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Butterflies in your garden

“Bring in the butterflies,” says Jane Moore, “and you will be helping to build an entire ecosystem, from pollination for plants to prey for birds.” Jane’s new book Planting for Butterflies, published by Quadrille, shows you how you can attract these beautiful insects and help them to flourish by creating a butterfly-friendly garden. If you plant the right plants, the butterflies will surely come. Here we compile a selection of excerpts from the book to whet your appetite…

Everyone will agree that butterflies are our most beautiful insects. Referenced in literature, art and music, they are truly iconic and often portrayed as the very essence of nature. Even the smallest child knows a butterfly and its fascinating journey from egg to caterpillar, pupa to butterfly – a lifecycle often taught in schools to pique children’s interest in the natural sciences.

They are long-distance travellers, masters of disguise and an essential indicator of a thriving environment

…Known for their delicate, fluttering wings, butterflies conjure up images of meadows, summertime and warmth. Not only are they incredibly lovely to look at, they are long-distance travellers, masters of disguise and an essential indicator of a thriving environment.

…Something like 18,500 named species of butterfly exist in the world and even more moths – about 140,000. Antarctica is the only continent where butterflies and moths have never been found. The largest butterfly is the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae) with a wingspan of 25cm (10in), found in Papua New Guinea. In the US there are some 725 species with 525 regular inhabitants. In Europe there are almost 500 species, with 140 of those unique to Europe, while in the UK there are 59 resident species boosted by another half dozen or so that migrate from abroad and breed during the warmer months.

…Butterflies and moths are also regarded by scientists and conservationists as highly sensitive indicators of the general health of the environment. Areas that are rich in butterflies are rich in other less obvious invertebrates (which make up over two thirds of all species), which makes for a healthy food chain and a vibrant ecosystem. Scientists use butterflies as model organisms to study the impact of climate changes, as well as habitat loss and their fragmentation, where habitats are partly destroyed, leaving behind smaller unconnected areas. It’s their very fragility that makes them sensitive and quick to react to changes in their environment for good or bad. That makes their struggle to survive or ability to flourish a good measure of an area’s environmental health and wellbeing. If there are fewer butterflies in your particular area than there used to be, then there is far more at stake than simply a loss of colour in the countryside.

It’s not just my garden, it’s theirs too

…At home, our gardens are a tiny slice of the broader picture, a micro ecosystem within a larger ecosystem. My garden may be small but it’s nonetheless an important and integral cog within that circle of life. Within its walls and hedges, butterflies live out their simple lives of feeding, mating and egg-laying on the flowers and plants that I have planted. It’s not just my garden, it’s theirs too.

…Think of your garden as a series of mini ecosystems which all link up to provide a whole panoply of offerings to tempt butterflies and other wildlife. While plenty of flowers are the key factor for many of the most spectacular garden butterflies, other butterflies are very specific in their preferred habitats. With a meadow you can also lure in many of the grassland types, such as the Common Blue and the Meadow Brown. It doesn’t need to be big, but it does need to have a variety of plants and flowering grasses. Creating a meadow isn’t simply a case of letting the grass grow. Buy and plant plugs of wildflowers, then allow them to seed before you cut the meadow at the end of the summer and try to leave one or two patches of long grass through the winter.

It’s simply a case of trying to manage your garden from a butterfly’s point of view

…Hedges, especially flowering ones, provide food and shelter for caterpillars and adult butterflies, but add wildflowers to the base and you’re creating a great habitat for more shade-loving butterflies, such as the Speckled Wood and the Ringlet. Flower borders need to be filled from spring to autumn with a range of flowering, nectar-rich plants which are simply irresistible to butterflies. The kitchen garden can be overflowing with a riot of herbs and annual flowers and some fruit left unpicked to feed the late butterflies. It’s simply a case of trying to manage your garden from a butterfly’s point of view.

…One of the most common and easiest butterflies to recognize, the Small Tortoiseshell has an unusual courtship technique. The butterflies tend to hang about around nettle patches which are the food plants for Small Tortoiseshell caterpillars. The male occupies a territory close to a good nettle patch and, once he’s attracted a mate, he gets her in the mood by drumming his antennae on her hind wings, making a faint noise which it’s possible to hear should you creep up on the romantic couple. The coquettish female will then flutter off a little distance, pursued by her Romeo, and the drumming begins again. The whole wooing process can go on for several hours.

…You can make a mini meadow in a small garden and this is more a case of letting your lawn go wild as there probably isn’t room for both lawn and meadow. A well-kept lawn really is a monoculture, a barren wasteland of grass which isn’t allowed to flower. By comparison, a meadow is a rich tapestry of flowering plants and grasses which provides a home to all sorts of creatures. A meadow is definitely the best for butterflies. So stop treating your lawn, allow the clover to come back in and hopefully a few other plants too, and let it grow.

Planting for Butterflies: The Grower’s Guide to Creating a Flutter by Jane Moore is published by Quadrille

Main image: Small Tortoiseshell butterfly