white.
The Gatekeeper (also known as the Hedge Brown) is quite variable and can vary in their colouring. Typically, they have a darker brown outer wing colouring, with a light brown or orange inner, and this has a unique black spot with white inner dot.
The brilliant white wings have black tips to the forewings, extending down the wing edge. Females have two spots on the forewings, which is not present in males. The undersides are a creamy white with two spots.
Male common blues have violet-blue upper wings with grey-beige undersides. However, females vary from those with predominantly brown upper wings and orange crescents.
Male holly blues have sky-blue upper wings with narrow, black borders, whereas females have broad, dull black borders. In both sexes the under wings are palest blue, almost white, with black spots.
Red admirals have dark black-brown wings, each with an orange-red band. The forewing tips are black with white spots; the underside is orange, blue and white, while the hindwings are camouflaged dark brown.
Small Tortoise Shell
The small tortoiseshell is bright orange and black with a row of blue crescents around the wing edges. Underneath, they are camouflaged dark grey and brown.
Plants that Help Butterflies
Now that you know a bit more about butterflies here are 17 plants that will provide them with a good source of nectar and pollen for years to come. Sadly, our butterflies have faced decline in recent decades, so the more we can do to help them the better. Butterflies mostly land on wide-open flowers as well as favourites such as common honeysuckle and heather.
Honeysuckle is a climbing plant with lovely pink scented flowers that are nectar rich. It does it all for wildlife and pollinators. Butterflies just love them because they can easily enjoy lots of nectar from their flowers. Plant it in full sun to partial shade for best flowering.
Flowering heathers are not only wonderful to look at, but they are also a wonderful source of autumn nectar for butterflies, helping them to build up energy reserves for winter. It has been discovered that heathers may even act as a medicinal plant helping them to fend off parasites. Heathers generally, are under threat, with many heathlands across Britain now gone due to agriculture. So, planting some heathers will not only help the pollinators, but the heather itself. Plus, they look amazing in winter when everything else has died off.
Ivy is a great low-maintenance plant that is very good for pollinators. The clusters of flowers that appear on ivy attract all manner of insects and the little berries that appear afterwards act as a valuable winter food source for insects and birds too. It is often overlooked but more and more it is seen as a great option for butterflies in British gardens because it flowers late in the year when other nectar sources have gone. Ivy has suckers so it will happily grow up a wall or fence eventually on its own but will also equally cover the ground.
Lavender has both pollen and nectar pollinators can feed on in a single plant, usually in plentiful amounts. It’s one of the most versatile plants around and will do well in the ground, in pots, flowerbeds and nearly anywhere you’d want to include it. Lavender, with its strong scent, is known to repel pests in the garden too. Butterflies can land and easily access the plentiful nectar.
Sedums are known to be a butterfly magnet for their nectar and colouring, the white and pink especially being an attractive colour to butterflies. Sedums are great ground cover plants, and their foliage is evergreen too. They also store water, so are quite resistant to drought. A great low-maintenance plant.
Buddleia – also known as ‘the butterfly bush’ – is a fantastic source of easy to reach nectar for butterflies. The pretty pink to purple blooms will typically last for weeks between summer and autumn. There are a few varieties of Buddleia but all look fantastic with their cone shaped and vibrant flowers.
Verbenas are great for butterflies because of their nectar rich flowers that produce plenty of pollen too for bees. They also look great and come in a variety of vibrant colours like reds, pinks, blues, and purples. Plant them tightly in your flower beds for a remarkable long-lasting floral display.
Catmint is another great choice for butterflies. It produces lots of pollen and nectar generally. The long-lasting flowery spikes mean that butterflies and other pollinators will return to it again and again through the season. Like Lavender, Catmint has the added benefit of being able to deter pests like aphids from the garden.
Similarly, to Catmint and Lavender, Alliums are a favourite of butterflies and pollinators. Their purple flowerheads offer a bounty of pollen and nectar. The dense flowerheads have the added benefit of providing lots of nectar in a single flowerhead, meaning the butterflies can save energy. Alliums are part of the onion family.
Snapdragons have unique looking flowers in terms of colour and shape, even the scent is known to be unique. They are great cottage garden plants that are brilliant for butterflies due to their long flowering period. The undersides of their leaves offer spots to safely lay their eggs too. It is a very versatile plant, coming in a variety of colours and heights which means it can be used in a variety of planting situations in the garden.
The hot pinks and wide flower heads of the dianthus flower attract butterflies to their bounty of nectar and pollen. Dianthuses are wonderfully flagrant and great for beds and borders. They will do well in pots and containers but are also great for hanging baskets, window boxes and rockeries too.
Hydrangeas are great for butterflies. The flowers aren’t too tightly packed together which makes reaching the nectar fairly easy. The flowers are highly fragranced too, and the colours attract them and other pollinators throughout the season.
Hebes are great looking compact style flowers, with a cone/spikey flowering shape. Butterflies and other pollinators are attracted to them because of their rich nectar and pollen reserves, and vibrant colours (whites, pinks, purples and blues). Hebes do well in pots or in the ground and are very hardy too. A great low-maintenance plant.
Pulmonaria are semi-evergreen plants with lovely, dainty, little flowers that are an excellent early source of nectar for butterflies. The flowers are a lovely pinkish blue and will help to add interest to your garden too. They don’t like full sun though – this will make them wilt and look poorly – so best placed in shadier areas.
Anemones are another brilliant choice for butterflies. The open flower creates an easy landing pad for them to get on and gather pollen and nectar. The plants are a great addition for them as they provide lots of pollen and are a lovely and colourful addition to any garden.
Asters are great for butterflies because they tend to flower later and so provide nectar into the autumn just before butterflies go dormant in winter. The colourful, open flower creates an easy landing pad and as an added bonus they are very easy to grow.
Geraniums produce nectar and pollen, and most varieties are popular with butterflies. Geraniums are great because they are hardy, low-maintenance, and great for planting in gaps in borders.
Other Ways to Help Butterflies
In addition to the plants above, there are some other ways we can help butterflies in our gardens.
Let the Grass Grow Wild
Allow a bit of your lawn and lawn weeds to flower by cutting less often. You don’t have to do this in the entire garden, perhaps just a few square metres if you have the space. Leaving patches of grass to grow wild will let wildflowers grow and in turn these make great spots for butterflies to gather more nectar. This will help other pollinators too.
Butterflies need sources of water for drinking and reproduction. Think shallow and broad sources rather than deep. Adding sources of water is as easy as adding a bird bath or a puddling area. You can also provide water by hanging a dripping bottle or placing a small container of water out in the open.
If you need to use pesticides, can you use them sparingly? Ensure you keep the soil healthy, as any plants that suffer from poor soil conditions from too long can become poorly, and poorly/sick plants attract pests. Another method to help control pests is companion planting, for instance nasturtium attracts aphids from other plants. Many types of herbs are also good companion plants, as their strong scents act as a deterrent to pests. Lavender itself is also believed to be a deterrent of certain pests due to its strong scent. So, if you prefer the organic control method really consider companion planting.
You can help to provide shelter by adding butterfly houses or by developing one or two areas in your garden for them to take shelter. Trees, tall grasses, and among rock piles are some common places for them to hide when winds are too high, or it rains.
Leave Fallen Fruit Under Trees
In late summer butterflies will feed on fruit juices in fallen over-ripe pears, plums, and apples. If you have a fruit tree in the garden don’t be in a rush to collect them.
Plant Larval Food Sources
Many of the flowers listed will attract adult butterflies but most are unsuitable as food plants for the larvae. The caterpillars eat leaves and often have a narrow range of plants. It might be worth doing further research to find out what plants are best for the larvae, and planting some for them too. Bear in mind that not all butterflies will lay eggs and breed in gardens, even if the appropriate food plants are provided, instead preferring flowers that only grow wild.
Lets Turn Our Gardens into Butterfly Paradises
Now you know more about butterflies and what we can do to help them, by planting flowers they love, and making their lives a bit easier in our gardens, why not start thinking about what you can plant and what areas you can create for them? Our gardens can protect and foster all pollinators, and if they are doing well, then they are helping us and our native biodiversity too. Many of these plants are readily available and are easy to tend, so why not pick up a few and give it a go.