Butterfly Gardens

Blog Post by Emma Greenhalgh 03 August 2015

David Attenborough (1)

Sir David Attenborough, the president of Butterfly Conservation, is urging people to plant butterfly-friendly flowers in their gardens to help reverse declining numbers of the insects.

Everyone can play their part by planting nectar-rich flowers in their gardens, flower pots or window ledges to provide food and shelter for butterflies.

Importance of butterflies:

  • Butterflies are important pollinators. When feeding on nectar, pollen is deposited on their appendages and then transferred to other flowers that the butterfly visits.
  • Butterflies are indicators of a healthy environment and healthy ecosystems.
  • Butterflies are an important element of the food chain and are prey for bats, birds and other insectivorous animals. 
  • Butterflies are an extremely important group of ‘model’ organisms used in scientific research.
  • Butterflies have educational values as they provide teachings on life-cycles, migration, and biodiversity conservation.
  • Butterflies have high aesthetic value in the UK with many regarding them as beautiful creatures. They’ve been studied for over 300 years and are often portrayed as the essence of nature and environmentally friendly practices.

Butterfly trends

Recent reports show that three-quarters of UK butterflies are in decline and one-third are in danger of extinction. In the last 10 years, common ‘garden’ butterflies dropped by 24%.

Temperature increases (as a result of climate change) have resulted in a number of species, including Northern Brown Agnus, to decline as a result of habitat ranges contracting. Other species have started to appear progressively earlier in the year which has also been linked to warming temperatures.

Habitat loss and changes to habitat management have also resulted in declines in UK butterflies, along with the spread of modern agricultural practices including the use of herbicides and pesticides. Habitat fragmentation has caused less mobile populations to become isolated and their populations to fall. Changes to gardens such as lawns being lost and increases in decking and paving have led to a loss of food sources and habitats for butterflies.

Habitat specialist species such as High Brown Fritillary, Pearl-bordered Fritillary and Duke of Burgundy are some species at the greatest risk of extinction.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Work carried out under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan and ‘higher level’ agri-environment schemes has resulted in some highly threatened species to increase. The Small Tortoiseshell butterfly, whose population had declined by 78% since the 1970s, saw the population number rise in 2014 by almost a quarter compared to the summer of 2013.

How to help butterflies

Gardens can act as important stepping stones between nature reserves and other natural habitats offering abundant supplies of nectar. They can also provide shelter and breeding sites for butterflies.

Butterflies prefer sunny and sheltered spots. Choosing a wide variety of plants will attract a wider range of butterfly species and flowers should be planted together to offer a strong visual sign to passing butterflies and a better scent.

Best plants for summer nectar:

  • Lavender

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Flowers are lilac-blue in colour and grow on spikes throughout the summer. Ideal for edging beds or to form an attractive, low growing hedge.

  • Verbena Bonariensis

Verbena Bonariensis

Stems up to a metre tall support heads of lavender coloured flowers. Flowers August to October. 

  • Buddleia (The butterfly bush)


Flowers pink, red, purple or white. Blooms throughout July and August.

  • Perennial wallflower (Bowles Mauve)

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Produces sweet-scented purple flowers from April and throughout the summer. Ideal bedding plants.

  • Marjoram

Marjoram -115383_1280

Perennial herb growing 20 to 80cm tall. White, pink or purple flowers grow on spikes from June to September.

Autumn plants:

  • Lavender
  • Ice plant
  • Michaelmas daisies

Spring plants:

  • Alyssum
  • Cowslip
  • Forget-me-not
  • Primrose

As well as including plants for butterflies, why not include food plants for caterpillars too? Plants ideal for breeding butterflies include Common nettle, Common Sorrel and Cuckoo flowers.

In addition to transforming your garden into a butterfly haven, you can also join in the Big Butterfly Count which takes place every year. People are encouraged to find a sunny place and spend 15 minutes counting every butterfly seen, and submit their sightings at www.bigbutterflycount.org. The 2015 count is running from July 17 to August 8. Last year, around 45,000 people took part in 2014s Big Butterfly Count to help provide data for butterfly surveys and research. 

For more information on butterflies visit the Butterfly Conservation website.

We also have information about another important insect in the UK – bees. Visit ‘All about bees’ and ‘Top 5 bee-friendly plants’ in our Knowledge Centre.


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