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Gardening for Butterflies

Corfu Butterfly Conservation has its origins in a Facebook page that I set up on the 27th April 2014. The very first member to join that group was John Denne. John had been interested in butterflies as a child and so was pleased to share his sightings of the butterflies he was observing in his Corfiot garden. As our friendship grew and communication became more regular, we both were increasingly surprised by the diversity and abundance of different butterfly species that John was seeing.

In those early days John started to walk a regular daily route around his garden, essentially conducting the first Corfiot butterfly transect. I suppose it’s of no surprise that as he monitored these insects he started to notice that certain flowers attracted more butterflies than others did. This influenced how John and his partner, Lynne (Williams) began to manage their garden. Soon John and Lynne were on a voyage of discovery, doing what no one had done before, they were gardening entirely for butterflies, in a traditional Corfiot landscape.

At the time of writing Corfu Butterfly Conservation, through its various public engagement activities, has significantly increased peoples’ awareness of the value of Corfu‘s butterfly communities. More importantly, it has sparked interest about how we might increase the sizes of these butterfly populations, as well as conserve the diversity of Corfu’s different butterfly species.

There are two ways to approach this issue and the first is to encourage the public’s interest in how to attract these remarkable insects into their ornamental gardens. The gardening opportunities in Corfu vary considerably, with some individuals having only flower pots on their balconies to play with, whilst others have canvases of several acres on which to create. In the narrative which follows suggestions are made for ornamental planting that would provide nectar sources for the buttefly species of the wider countryside.

Most of these butterfly species are not limited by narrow ecological requirements and so they do not depend on specialised habitats. Consequently, they are able to navigate the Corfiot landscape utilising nectar sources wherever they find them, to power the activities that are required to fulfill their life cycles. In this context, ornamental gardens not only provide feeding stations, at which such butterflies can replenish their energy reserves but they also provide sites of astonishing aesthetic value for those people who manage them, as well as those who visit them.

The second approach looks at habitat management and restoration of the entire Corfiot landscape and this is an issue that Corfu Butterfly Conservation aims to address in the future.

To help individuals contribute to the first of these two approaches it seemed sensible that we asked John Denne to outline which species of ornamental plants were the most successful at attracting butterflies to his and Lynne’s garden. So, it is with great pleasure that I include John’s informal suggestions of what plants you might find useful in your attempts to attract more butterflies to your own Corfiot gardens.

Dr Dan Danahar
25th July 2022

From left to right: Dan and Libby Danahar, John Denne and Lynne Williams - the page banner above shows an aerial view of John and Lynnes’ Corfiot villa and garden.

From left to right: Dan and Libby Danahar, John Denne and Lynne Williams - the page banner above shows an aerial view of John and Lynnes’ Corfiot villa and garden.

The first image posted by John Denne on the Corfu Butterfly Conservation Facebook page, a Swallowtail P. machaon feeding on Echium candicans, perhaps the most effective plant species used by John and Lynne to attract butterflies to their Coriot Garden.

The first image posted by John Denne on the Corfu Butterfly Conservation Facebook page, a Swallowtail P. machaon feeding on Echium candicans, perhaps the most effective plant species used by John and Lynne to attract butterflies to their Coriot Garden.

 

From Buddleia to Verbena - ornamental planting used to create a butterfly garden in Corfu.

Over 12 years we built a one acre garden which gradually became designed specifically to attract butterflies - whilst also giving us a beautiful place to live. Eventually we were regularly seeing 49 species in the garden every year. I never quite met my target of 50 - the Southern Swallowtail Papilio alexanor was particularily illusive!

Here is my essential list for providing nectar to adult butterflies, based on our long period of study in Corfu. We did not concentrate much on the host plants for caterpillars, as we lived in a landscape dominated by olive groves, where we presumed these resources would be found.

Buddleia davidii

Need I say anymore, really? This shrub is well known as the "butterfly bush", it is worth growing in its various colour forms as at different times they seem to attract different species. It’s particularily good for attracting all the larger species into your garden.

From left to right: 1) a Painted lady Vanessa cardui, 2) a Swallowtail Papilio machaon and 3) a Silver-washed Fritillary Argynnis paphia and the 4) Cleopatra Goneopteryx cleopatra, all feeding on differently coloured B. davidii.

Echium candicans

This is an immensley useful early flowering large bush, which attracts many species of butterfly including the Scarce Swallowtail Iphiclides podalirius, the Swallowtail P. machaon, the Large White Pieris brassicae, the Green Hairstreak Callophrys rubi, the Painted Lady V. cardui, Red Admiral Vanessa atalanta and many more . We had some 40 plants around the periphery of the garden and Dan Danahar once said “it’s as if there must be a great plume of perfume rising up into the sky”.

It certainly marked the arrival of many species each spring.

From left to right: 1) a large stand of Echium candicans spikes, 2) a Swallowtail P. machaon nectaring on E. candicans, 3) twenty plus magratory Painted ladies V. cardui pitstopping for nectar on a stand of E. candicans and 4) a sole Green Hairstreak C. rubi nectaring on a plant, which we came to recognise as the herald of spring in our garden.

Lantana camara

Many Greek gardens have one or more Lantana bushes within their grounds. They can also be seen growing in the wild. They often attract butterflies with their strong scent and multi- coloured flowers (which may vary depending on the variety you choose to plant). They need to be managed carefully to avoid them becoming invasive but they are useful because they flower throughout the growing season and so provide a constant nectar source.

From left to right: 1) The Southern Comma Polygonia egea nectaring on the orange form of L. camara, 2) a Scarce Swallowtail I. podalirius feeding on pink and yellow variety L. camara, 3) a closer view of the pink and yellow variety of L. camara and 4) a male Large White P. brassicae departing after nectaring on L. camara.

Matricaria discoidea

Or Wild Chamomile is another easy to grow and attractive ground cover plant, which attracts several small species of butterfly that take nectar from it including: Wood White Leptidea sinapis, Small Copper Lycaena phlaeas and Common Blue Polyommatus icarus.

From left to right: 1) a female Southern Small White Pieris mannii feeding on M. discidea, 2) a Common Blue Polyommatus icarus, also feeding on M. discidea, 3) a stand of M. discidea and 4) a Brown Argus Aricia agestis taking nectar from M. discidea blooms.

Plumbago auriculata

The Blue Plumbago is a bush that flowers later and for longer than many other nectar sources. It is particularly good for attracting all the various blue butterflies that we encountered in Corfu. It is also one of the hostplants of Lang’s short-tailed Blue Leptotes pirithous.

From left to right: 1) a pair of Lang’s short-tailed Blue Leptotes pirithous on P. auriculata, 2) a flowing bush of P. auriculata, 3) the Cleopatra G. cleopatra nectaring from P. auriculata and finally 4) a Scarce Swallowtail I. podalirius feeding on P. auriculata.

Polygala myrtifolia

This shrub can be grown either as a stand alone large bush or as a hedge, as long as it is allowed to flower! Many of the smaller butterfly species use it including: the Green Hairstreak Callophrys rubi, the Holly Blue Celastrina argiolus and the Green Underside Blue Glaucopsyche alexis. However, its also popular with the Brimstone Gonepteryx rhamni, Cleopatra Gonepteryx cleopatra, as well as others species.

From left to right: 1) a P. myrtifolia bush, 2) a Green Underside Blue G. alexis nectaring on a P. myrtifolia, 3) a Green Hairstreak C. rubi also nectaring on a P. myrtifolia and 4) a Long-tailed Blue Lampides boeticus ovipositing on Polygala myrtifolia.

Santolina chamaectparissus

Sometimes called Lavender Cotton, this species is easier to grow than Lavender and you can grow these as a very low “hedge”, where you can watch at your ease the many smaller butterflies attracted to their yellow button flowers.

From left to right: 1) a cluster of S.chamaectparissus blooms, 2) the Small Copper Lycaena phlaeas nectaring on S.chamaectparissus, 3) a denser display of S.chamaectparissus flowers and 4) a Southern Comma Polygonia egea recently settled on S.chamaectparissus.

Senecio cineraria

This is quite long flowering plant which attracts a wide variety of different butterflies including the Southern White Admiral Limenitis reducta. We frequently watched Silver-washed Fritillaries Argynnis paphia, fly down from tall Cyprus trees (where they may have roosted the night before) and their flower of choice would invariably be S. cineraria, whose flowers they would visit first thing in the morning for breakfast. It may be worth planting some of this shrub close to any Cyprus trees, if you have them in your garden. S. cineraria is a very easy plant to cultivate and grow.

From left to right: 1) a Swallowtail P. machaon nectaring on the blooms of S. cineraria, 2) an example of S. cineraria and 3) a male (left) and female (right) Silver-washed Fritillaries Argynnis paphia feeding on the nectar of a S. cineraria flower head.

Verbena bonariensis

If you have this plant in your garden and its in flower, butterflies will come to investigate its nectar. Given this plant’s growth habit and its height it is also great for photographers, providing just the right conditions to get a close up of many of the larger species - including the Scarce Swallowtail I. podalirius, the Swallowtail P. machaon and the Southern White Admiral L. reducta. If you do not have any, buy a packet of seed and spread them around, they will then be back as self-seeded plants for years to come!

From left to right: 1) a Brown Argus A. agestis feeding on V. bonariensis, 2) a Scarce Swallowtail I. podalirius also nectaring on V. bonariensis, 3) a dense stand of V. bonariensis and 4) an Orange Tip Anthocharis cardamines taking nectar from V. bonariensis.

In Summary

All the plants outlined here are easy to grow and last from year to year. They can not be totally ignored but rather, will need pruning each year to ensure new flowers appear in abundance. The Echium will be at its best for 4 or 5 years and may well then die but it is so easy to grow from cuttings one can always have the next generation growing in reserve. The S. cineraria is another very easy shrub to grow from cuttings. We well remember them rooting in 3 days!

I have not addressed the host plants required by the caterpillars of the many butterflies that visited our garden but information on these can be found in the species accounts of this website. It became my view that if adult butterflies were to visit our garden it would have been because of the scent and/or nectar we provided. Adult butterflies visiting our garden also often found a mate there, which was an additional benefit! The wider countryside then became the realm to which the fertilised females would return to lay their eggs. Here, their caterpillars could then develop on the host plants their habitats provided.

Of course you can always be surprised, as was shown by this Swallowtail P. machaon enjoying the flowers of Garlic in our veg plot: See opporsite.

John Denne
13th November 2021

A Swallowtail P. machaon nectaring on Garlic flowers.

A Swallowtail P. machaon nectaring on Garlic flowers.

P.S. Of course I haven’t provided an extensive list of all of the flowers that you can grow in your garden to attract butterflies, for example, from left to right: the Common Blue P. icarus feeding on Lavender, the Small Copper Lycaena phlaeas nectaring on Mint and the Sage Skipper Muschampia proto on Marigold. Perhaps, through experimentation in your own garden, you can add to our knowledge base and make us aware of alternative species not suggested above.