fat green and blacked stripped caterpillar on a green stem
Food plants for caterpillars

With global warming and the subsequent changes in our environment it is normally down to the amateur gardener to express concern when they recognize changes in their local area. Once such cry has been about the steady decline of our native butterflies.
Unfortunately it is all too often the same amateur gardener who is spraying their plants with systemic insecticides, killing off the caterpillars in the first place. No caterpillars, no butterflies- the maths is simple here.

Unless we, as a gardening nation, make a concerted effort to actively encourage the feeding of caterpillars then many more of our 59 resident native species will die out. Five species have become extinct already!

Below is a list of caterpillar food plants which if left pesticide free will help to encourage butterfly populations back into our gardens. All of these should be planted in a sunny, sheltered part of the garden for best effect.

HOLLY- Ilex aquifolium. Along with our native ivy (Hedera helix) this is the larval food plant for the Holly blue.

BUCKTHORN - Rhamnus cathartica .This is one of only two larval food plants for the Brimstone Butterfly caterpillar. The other plant is ALDER BUCKTHORN - Frangula alnus. The Brimstone is one of the few native butterflies that can fly as far as 15 miles looking for a buckthorn plant to lay its eggs on. By having one of these planted in the sunny part of your garden you will dramatically increase your chances of seeing this beautiful creature.

STINGING NETTLE – Urtica dioica. Although unsightly and irritating the stinging nettle is perhaps one of the most popular larval food plants for many of our native butterflies. Species include the Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Red Admiral, Comma, the Painted lady butterfly, and Peacock butterfly.

BIRD’S FOOT TREFOIL - Lotus corniculatus. This is one of the most important plants for any wildlife garden as not only it is the larval food plant of the Common Blue and Dingy Skipper butterflies it is also the larval food plant for several of our native moths. Plant it at the edge of your borders so that it isn't shaded by taller plants.

COMMON SORREL - Rumex acetosa. This is the larval food plant for the Small Copper butterfly. It also attracts many other insects that in turn will provide food for our native insect eating birds, in particular the Spotted Flycatcher, Song thrush, Starling and House sparrow.

CUCKOOFLOWER OR LADY’S SMOCK - Cardamine pratensis. This is the larval food plant for the Orange Tip butterfly. The caterpillars are also known to feed from garlic mustard, sweet rocket and honesty.

DOG VIOLET - Viola riviniana. This is the larval food plant of many of our rare Fritillary butterflies.

KIDNEY VETCH - Anthyllis vulneraria. This is the larval food plant of the rare Small Blue butterfly, and is also important nectar plant for other blues and bees.

THE BRAMBLE - Rubus fruticosus. Its leaves are the larval food plant of several species of moth such as the buff arches, peach blossom and fox moths, while its flowers provide nectar and pollen for many insects including bumblebees, honey bees, hoverflies, wasps, butterflies, flies and lacewings. In addition it bears fruit in late summer and autumn for birds and small mammals.

WILD GARLIC MUSTARD - Alliaria petiolata. This is the larval food plant for the Orange Tip butterfly.

Although this list is by no means complete, but it is a good starting point for the butterfly gardener. With regards to insecticide use, if you find that you have a compulsive need to be using some kind of bug killer then may I recommend the ‘old wives' favourite of using soapy water in a spray bottle? Try and avoid the flowers and although this should have a minimal effect on visiting butterflies please remove any caterpillars that may be in the way as they can still be harmed.

Main image credit - Miroslava Serova Copyrighted free use

For related articles click onto the following links:
Caterpillar food plants database

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