22 February 2016

Page topic: Food for Wild Life

How to Invite Butterflies

If this is your time to freshen, divide and re-arrange herbaceous areas, decorative or culinary, it’s an opportunity to make your garden more butterfly-friendly.  Even service areas, shrubberies and problem places where drainage is poor or too quick can provide food for butterfly larvae and if sunny can be frequented by the adults to feed themselves as well as when it’s time for them to lay their eggs on the food-plant species. The adults themselves feed for nectar so flowers in sunny places are generally the most visited, but butterflies do drink too: water supplies are not often a problem in our part of the world, but I recall a month at the Cross when we had no rain for 28 days. If that ever happens again we’ll probably be sprinkling enough over our plants to take care of the butterflies too.

Now for the really useful information. Nectar-rich decorative plants flowering at suitable times: among such shrubs Buddleia are outstanding: they have a long flowering period in a fine range of colours and are as tough as old boots.  Viburnum tinus is fairly popular with our butterfly visitors and shares those characteristics. Some Hebe (ex Veronica) are.good, though their names are often uncertain - we scorn Mrs Winder AGM, which scarcely flowers here.  Lavender is excellent if in very well-drained soil. Thymes and catmint are also good.

Among herbaceous plants where butterflies feed, Helenium, Verbena natably bonariensis, almost all the thistle family and notably Knapweeds, tall Phlox, Solidago, Rudbeckia, Sedum (the taller the better) and perennial asters are outstanding in my memory. In damper places you may have cardamine pratensis (Lady’s Smock also Cuckoo Flower) or Purple Loosestrife they are both good: the Orange Tip hatches early and lays its eggs on cardamine which provides the nectar she needs. Here’s a happy thought. With global warming, if you grow buckthorn you may be lucky enough to be host one day to a generation of brilliant sulphur-yellow Brimstone butterflies.

Catering for the larvae mostly involves growing weeds or their close relatives, and the most spectacular insects that make the effort worth-while are ones that eat stinging-nettles: Comma, Painted Lady, Peacock, Red Admiral, and Small Tortoiseshell.  You might choose to provide the nectar and leave the neighbours to feed the larvae, but actually there are suitable spots in the utility areas of many gardens where nettles are acceptable.  My own observation is that small clumps rarely have caterpillars while huge clumps have lots of groups of larvae, as though each egg-laden female assesses the clump on the assumption that all her eggs should survive to pupate.

Related structurally to the nettle-eaters are the Fritillaries: several species eat mostly or only violets, but I’m sorry to say ours haven’t been found by any Fritillaries: maybe it isn’t warm enough for them here. Another food-plant worth growing is holly, which has its own butterfly, the Holly Blue. Among herbs parsley, dill and fennel are supposed to suit butterfly larvae, but I don’t know which species. Vegetable growers are plagued by larvae of white butterflies eating and fouling their brassicae. Short of fine-netting the plot, the best option might be to sacrifice the cabbage or cauliflower, spraying them weekly, as a decoy to protect the less butterfly-attractive brassicae. Nasturtium may be an alternative decoy worth trying.

Sydney Harrod, 17 February 2015

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Bee Kind

Yes, there’s much concern about bee health and the threat of low crop yields, so we should do what we can to keep the pollinators happy.

The plants mentioned in connection with butterflies are all suitable: the summer and autumn flowering plant-for-bees list I’ve found adds Autumn Crocus, Caryopteris, Japanese Anemones, and Perovskia.

Spring Crocuses too are valuable as beefeeders, as are Doronicum, Grape Hyacinth, Hellebores, Pulmonaria, Rosemary, and Wallflowers, specially welcome until the clovers come into flower.  To help the clover to thrive, we should make sure there’s no 2,4D included in our lawn treatment programmes.

Sydney Harrod, February 2015

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