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Grow a Butterfly Garden

When quizzed on the subject of butterflies a small child was heard to say, 'butterflies are worms with wings'. Well, that about explains it!

When quizzed on the subject of butterflies a small child was heard to say, 'butterflies are worms with wings'. Well, that about explains it!

Butterflies are among the most beautiful and interesting creatures on Earth. By planting a butterfly garden with all of the right kinds of plants and flowers that butterflies love to feed on and lay eggs on, you will certainly have a yard full of butterflies throughout the growing season.

Butterfly gardens can be any size — a window box, part of your landscaped yard, or even a wild untended area on your property. The design for your butterfly garden is a matter of personal preference. Typical points to consider are the size of your garden and the types of flowers and plants you want to grow. Pick a style of garden that appeals to you, but ensure it also contains the plants and flowers that appeal to the butterflies you wish to attract.

Some people find it helpful to draw and colour a layout of their butterfly gardening plan to see what the finished product would look like. Keep in mind that warm colours like red and orange are flashy and showy. These colours have a greater impact against a strong green background. Cool colours such as blue and purple are soothing and toned down and would work better with a white contrast to create the look of freshness and brightness.

Apart from sipping the occasional bit of nectar for energy and pollinating flowers as they go, butterflies have a very important function in life; to mate and for the female to lay her eggs on specific plants (called host plants) that are suitable for ‘her’ caterpillars to feed on. Each butterfly species has host plants that are specific to it. After mating, the female must begin the hunt for suitable plants, and will move from area to area (or garden to garden), gaining strength by sipping the odd bit of nectar from particular flowers along the way. She will continue her journey until she has located a suitable host plant in good enough condition to support hungry caterpillars.

The fact that most butterflies are host­-specific makes them very vulnerable. If we are not careful to protect and conserve our heritage of indigenous plants it could lead to the extinction of many of our wonderful butterflies. Butterflies not only require specific plants on which to lay their eggs, but also develop a preference for plants in a particular area and will visit them year after year. In the wild, the estimated mortality rate of eggs and larvae is 98%. Pesticides and pollution are also a constant threat. Make your garden a haven for butterflies by providing both host and nectar plants, and lots of sunshine, to warm them!

Cultivate a wide selection of host plants and a variety of beautiful free‑flowering shrubs and perennials to supply nectar refreshment. Caterpillars rapidly grow into butterflies and the tree will soon boast a brand new set of bright and shiny leaves. Feeding caterpillars is a small sacrifice to make for the privilege of having brilliant butterflies flitting through the garden.

Different species of butterflies have different preferences of nectar, in both colors and tastes. A wide variety of food plants will give the greatest diversity of visitors. Try staggering ingigenous and exotic plants, as well as blooming times of the day and year. Groups of the same plants will be easier for butterflies to see than singly planted flowers.. Butterflies are attracted to those flowers that have nectar rather than pollen, like honeysuckle, milkweed, summer lilac, Valerian, daisies, Purple Coneflower, Yellow Sage, day lilies and lavender.

Many butterflies are fond of settling and drinking at muddy puddles — for the minerals they supply — an easy need to cater for. These minerals are required to produce the pheromones used in mating. Permanent puddles are very easy to make by burying a bucket to the rim, filling it with gravel or sand, and then pouring in liquids such as stale beer, sweet drinks or water. Overripe fruit, allowed to sit for a few days is a very attractive substance (to them!) as well.

All insects are cold-blooded and cannot internally regulate their body temperature. Butterflies will readily bask in the sun when it is warm out, but few are seen on cloudy days. It is a good idea to leave open areas in a garden for butterflies to sun themselves, as well as partly shady areas like trees or shrubs, so they can hide when it’s cloudy or cool off if it is very hot.

Butterfly gardens are a great source for your own enjoyment, photo opportunities, or an outlet for artistic talent. These gardens can also be extended to interest youth in nature, by providing a small window of native inhabitants of the local environment. On a final note, it’s important to conserve butterflies when possible since their habitat is constantly diminishing due to the increasing need for, and consequent development of, roads, housing and industrial estates.


The Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui), a kaleidoscope of blacks, whites and oranges, is abundant everywhere in South Africa and is the only butterfly with the distinction of having a world‑wide distribution. It is fond of feeding at flowers such as Senecio barbertonicus and is one of the poilinators of Dermhout (Asclepias cancellata). The orange banded Protea Butterfly (Capys alphaeus alphaeus) will sometimes visit Serruria species in addition to many Protea species.

Yellow Pansy (Precis [Junonia] hierta cebrene) males establish territories along pathways and open roads, and patrol these territories, flying like spy planes in search of females. When not engaged in this fast and furious pastime, they are often seen sunning themselves on warm rocks, with slowly beating wings occasionally revealing beautiful blue wing spots.

They happily visit gardens and often sit on the ground or on low plants. At rest, the nicely camouflaged underwings help to hide the butterfly from predators. Creeping foxglove (Asystasia gangetica), Barleria pungens and Ruellia corclata are among their favourite host plants. They seem to prefer small open‑faced flowers in the red‑to‑purple spectrum for their own nectar needs.

The Citrus Swallowtail (Papilio clemodocus) male is likely to be encountered on hilltops at midday. A beautiful black, speckled yellow butterfly with ‘tails’ and lovely eye‑spots, it is abundant in South Africa and is on the wing for most of the year, except in colder areas. Some of its favourite host plants are Cape Chestnut (Calodendrum capense), White lronwood (Vepris lanceolata), Small Knobwood (Zanthoxylum capense) and Horsewood (Clausena anisata).

In a future feature I will provide a comprehensive list of plants suitable for butterfly gardens., so come back to  soon!