An hour in the eco garden: Butterflies


Painted Lady butterflies leave the UK in the Autumn and complete a 9,000 mile journey, which encompasses Africa and the Arctic

Plant a paradise of nectar in September, and next year the butterflies will come a-flapping, says Hazel Sillver......

In the new 3D film Flight of the Butterflies, the awe-inspiring migration of the Monarch butterfly is tracked in visual splendour. 

Each autumn, these incredible creatures flap their burnt-orange wings thousands of miles, from Canada to the high mountain forests of Mexico, where they spend the winter. 

Using thermal waves in the sky, inherited flight patterns and the position of the sun, each generation follows the same migratory path year after year. 

Monarchs rarely travel to the UK. However we have our own impressive migrating species: the Painted Lady butterfly, which leaves our island in the autumn and travels south, to Africa. 

Last year scientists discovered that the millions of Painted Ladies that make this flight, do so at altitudes of over 1,000m. Their complete 9,000 mile (14,400km) journey, which encompasses Africa and the Arctic, is undertaken by up to six generations of butterfly, and is much further than the journey undertaken by the Monarch. 

These jaw-dropping feats make it all the sadder that our butterflies are struggling. In the UK, butterfly numbers fell a heart-wrenching 20% between 2010 and 2011. In Europe, grassland butterflies (such as the Common Blue) have declined by almost 50% in the last two decades. 

The reason, say experts, is the loss of their breeding and feeding habitat as a result of intense agricultural practices, which use herbicides and pesticides. 

Happily, gardeners can do a huge amount to boost the butterfly population. By providing them with the right plants (which they can detect from a mile away) we will keep their numbers up. 

September and October is the ideal time to put new perennials, shrubs and climbers in the ground. Doing it now gives the roots time to establish, so that leaf-growth and flower formation are strong and abundant in spring. 

Here are ten of the best things to plant for the butterflies this autumn. Each is the equivalent of irresistible Belgian chocolate to a butterfly, jam-packed with nectar, which they enjoy via taste buds on their feet! Come 2014, your garden will be a-flutter with clouds of butterflies. 


*White escallonia (Escallonia bifida) – A large evergreen shrub that is covered in snowy white flowers during spring. 

*Cuckoo flower (Cardamine pratensis) – Sprays of violet-pink flowers in April and May; loves moist ground beside a pond. 

*Honesty (Lunaria annua) – Purple-pink flowers in May, followed by seedheads, which look wonderful in autumn and winter. 


*Butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii) – If you plant one thing, make it one of these. Butterflies love it! It is a large shrub, but dwarf versions are available. 

*Purple top (Verbena bonariensis) A useful border stalwart because it is ‘see-through’, allowing you to glimpse through its purple flowers to the plants behind. 

*Greater knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa)A fabulous border plant that blooms thistle-like magenta-purple flowers from July to September. 

*Wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare) – This perennial herb has clouds of tiny soft pink-purple flowers in July and August. 

*Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum) – This is a big perennial (2m) that explodes with raspberry-rose flowers in late summer. 


*Sneezeweed (Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’) – Rusty-scarlet daisy-like flowers from mid-summer to early autumn. 

*Michaelmas daisy (Aster novi-belgii) – A beautiful perennial that has lavender-blue or pink flowers in early autumn.


-Plant your nectar flowers in a south or southwesterly patch of the garden because butterflies love sun.

-Try to create shelter in your garden, if it’s blustery – our flapping friends hate being blown about.

-Don’t be too neat! Many of the plants we consider weeds (nettles, brambles, long grass and thistles, for instance) are important breeding and feeding plants for butterflies.

-Avoid using chemicals in the garden.

-Remember to provide nectar for the spring butterfly flight, which includes species such as Brimstones and Orange Tips. They need Bluebells, Cuckooflower, Honesty and Cowslips, for example. 

To find out more about your favourite butterfly species and what to plant to lure them to your garden, go to Butterfly Conservation and UK Butterflies

Flight of the Butterflies will show at the BFI Imax from 6-19 September and in 3D around the UK during autumn and winter.

Hazel Sillver is a freelance journalist and a contributor to the Ecologist Green Living section; email:

Image courtesy of 

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