All of a flutter
As autumn approaches, Sue Bradley is thinking about next year’s garden and ways to attract some of nature’s most flamboyant visitors
Butterflies have long inspired poets and philosophers the world over, including many in France. Among those moved to put their feelings into verse include the 18th-century lyric poet Ponce Denis Écouchard Lebrun, who famously wrote: “The butterfly is a flying flower, the flower a tethered butterfly”.
Even those who aren’t of a literary bent find their lives enriched by visits from these colourful insects, which tend to spend longer in gardens that provide them with plenty of nectar-rich blooms.
September is a great time to take stock of the year’s butterfly tally and make the most of the warmth that remains in the soil to put in plants that will encourage greater numbers in the months to come.
When thinking about what to buy, choose flowers that bloom at different times to ensure there’s something looking inviting through spring, summer and autumn. This is especially important when it comes to butterflies that hibernate in winter and need plenty of nectar when they emerge early in the year, along with those that stock up ahead of their long winter sleep.
When planting, choose a sheltered spot that gets plenty of sunshine as butterflies like plenty of warmth, and don’t use insecticides or pesticides, which can kill the very creatures gardeners want to attract.
In addition, bear in mind that butterflies lay their eggs on particular ‘food plants’: comma, small tortoiseshell, peacock and red admiral are all drawn to stinging nettles, which provide sustenance for their caterpillars. Grasses and violets are also popular with certain species.
Butterflies alight on a variety of flowers, particularly simple, open types. Among their top five is definitely lavender, particularly the English type Lavandula angustifolia, which thrives in sunny spots and free-draining soils.
Sedum, also known as ice plant, is a good source of autumn nectar, particularly for small tortoiseshells.
Perennials such as Rudbeckia and Echinacea, also known as cone flower, put on long-lasting displays and receive a good share of visits from winged visitors.
But perhaps the top plant of them all is the ‘butterfly bush’, also known as buddleia, which is popular with no fewer than 18 species.
This hardy shrub is now available in dwarf and compact varieties, as well as larger specimens, and comes in a near spectrum of colours, from white and pink to blue, lavender, magenta and purple.
Other plants to consider putting in, or sowing, at this time of the year include calendula, day lily, perennial wallflower, such as Erysimum ‘Bowles’s Mauve’, Inula, Ceanothus, sweet rocket Hesperis matronalis, and the herb marjoram.
Planting a garden for butterflies is a great way to add extra beauty and movement to an outside space, and brings additional benefits in the shape of moths, bees and other useful insects.
Gardeners who set out to make their plots friendly to wildlife help to provide ‘stepping stones’ between different natural habitats, while enjoying a feeling of satisfaction that they are making a difference.