On a warm, lazy afternoon, beautiful butterflies are the icing on the cake of any garden. These delicate and gentle insects are universally loved, and it’s no surprise that you’re looking for ways to encourage them into your space.
Whether you’re cultivating a chaotic cottage garden or working on wildlife-friendly ideas, make sure to include plenty of flowers and plants for attracting butterflies. Not only are they wonderful to watch while you relax outside, they’re also hard-working pollinators, keeping the country’s flowers blooming and crops flourishing.
Gardens play an important part in connecting the natural habitats of all creatures, including butterflies. Butterfly gardening is about filling your outdoor space with places for these beautiful insects to feed, rest and lay eggs.
The most important thing with butterfly gardening is to provide lots of nectar-rich plants, which will give butterflies the energy they need to find a mate in summer, and prepare to hibernate or migrate in autumn.
Butterflies also prefer sunny, sheltered spots, so make sure you’re planting with plenty of space for them to sunbathe.
Why are Butterflies Important?
Butterflies are scientifically recognised as indicators of biodiversity and environmental health, and numbers of other invertebrates typically follow butterfly population numbers. Where pollution is high or the climate is fluctuating, butterflies struggle to survive. When their numbers increase and more varieties are spotted, it’s a sign that a natural area is improving.
On top of that, the butterfly’s interesting life-cycle is a valuable way to get children engaged with nature. In fact, they’re a species that we’ve collectively been fascinated with for generations, and the unparalleled history, geography and longevity of butterfly data means they’re a key species for climate research. Also… they’re really pretty and just magical for anyone to watch!
Common Butterflies in the UK
Which species of butterfly can you see in the UK? There are 59 different types of butterfly in the UK, including two – the Painted Lady and Clouded Yellow – that migrate each year from overseas. Some are local to specific regions, like the tawny-coloured Lulworth Skipper, native to Dorset. Others, like the striking Peacock butterfly, are more commonly found in wooded areas than gardens.
However, depending on your location and your butterfly gardening efforts, it’s possible to see up to 20 different varieties at home. The beautiful Small Tortoiseshell, for example, is widespread across Britain and Ireland and can be spotted from spring until the end of autumn.
Best plants for butterflies
When you’re choosing plants for attracting butterflies, try to plan your flowers so that there is always something blooming between early spring and late autumn. The longer you have nectar available, the more likely you are to see some stunning butterfly varieties.
Given that it’s sometimes known as “butterfly bush”, buddleja had to be at the top of this list. The bunches of tiny flowers are absolutely brimming with nectar, making it a butterfly favourite, and it will happily grow in a British garden even though it isn’t a native plant.
It comes in a whole host of colours – although not all of them are suited to the UK. Look for a range of pinks, purples or yellows for your garden. Buddleja is essentially a tree, and most varieties will reach several metres in height. The tallest varieties can grow up to 30 metres!
Pansies, violets and viola are all part of the same family, although they have slightly different shapes. Known for their stunning colour combinations, pansies are usually planted solely for decoration, particularly in hanging baskets and containers. The good news is that these flowers are also excellent plants for attracting butterflies.
Grow pansies in partial-sun and keep deadheading them to extend their flowering. As well as butterflies, pansies can also be a tempting meal to snails and slugs. Take a look at ways to keep snails out of your garden for tips!
Lavender spires bloom in summer, and make for a wonderful, butterfly-friendly edging plant. This versatile plant has a beautiful, relaxing fragrance and looks at home in just about any garden. Lavender prefers sheltered but sunny positions, just like butterflies.
These cheerful perennials add a pretty pop of purple to your garden, and are great at luring butterflies. Their name comes from the Ancient Greek word for ‘star’, inspired by their shape – it looks as if their pointed petals are bursting from their yellow centre. Asters bloom in late summer, perfect for topping up your flower beds as earlier plants die off.
Phlox are one of my favourite ground cover flowers, so the fact that they’re great plants for attracting butterflies is an added bonus. Phlox grows close to the ground, and blooms into little balloons of blue, pink, purple or white petals.
The phlox plant is evergreen, so it’ll give you flower bed coverage year-round, and also provide a home for caterpillars to form a chrysalis. When the flowers bloom in spring, the butterflies emerge for their first feast of the year, and get your butterfly season off to an early start.
Thinking of growing a herb garden? Well, make sure to include plenty of parsley. Not only is it a versatile herb for cooking with, but any that you don’t harvest will bloom into big umbrellas of tiny yellowy-green flowers that are an absolute treat for butterflies.
7. Plants for caterpillars to eat
It can be tempting to focus on plants for attracting butterflies, rather than plants that will be devoured by caterpillars – I totally understand why. However, some species have very specific diets, so growing some caterpillar-friendly foliage is an important way to boost butterfly numbers overall.
Here are some of the best plants for caterpillars: