Plants to attract butterflies and feed caterpillars
While just about any flower with nectar could be a boon for butterflies – cottage garden plants especially – it is a slightly different story with caterpillar food plants (known as host plants). For most butterfly species there is only a short list of host plants. This is possibly because eating leaves and stems is a more tricky business, with plants evolving chemical and physical defences against this kind of munching. It may also be that caterpillars need particular chemicals from that plant to bring out their warning colouration as butterflies.
Plants for breeding butterflies:
|Comma||Common nettle, hop, currant, gooseberry|
|Common blue||Common bird’s foot trefoil, other small legumes|
Common bird’s foot trefoil, horseshoe vetch
|Green-veined white||Cabbage family, cuckoo flower, charlock, nasturtium|
|Holly blue||Holly, ivy|
|Large skipper||Cock’s foot, false brome|
|Large white||Cabbage family, nasturtium, wild mignonette|
Grasses: Fescue species, meadow-grass, bents
|Orange tip||Cuckoo flower, garlic mustard|
|Painted lady||Thistles, common nettle|
|Red admiral||Common nettle|
|Ringlet Cock’s foot||False brome, tufted hair-grass, common couch|
|Small copper||Common sorrel, sheep’s sorrel|
|Small skipper||Yorkshire fog|
|Small tortoiseshell||Common nettle|
|Small white||Cabbage family, nasturtium, hedge mustard, garlic mustard|
|Wall||False brome, cock’s foot, Yorkshire fog, wavy hair grass|
Choose these nectar rich plants to attract butterflies and provide a food source for caterpillars
Growing host plants in the garden is not necessarily guaranteed to attract the relevant butterflies. Sheffield University’s BUGS research project found that nettles in containers were not colonised by many caterpillars. However, butterflies do breed in gardens, and it is worth experimenting with different host plants to see what species might find your garden suitable. It is also worth remembering that some butterflies and caterpillars overwinter, so shelter in the garden is also important – for example in thick growths of ivy.
Take a look at our activity sheet for how to provide for butterflies and bees all year round by planting shrubs and plants that flower at different times!