Creating a garden to attract butterflies does not only mean growing plants that have pretty nectar-filled flowers, but also involves growing plants that their larvae (i.e. caterpillars) will enjoy. This means that caterpillars will have to be allowed to munch indigenous plants such as the Creeping foxglove, pelargoniums, geraniums, plectranthus, arctotis, to mention a few. Of course butterflies will still visit your garden briefly to sample nectar from exotic flowers particularly if they are blue, purple, red, pink or white. Apparently they are not so partial to yellow flowers.
Our March garden has been experiencing a veritable explosion of butterflies of all shapes and sizes. Having arrived late at an interest in butterflies, it is taking me a while to be able to identify ones that dance by without stopping or with only brief inspections of the flowers on offer – rather like suburban housewives having a quick look at ‘special offers’ in supermarkets while waiting to collect their children from school.
Some butterflies, like the tiny Blues, are virtually impossible for the novice to identify, as in spite of settling often, they dash off as soon as one gets close enough to see their colour, let alone identify distinguishing features. According to butterfly expert, Dave Edge, Common Blues, Long-tailed Blues, Sooty Blues and Fynbos Blues have been recorded in Steenbok Nature Reserve, so presumably these are amongst those flitting about our garden. Plumbago flowers and immature seeds are enjoyed by the larvae of Common Blues, so I can be reasonably certain that they are the ones flying around our ‘Royal Cape’ plumbago bushes.
The large showy Swallowtails are much easier to identify. The Citrus and Green-banded Swallowtails have long been regular visitors, and although we no longer have a lemon tree to attract the Citrus Swallowtail, it enjoys the nectar of the lavender and the beautiful little purple Duranta flowers edged with white – called ‘Sapphire Showers’. A recent exciting visitor was the handsome cream and black male Mocker Swallowtail. I am unable to say with certainty that the female Mocker Swallowtail has also visited our garden, as it mimics the black and tawny orange African Monarch butterfly so cleverly, that one has to be able to see it very clearly to be sure. As the female Mocker Swallowtail does not stray far from its food plants in the forest (the White-ironwood and Horsewood – incidentally both members of the Citrus family) we probably only have the African Monarch in our garden. The African Monarch butterflies carry poisons that make them unpalatable to predators, so the female Mocker Swallowtail protects itself from predators by mimicking the poisonous African Monarch.
The African Monarch has been extremely busy lately, also enjoying the nectar of the Duranta and purple Heliotrope flowers as well as sucking up poisonous alkaloids from the damaged comfrey leaves nearby, which it uses to produce useful protective chemicals. (See ‘Comfrey as a Butterfly protector’ April 2016).
The salmon-pink Painted Lady is another regular visitor. Its larvae have a wide variety of food plant preferences, so it is likely to find a suitable place to lay its eggs in most gardens.
Not only do butterflies add colour to our lives, they are also an indication of a healthy environment and ecosystem. They help plants pollinate, their larvae eat plants that can sometimes be described as weeds, and they provide a food source for other creatures. If you would like to find out more about butterflies, all Steve Woodhall’s books are excellent. His What’s that Butterfly? (Struik, 2008) is great starter guide. Leonie Twentyman-Jones