Any garden is enhanced by the presence of butterflies. Buddleia, otherwise known as the butterfly bush, is well-known for its ability to attract butterflies and in the summer months, many different varieties can be seen amongst its purple flower spikes. The Red Admiral is one of the most common of our butterflies, its striking red and black colouring making it easily recognisable. They arrive from Europe in May and June and lay their eggs on nettles. They feed on the nectar from many plants; clover, Michaelmas daisies, buddleia and also on rotting fruit. Some Red Admirals have been noted overwintering in the south of England.
Another common butterfly is the Peacock, so-called because the four ‘eyes’ on its wings resemble those of a peacock. When the Peacock is threatened, it flaps its wings rapidly to display the eyes and frighten off the intruder. It too lays its eggs on nettles, which hatch into distinctive black, hairy caterpillars. The Peacock hibernates in crevices in walls, sheds and outhouses.
The Comma butterfly is found mainly in the southern half of the country and is another butterfly which overwinters here. Its name comes from the small, white mark on the underside of its wings which resembles a comma. It feeds on flowers such as the dandelion and thistle in the early part of the year, moving on to rotting fruit in late summer. The ragged edges to the butterfly’s wings provide it with camouflage whilst hibernating in dead leaves.
A particularly attractive butterfly is the Holly Blue. Its first clutch of eggs is laid on holly leaves in spring, hence its name, while the second, in summer, is laid on ivy. The ivy-fed caterpillars overwinter as chrysalids, emerging as adults in the spring. At present, this butterfly is not endangered, though in some years, numbers drop off greatly.
One of the first butterflies to be seen in spring is the Brimstone. The male’s bright yellow wings provide a welcome splash of colour and its name derives from the old name for sulphur - brimstone. The word ‘butterfly’ is also reputed to come from its yellow, buttery colouring. The caterpillars feed on buckthorn and the butterfly’s distribution is determined by the habitat of the plant. The Brimstone is the last butterfly to be seen in the autumn, not hibernating until November.
Another common butterfly is the Meadow Brown. The female is lighter in colour and has more distinctive ‘eyes’ than the male. It prefers fields and roadsides as it lays its eggs on grasses while it feeds on nectar from thistles and knapweed. The caterpillars are a yellowish green and blend in well among the grasses.
The Large or Cabbage White can choose from over 60 different members of the cabbage family to feed on, as any gardener will tell you. Planting lavender is supposed to draw them away from cabbages but, more likely, simply increases the size of their larder. Three generations can be produced in a year, the last overwintering in chrysalis form.
Butterflies have good vision but a weak sense of smell so they are attracted to showy flowers which are gathered in clusters. Hence the popularity of buddleia. But wherever they are found, butterflies are a fascinating and attractive addition to any garden.