Butterfly species, unfortunately in decline in Ireland, are a key part of the food chain and aid pollination
Butterflies epitomise nature and all that is good and healthy in our eco-systems. Walt Disney adopted them for multiple movies and cartoons to symbolise playful healthy landscapes and lazy days outdoors.
But, as with so many species, we have to protect them and ensure their survival in a sometimes inhospitable world. By putting a little bit of thought into what we need for a butterfly garden it will enable us to understand their requirements and garden accordingly.
They need cover to lay their eggs over winter, some slightly untidy areas such as meadow and nettles to allow the larvae to feed in spring and pollen-producing plants and seeds which will provide the sweet food that fuels the butterfly dance.
Butterfly species are in decline in Ireland. Habitat destruction is thought to be a key factor in their demise. For example, the beautiful Marsh Fritillary is an endangered species due to the drainage and destruction of bogs.
Butterflies are an indicator of a healthy biodiversity and are a key part of the food chain and help with pollination. Gardens which attract butterflies are easy — it’s a matter of choosing a nice combination of plants which they and moths are attracted to and providing the flora and conditions which enable their complete life cycle.
What plants do they love? Ideally you need to keep them well fed from March through November. The butterfly bush, Buddleja, would definitely be their favourite dish.
Buddleja davidii gets a bit of bad name due to its invasive colonisation of buildings and derelict sites, however, there are less invasive varieties such as B. globosa and B. Black Knight which I grow and they are very well behaved. Other attractive shrubs are lavender, escallonia, caryopteris, hawthorn, blackberries, heathers and hebes.
But you don’t need to have heaps of space either — the balcony gardener or courtyard dweller can plant perennials and colourful annuals that will tickle their taste buds. There are many scrumptious flowers such as cornflowers, single-flowered dahlias, heliotrope, verbena, solidago, alyssum, echinacea, sedums, aubretias, calendulas, asters, zinnias and dianthus that will provide nectar.
And they love to sink their proboscis into native flowers so loosestrife, valerian, dandelions, buttercups, angelica, teasel and clover will signal your garden as a wildlife-friendly zone. Just leaving a bit of the lawn un-mown can create a mini-meadow.
In the meadow behind my house which is currently full of clover, buttercup, sorrel and flowering grasses, it is astonishing to see how many moths and butterflies gather there.
You will also need to provide food for caterpillars. Cabbage growers and readers of the children’s classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar know all too well how much grub they require to fuel their wondrous metamorphosis but you can redirect them to nasturtiums, nettles, thistles, meadow grasses, docks, sorrels, holly and ivy.
If you’re interested in getting involved in butterfly conservation, check out the website butterflyconservation.ie which is full of tips and great information on where to spot butterflies.
Did you know that the lunar landscape of the Burren is home to more species of butterflies than any other region in Ireland? One species, the Pearl-bordered fritillary is only found in this region.
As with all gardening when we are concerned with the creatures that surround us which enable a healthy environment, lay off the chemicals. If we garden with nature, using the aids that it provides, it’ll make the butterflies and us happier gardeners. It’s time to spread some flutters of joy through the garden or at least to plan for swarms of butterflies to fly daintily from bloom to bloom in our summer plots.