It was Dolly Parton who once said that “love is like a butterfly” and I have to agree… well, kind of! There is nothing I enjoy more than sitting out in my patch, enjoying the flit of flight and flash of colour from some beautiful butterflies. While these are not always the first cab off the fauna rank when we think of habitat gardening, butterfly gardening plays an important role in increasing backyard biodiversity. As well as which it’s immensely rewarding, and it’s dead easy!
Before we get started, we need to understand a few things about butterflies and creating biodiverse butterfly habitat. Attracting and keeping butterflies in your patch means that you need to provide food and shelter for them at every stage of their life cycle. That means from caterpillar right through to the attractive adult life phase… so if you can’t stand the grubs, a butterfly garden may not be for you!
As the American comedian George Carlin once said, the caterpillar does all the work, but the butterfly gets all the publicity! Butterflies should be a welcome addition to the garden, and, just like loads of native critters, they need all the help we can give them to ensure that don’t disappear from our gardens altogether. But, as we are helping them, they are helping us, by pollinating a range of plants and providing a important link in the food chain!
There are about 400 species of butterfly in Australia with a significant number of these living on a wing and a prayer due to habitat loss and removal of key food plants. Unfortunately, recent research1 shows that a number of species are on the verge of extinction.
The bulk of our Australian butterflies are confined to the tropics, but every state and territory has their own range of Lepidoptera (scientific name for the butterfly and moth family), a large proportion of which are simple to attract to your patch. So, how do we do it? Just follow a few simple design principles and your garden will be beautified by butterflies in no time!
Designing Your Butterflies Garden
As with all types of garden, the first thing that has to be considered in the construction of a butterfly garden is the position. Butterflies are delicate and do not like wind, but they love the sun! Butterflies use the early morning sun to warm themselves and retreat to cooler, shadier places during the heat of the day. A spot that is fairly sheltered and protected, but gets a fair bit of sun is ideal… but there is a catch. Butterflies love moisture – not always that easy to supply in a full sun spot.
Our suggestion is to dig a couple of small, shallow depressions, and periodically fill these up with water… the butterflies will thank you for it. In return, you may be fortunate enough to be treated to a display of “puddling”, where butterflies land on these moist depressions and suck the water out of the soil. This often happens en masse and is quite impressive! A few flattish rocks into your butterfly garden will give your fluttering friends a place to land and sun themselves, and, if you pay close attention, you may be able to watch the butterflies “courting” each other!
The Need for Feed
The key to a really successful butterfly garden is to provide both food and shelter for all stages of butterfly life – from the egg, to the caterpillar, to the butterfly and then over again. Caterpillars like food plants while the beautiful adults love a feed of nectar. So, what kind of plants should we plant? There are some general rules of thumb that apply to most butterflies, but, like people, some butterflies can be a bit fussy and have specific dietary requirements (more on these later).
As always, it is important to avoid planting any plants that have the potential to be invasive. Unfortunately, one of Australia’s worst garden escapees, Lantana camara, is also a fantastic butterfly attracting plant, and butterflies probably helped spread this plant throughout our bushland. But our native butterflies are happier with some locally native species, so avoid the exotics and go for local plants!
Food Plants for Caterpillars and shelter for butterflies eggs
Caterpillars have voracious appetites, and can eat every edible part of their preferred food plants. If gardening for butterflies, it is important to overcome the fear of caterpillars and accept that some well munched plants are a sign of a good, working, butterfly garden. Great egg-laying and caterpillar-munching plants include:
Shrubs and Trees: Wattles (Acacia sp.), Bush Peas (Pultenaea sp.), Purple Fan Flower (Scaevola sp.)
Grasses: Lomandra sp., Poa sp. (including australis, tenera, labillardieri,) and sedges like Gahnia sp. and Carex sp.
Ground Covers: Purple Coral Pea (Hardenbergia violacea), Running Postman (Kennedia prostrata)
Mistletoes, although thought to be a pest by some, hosted by a number of Australian indigenous trees are also exceptional spots for butterfly egg laying and food sources for many of our native butterflies.
Be sure to check for your local listings for specific food plants for local butterflies.
Flowers and Nectar Traps for butterflies
Colourful, massed beds draw butterflies in and keep them happily moving through the garden. They particularly like blue, yellow and red, but are attracted to a large range of colours, with bold clusters of flowers more effective than single plants dotted through a garden. An excellent idea is to group the plants together according to colour, creating big colourful clusters that butterflies just can’t resist. The shape of the flower is important too, with simple, flat flowers easier for butterflies to extract nectar. Double flowers with their multiple petals are too complex. But daisies, native pelargoniums and bluebells, saltbush plants, and pea flowers are especially useful.
Knowing which butterflies in your area is important in knowing which food plants to provide, as a few of our rare and threatened butterflies only feed on a small number of locally native plants. The list below is a selection of native plants found in many parts of Australia that may attract butterflies to you garden.
Trees: Wattles (Acacia sp. including Silver, Black Wattle and Blackwood), Eucalypt sp., Allocasuarina sp., Tea Trees (Leptospermum sp.) and Banksia sp.
Shrubs: Bossaiea sp., Bursaria sp., Correa sp., Bottlebrushes (Callistemon sp.), Hop Goodenia (Goodenia ovata), Hakea sp., Pimelia sp., Boobialla (Myoporum sp.) and Kangaroo Apples (Solanum sp.)
Ground Covers: Purple Coral Pea (Hardenbergia violacea), Running Postman (Kennedia prostrata) and Native Violet (Viola hederacea)
Wildflowers: Just about all of them! Your garden centre should be able to give you a good idea of some suitable local native plants!
Climbers: Clematis sp., and Wonga Vine (Pandorea pandorana)
Not all of us are completely at ease with “creepy-crawly-slimy-slithery-furry-flying” critters and insects in the garden and tend to declare chemical warfare at the first sign of insect inhabitants. In order to keep a biodiverse, butterfly-friendly backyard, we need to consider seriously our use of chemicals.
Insects and invertebrates are an incredibly important part of any ecosystem, and this includes mosquitoes, cockroaches, ants and spiders. We have all heard of the butterfly effect, where a minor action in one location can have devastating “knock-on” effects elsewhere. Apply this to your backyard where the sprinkling of ant granules or the spraying of pesticides could have a detrimental impact on not only the target insect, but a whole host of important invertebrates. Think carefully about chemical use, and, where possible (especially in butterfly gardens) avoid it altogether. After all, a couple of holes in a few leaves is all part of nature!
And it’s that simple. There is no minimum size or space recommended for a butterfly garden, and, as we all know, size isn’t everything, it’s what you do with it. By planting a good mix of food and nectar plants, providing water and moist soil, and avoiding butterfly-battering chemicals, your garden should be a haven of fluttery activity in no time. Consider keeping a butterfly book, tracking the sightings and activities of butterflies and caterpillars in your patch, and get the kids involved in butterfly spotting and “egg hunts”. Happy butterfly gardening!
Brabey MF et al (2021) https://theconversation.com/next-time-you-see-a-butterfly-treasure-the-memory-scientists-raise-alarm-on-these-26-species-159798
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