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Butterflies and Nectar: Top 20 Garden Plants

One of the best ways of enjoying butterflies in your garden is to grow flowers that they can sip nectar from. But choosing which plants is a bit of an art - you certainly can't trust the flower catalogues and garden centres which seem to stick a butterfly symbol next to wholly inappropriate flowers.

This page gives you our (and your!) recommendations for which plants are best, tips on where or how to grow them, and which butterflies visit them.

So if you have any comments, suggestions, photos or tips from your Sussex garden or from visiting gardens around the county, let us know at garden 'AT' sussex-butteflies.org.uk

 

   

1 Buddleia

Several varieties, including the 'basic' Buddelia davidii, the yellow pompoms of Buddleia globosa, and the hybrid of the two, Buddleia x weyeriana. The lilac buddleias are said to be best - is that your experience too?

 

Regularly: Red Admiral, Comma, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Large White, Small White, Brimstone

Occasionally Meadow Brown

 

 

Painted Lady (Steve Wheatley)  

 

Comma (Susie Milbank)         

 

Peacock (Michael Blencowe)       

Red Admiral (Alex Pickering)

 

Red Admiral (Susie Milbank)

Meadow Brown (Susie Milbank)

2. Verbena  

A family of good nectar plants, especially Verbena bonariensis, a very popular border plant these days from South America.

"Verbena bonariensis is the most popular plant in my garden for the butterflies, as well as for various other winged visitors" Sue Robinson.

Regularly: Red Admiral, Large White, Comma

 

 

 

 

Clouded Yellow on Verbena bonariensis (Sue Robinson)

 

Comma on Verbena bonariensis (Sue Robinson)

 

Common Blue on Verbena rigida (Susie Milbank)

"While not as popular as bonariensis, does seem to attract a lot of butterflies and moths." (Susie)

Small White on Verbena bonariensis (Susie Milbank)

3. Knapweed (Centaurea, including the native Black Knapweed and Greater Knapweed as well as cultivars)

Regularly: Painted Lady, Small Tortoiseshell, Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Common Blue, Large White

 

 

 

Painted Lady on Black Knapweed (Susie Milbank)

 

4. Ivy (Hedera helix)

Regularly: Red Admiral, Comma

"In a sheltered sunny position, left to flower, this is a brilliant end of season flower for Comma and red Admiral" Adrian Thomas

 

 

Red Admiral (Graham Mepham)

5. Eupatorium

Includes native Hemp Agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum), Joe-pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum), and Eupatorium ligustrum)

Regularly: Red Admiral, Comma, Speckled Wood

"Hemp Agrimony is the number one flower in my garden, attracting more butterflies thatn any other, and they seem to stay on it for hours and sometimes days!" Adrian Thomas

 

Red Admiral on Hemp Agrimony (Adrian Thomas)

6. Marjoram (Origanum vulgare)

Native of downland, but there are some cultivars and herb garden species too - but are they as good? Let us know

Regularly: Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown, Common Blue

"Gatekeepers seem to find this irresistable. I wouldn't be without this in my garden. Good for Meadow browns and Pyrausta aurata too" Adrian Thomas

 

Gatekeeper (Adrian Thomas)  Meadow Brown (Adrian Thomas)         Small Tortoiseshell (Adrian Thomas)

7. Michaelmas Daisy (Aster spp)

Includes Aster novae-belgii and Aster frikartii ‘Monch’, but there are loads of cultivars )

Regularly: Red Admiral

"Excellent in September and October for Red Admiral" Adrian Thomas

 

Red Admiral on Aster novae-angliae 'Autumn Show' (Caroline Clarke)

8. Lavender (Lavandula spp. incl. angustifolia, hidcote)

Regularly: Large White, Small White

Occasionally: Gatekeeper

 

Gatekeeper (Caroline Clarke)

9. Ice Plant (Sedum spectabile)

Can be brilliant, but equally can sometimes seem useless. Avoid those garden centres selling Sedum "Autumn Joy" or "Herbsfreude" which is a nectar-free hybrid - you definitely need the spectabile species, and preferably several of them.

Regularly: Small Tortoiseshell, Red Admiral

 

 

Tortoiseshells (Roy Neeve)

10. Scabious

Includes the native Field Scabious, Small Scabious and Devil'sbit Scabious, non-native species such as Knautia macedonica, and cultivars such as Scabiosa ‘Butterfly Blue’

Regularly: Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Small Tortoiseshell, Painted Lady

 

 

Knautia (Caroline Clarke)

11. Red Valerian (Centranthus ruber)

Regularly: Large White, Small White

 

Large White (Adrian Thomas)

12. Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)

Regularly: Small Tortoiseshell

 

 

 

 

13. Thistle

Includes the non-native Cirsium rivulare atropurpureum, plus various native species, although Creeping Thistle is best avoided as it is an agricultural pest.

Regularly: Brimstone, Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper

 

 

 

Brimstone & Marsh Thistle

Adrian Thomas)

Painted Lady & Marsh Thistle

(Dave Mitchell)

 

Large White on Marsh Thistle (Susie Milbank)

Brimstone & Spear Thistle (Roy Neeve)

14. Bramble (Rubus fruticosus)

Yes, it's a weed, but if you have space to let a sunny bank of bramble develop, maybe over a stick pile, you will be rewarded not only with butterflies on the blossom, but some come to the ripe blackberries too.

Regularly: Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Red Admiral (flowers); Red Admiral, Comma (blackberries)

 

 

 

      

Red Admiral (Michael Blencowe)           

Small Tortoiseshell (Keith Noble)

Comma (Neil Hulme)

Comma (Susie Milbank)

15. Wallflower (Cheiranthus)

Cheiranthus ‘Bowles Mauve’ is often touted as the best

Regularly: Large White, Small White

 

 

16. Honesty (Lunaria annua)

Regularly: Brimstone, Orange-tip

 

 

Orange-tip (Keith Noble)

17. Eryngium

Includes the native Sea Holly and several other attractive ornamental species and cultivars

Regularly: Gatekeeper

 

 

 

18. Common Fleabane (Pulicaria dysenterica)

This is a native that won't look out of place in the flower bed, but are there cultivars that can be used too?

Regularly: Gatekeeper, Brimstone

 

 

Brimstone (Peter Whitcombe)

Small White (Susie Milbank)

 

 

19. Water Mint

Native of damp places

Regularly: Large White

 

 

 

20. What do you think should be in the Top 20?

 

 

 

Other plants to try - and species they might attract:

  • Astrantia 'Roma' - Meadow Brown

  • Aubretia (Aubrieta deltoidea)

  • Bugle (Ajuga reptans)

  • Burdock

  • Candytuft (Iberis amara)

  • Catmint (Nepeta cataria)

  • Ceanothus

  • Choisya ternata, eg 'Sundance'

  • Everlasting Sweet Pea (Lathyrus latifolius)

  • French Marigold (Tagetes patula)

  • Garlic Mustard - for Orange-tip, Small White and Green-veined White

  • Globe Thistle (Echinops ritro ‘Veitch’s Blue’)

  • Hawthorn (Crataegus spp)

  • Hebe (any particular varieties?)

  • Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica)

  • Lacecap Hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla)

  • Lady's-smock (Cardamine pratensis)

  • Leadwort (Ceratostigma willmottianum)

  • Lobelia (Lobelia erinus)

  • Mexican Orange Blossom (Choisya ternate)

  • Ox-eye Daisy

  • Phlox (Phlox paniculata)

  • Privet

  • Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria)

  • Purple Sage

  • Sweet Rocket (Hesperis matronalis) - Small White, Orange-tip

  • Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus)

  • Sweet Woodruff - Small Copper

  • Thyme

  • Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum)

  • Viola

  • Water forget-me-not  - Meadow Brown, Large Skipper

 

Purple Sage (Caroline Clarke)

Meadow Brown on Viola (Suzie Milbank)

 

Meadow Brown on Echinacea 'Golden Cone' (Susie Milbank)

 

Common Blue and Ox-eye Daisy (Roy Neeve)

Orange-tip on Garlic Mustard (Susie Milbank)

 

Red Admiral on Bog Sage (Salvia uliginosa) (Caroline Clarke)

Holly Blue egg-laying on Dogwood (Susie Milbank)

 

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