We can’t save our butterflies without feeding their caterpillars, says Adrian Thomas. Follow our guide to what to plant

by Liz Potter |

The day is fast approaching when the first butterfly of spring will waft through your garden. It may be a small event in the big scheme of things, yet it’s one of those defining moments in the course of a year. Along with the first daffodil, it's confirmation that winter is losing its grip, the world is waking up, and life has survived the big freeze. It means that from now until October, whenever the sun is shining and the air is warm, a procession of butterflies will emerge. Each species conforms to its own specific flight season: orange-tips, for example, are a butterfly of April and May, ringlets are seen in July.

Those few butterfly species that spend winter as adults are those that provide spring’s prelude, as all they have to do is be aroused from their hibernation. The acid-yellow brimstone, the raggedy-winged comma, the wide-eyed peacock, and the orange-and-black small tortoiseshell have all spent the cold weather tucked away somewhere dark, dry and cool, maybe in ivy, or even in a shed or garage, conserving their energy.

There are lots of simple things that every gardener can do to help rthe butterfly population: but to produce more butterflies, what we actually need is more of their caterpillars! And this is where a little knowledge is invaluable, because butterfly caterpillars are very picky indeed when it comes to what they eat. Most just use one or two types of plant and won’t touch anything else (so, bar cabbage white butterflies on your brassicas, it shows that butterfly caterpillars are innocent of eating any of your prize plants!). The conclusion is clear: if you don’t have the right plants for the caterpillars, your garden won’t produce new butterflies.

Plants for caterpillars

Ivy (Hedera helix)

Best for holly blue

Grow your ivy in a sunny position and this gem of a butterfly will lay her eggs on it. The spring flowers are a good source of nectar and the autumn berries will feed the birds too. H3m+ (10ft) S2m (6ft)

Holly (Ilex aquifolium)

Best for holly blue

The caterpillars will feed on fresh holly leaves in spring, so don’t prune plants just yet. If you don’t have space for a lrage holly tree, plant one in a pot and train it into a standard. H5m+ (16ft) S3m (10ft)

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata)

Best for orange-tip and green-veined white

Dainty perennial best added as plug plants in damp grass, such as by a pond. Or, grow it in a flower bed, where its fresh green foliage and tiny white flowers look lovely in spring. Easy from seed, flowering the following year. H and S60cm (24in)

Lady’s smock (Cardamine pratensis)

Best for orange-tip and green-veined white

Prefers cool shady spots where there’s a damp soil, such as by ponds. Flowers April to May. H30cm (12in) S20cm (8in)

Bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)

Best for Common blue

Delightful low-growing yellow-flowered perennial. Plant it as plugs into a lawn, where it will hopefully spread. Ideally, grow it in an area where you can allow the grass to grow a little. H15cm (6in) S60cm (24in)

Alder buckthorn (Frangula alnus)

Best for brimstone

Grow this or purging buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) as shrubs in a sunny position. Choose alder buckthorn for damp clay soils, purging buckthorn for drier, chalky soils. The small flowers on the spring blossom are great for bees too, and they produce berries for the birds as well. H4m (13ft) S3m (10ft)

Wild grasses

Best for meadow brown, gatekeeper, ringlet, speckled wood, large skipper and small skipper Wild grasses such as Agrostis capillaris (common bent) and Festuca ovina (sheeps fescue) are great choice for caterpillars. Lawn grasses aren’t usually suitable – caterpillars are after ancient heay meadow grasses. Wild flower stockists sell mixes to sow on patches of bare soil. H30cm (12in)

Nettles (Urtica dioica)

Best for small tortoiseshell, peacock, comma and red admiral

One or two plants are only enough for red admirals; the other species like big, sunny beds, so this is a plant for larger gardens and even there, probably best relegated to wilder parts. H and S1m (3ft 3in)

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