With canny plant choices, you can entice beautiful butterflies into your garden
By Diane Norris
Attracting wildlife to your garden is wonderful and we all love to see birds flitting through the shrubbery in our backyard as they busily feed or make a home by nesting in the seclusion of garden plants. Sometimes creating a wildlife-friendly garden attracts other native animals, too, such as possums, frogs, geckos and lizards. But there is another group of native visitors you might like to think about attracting to your garden — butterflies. Australia is blessed with an enormous variety of butterflies, many of which are found nowhere else.
Butterflies come in a kaleidoscope of colours and different shapes and sizes. They perform a hugely important role in nature and are one of our top pollinators, helping pollinate more than one-third of the food plants we commonly eat. Butterflies are also a sensitive indicator species to the health of our environment. Sadly, in recent times, their populations have decreased because of pesticide use and habitat loss.
But you can do your bit for the local butterfly population by creating a garden full of plants that will attract these ‘birds’ of the insect world to your yard.
Butterflies in brief
You need to know that butterflies do not grow. They are the adult stage of an amazing life-cycle. The butterfly’s metamorphosis (transformation) consists of four parts: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and adult (butterfly). Adult butterflies are day-flying and they have large, often brightly coloured wings and a conspicuous, fluttering flight.
Adult butterflies will feed on any nectar-filled flowers but they are very specific about choosing host plants on which to lay eggs. This means they only lay their eggs on a particular food plant that their caterpillars will eat.
So when planning a butterfly garden you need to attract the adult butterflies with flowering plants that have vivid nectar-filled blooms and you will also need to plant specific plants on which eggs will be laid and where the caterpillars will be able to stay and gorge themselves until they are ready to pupate. In other words, you need to cater for all stages of the butterfly’s life-cycle if you are serious about having a true butterfly garden.
Butterflies feed in open, sunny locations that feature a variety of flowering shrubs, grasses, trees and groundcovers. They feed on different flowering plants growing at varying heights so you can plant-out rockeries, mounds, garden beds or pots.
Butterflies bring colour and movement to your garden as they pollinate plants in their search for nectar. They tend to favour big and colourful flowers that have a landing platform (labellum) as they like to stay for a while on a flower, sipping nectar.
You will probably see more butterflies in an overgrown or somewhat neglected garden filled with self-sown flowering plants and weeds. But there are practical ways of turning any garden, large or small, formal or informal, into an alluring garden that entices butterflies. They are diurnal, which means they are active during the daytime, so they like flowers that produce their nectar during the day. They have excellent colour vision and are attracted to bright-coloured flowers.
Choosing nectar plants
There is a wide selection of butterfly-attracting plants including:
* Butterfly bush (Buddleia sp.): As the name suggests, this is a favourite of adult butterflies and these plants are rarely seen without a number of butterflies sipping nectar from their blooms. They are deciduous or evergreen shrubs that have long nectar-rich flower spikes and come in shades of pink, mauve, reddish purple, orange or yellow. They are hardy, quick-growing, salt-tolerant and will grow in most soil types. Probably the single best nectar plant you can have in your butterfly garden.
* Daisies: Any type of daisy is a good nectar plant. There are more than 250 species of annuals and perennials. Native daisy species such as the cut-leaf daisy (Brachyscome multifida) or the Pilliga daisy (Brachyscome Formosa) are ideal.
* Bottlebrush (Callistemon sp.): These are a favourite native plant of butterfly species and have stiff, brush-like flowers with large red spiky-type flowers in colours from white, pink, yellow, red to dark crimson.
Food for caterpillars
A caterpillar with a voracious appetite can gorge quite significantly on the foliage of its host plant, so in being a dedicated butterfly gardener, you will need to be prepared to relinquish some of your garden for food production to satisfy these gluttons. It has been said that the caterpillar does all the work but the butterfly gets all the publicity. Very true!
Use native plant species wherever possible. Some natives that are excellent caterpillar food sources are: Cootamundra wattle (Acacia baileyana), Queensland silver wattle (Acacia podalyriifolia), native wax flower (Eriostemon sp.), native pomegranate (Capparis arborea), most Banksia species and lilly pillies (Syzygium sp.).
You can, of course, plant non-native species such as snapdragons (Antirrhinum sp.), Sun plant (Portulaca grandiflora), crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica), Poinciana (Delonix regia), Star Jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) and the Silk Tree (Albizia julibrissin).
A favourite for many butterfly caterpillars are citrus trees. Some gardeners, including myself, have planted citrus trees specifically to provide food for the caterpillars of the
beautiful Orchard Butterfly. There will be many munched leaves but your crop of citrus fruits will be the same regardless.
Enjoy the rewards
At every stage, butterflies are the most amazing and one of the most important insects in the world. To create a garden haven where they can visit to eat and reproduce will be a most rewarding experience. You can watch their cycle of life and perhaps enjoy taking photographs of them. Butterflies are gorgeous, as we know, but their caterpillars can be some of the most beautiful mini-beasts you will see.
A great activity that can include the kids is identifying the species that visit your garden and an excellent compendium for this purpose is The Complete Field Guide to Butterflies of Australia by Michael F. Braby (published by CSIRO Publishing). For advice on creating a garden filled with fluttering wildlife, look to How to Attract Butterflies to Your Garden by Densey Clyne (published by New Holland Publishers). Armed with these authoritative guides, you can create and maintain a wildlife-friendly garden awash with vivid blooms and colourful butterflies.