• Amrita Ghosh

How to attract butterflies in your concrete jungle garden?

The butterfly said to the sun, "They can't stop talking about my transformation. I can only do it once in my lifetime.

If only they know they can do it at any time and in countless ways." Dodinsky

Yes, just like our own self, we can transform our home garden too at any time and in countless ways. Most if not all of them require some investment in the form of effort, time and money. But one of the easiest ways to make your garden's ecosystem thriving with life, colour and beauty is to create an environ that attracts butterflies.

Butterflies are attracted to moist surface as they like to suck up the sodium and amino acid dense fluids. Some of them even take a liking for human blood and tears!

To attract butterflies into your garden, you need to think like one. If you were a butterfly, you would have loved to hover around nectar-producing plants. That's a given. What else you would have preferred with a lifespan of one to two weeks, unless of course you were lucky enough to be the Brimstone Butterfly (the longest living species in the world with a lifespan of up to 13 months)? If you were a Mourning Cloak, some tropical Heliconians, Red Admiral, or a Monarch, living in your ideal habitat outside of the prying eyes of predators, you get at about nine months under the sun. And boy, if you were one of those tiny ones making those blink-and-you-miss appearance, you might have got just 24 hours to live a lifetime. Even though Tagore said that "The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough", you probably won't hear him as a butterfly! So you need to hurry up!

The Red Pierrot, ventral view

For example, as The Red Pierrot, a strikingly beautiful tiny butterfly often found in urban settlements in India, you would be often seen fluttering in backyards on flowers of plants like the Periwinkle or the Sadabahar (as it’s known in Hindi), or on the Jatropha. You would prefer open petal flowers. The larval host plants (The plants that butterfly lay their eggs on are called host plants) that you would usually prefer are known as Kalonchoe laciniata (family of succulents) and Pattarchatta (Bryophyllum pinnatum).

What else? As a cold-blooded creature, any butterfly would thrive in sunlight. Most plants need at least 8 hours of sun to produce nectar. So you would like to stay as eggs in cold climate till the weather shifts in your favour. If you were already an adult butterfly, you would try to migrate or hibernate. Migratory monarchs rely on the sun to know the direction to follow.

"If we were to see like a butterfly, we would look at really bright colors," says butterfly expert Rachel Diaz-Bastin of the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco. So as a butterfly, flowers would appear very bright to you and when not sipping nectar with your drinking straw (proboscis), you would enjoy sunbathing and resting on leaves.

Great Eggfly

Common Castor

Common Baron (dorsal view, female)

Yellow Pansy

Blue Mormon

Indian Jezebel

Once we know a little bit about their inner world, irrespective of the size of our garden or location (urban, suburb, rural), even when we have a small balcony garden in the middle of a bustling city, we can create a butterfly-friendly space by following certain guidelines. If you only have hanging baskets and pots on windowsills or a terrace garden (most butterflies visit houses only up to a moderate height), you can still follow many of them, as long as the plants receive adequate direct sunlight. I am sharing few tips here :

Create pollinator habitat by planting native flowering species:

  • Focusing on the native flora is golden. If feasible, take a stroll in the neighbourhood for few days to figure out which plants attract native bees and butterflies, and what are the common species of butterflies in your area. Then you can start thinking about how to bring them in and that's the best way to learn. If you add larval plants (host plants) that caterpillars of those species like to eat or include plants that offers nectar to adult butterflies, automatically the garden will be able to welcome and support butterfly population. A complete butterfly-friendly garden should do both by supporting their entire life cycle.

  • If you don't have the time and interest to figure things out by your own, it's advisable to consult a local horticulturist about the list of annuals and perennials that support butterflies according to your area of living. Based on my observation, hibiscus (red and white), jungle geranium, sunflower, calendula, poinsettia, chrysanthemum, kalanchoe plants, lavender, bougainvillea, Indian snakeweed, cypress vine, mint, crape jasmine, lantana, red ixora, zinnia, holy basil, milletia pinnata, marigold are good bets for Indian climate. You can try curry leaves (caterpillars of Common Mormon thrive here), lemon/citrus, ginger lily, coriander, passion flower (favourite of Tawny Coster) for host plants.

The greater is the diversity of larval host plants in the butterfly garden, the more will be the number of breeding species.
  • Check for blooming cycles and try to pick flowering plants that bloom throughout the spring and summer. Varieties are important as different flowering schedules ensure food availability in all seasons. The idea is to plant something that naturally grows in your area instead of introducing non-native plants. This reduces pests and entices butterflies.

Wild indigenous flowering herbs and shrubs, which we often consider as 'weeds', can be a great attraction for butterflies since they co-adapted with these species for generations.
  • Most butterflies are highly selective about host plants on which they lay eggs as these plants should provide suitable food sources in future. If space permits, add some vegetable and herbs to encourage butterflies to lay eggs in your garden.

Malabar banded peacock

The Red Pierrot, dorsal view

The Common Rose butterfly

Great Orangetip

Red Helen

  • If you have pets around, research before including anything new to your garden. Some butterflies have certain specific chemical requirements. The caterpillar of Plain Tiger butterfly consume Calotropis, an evergreen, perennial and medium-sized shrub of milkweed family. Calotropis procera causes acute toxicity in various plant and animal cells, including human beings. The toxins do not kill butterflies due to low concentration, but over a period of time enough toxicity gets stored in the body, and consequently birds learnt to avoid predation on them as they fall sick. The caterpillars body also get bright and sparkling, indicating toxins in nature. It's best to avoid milkweed if you got pets who take special interest in your garden.

  • Be open to perform some interplanting experimentation to check what's attracting and repelling what.

Pay attention to flower colours, shapes and fragrance while buying plants from nursery:

Primarily, butterflies are attracted to flat-topped pink, red, orange, yellow, violet and purple flowers.

Grey Pansy

Danaid eggfly

Common Crow butterfly

Common Lime butterfly

Pioneer White

The common emigrant or lemon emigrant

This Common Crow (Euploea core) was not fidgety and allowed me to take closeup shot

Bengal Common Ciliate Blue

  • Try to create foliage grouping by colours and species for easy identification. Plants producing flower clusters offer efficient feeding for butterflies as they don't need to spend much energy flying to some other plant for drinking. Only movement of tongue suffices to drink from florets (small flowers), while having a stable base of petals on which to stand.

  • Butterflies are near-sighted, so clustering one particular species of plant in a group increases the likelihood of attraction of passing butterflies to your the garden. Daisies, dahlias, sunflowers give them easy access to food and flat landing space.

Butterflies also see in the ultraviolet portion of the light spectrum (which is not detectable by human eyesight), allowing them to view flowers in a way that we cannot. Once they get close to flowers, certain details in the light reflected in the ultraviolet range provide them with important clues about the availability of nectar.

Common Hedge Blue

Mottled Emigrant

Great Eggfly

Lemon Pansy

The Indian cabbage white

Andaman Common Ciliate Blue

Peacock Pansy

Glassy Tiger

Common Tiger

  • If your garden is spacious, it's best to choose plants for your garden with varieties of flower shapes, so that different-sized butterflies can feel comfortable to land. Some flowers are shaped in a way that allows easy reach by butterflies for nectar, but not all. Swallowtail butterflies, for example, can access to nectar from deep inside the flowers due to its long tongue.

  • The floral fragrance that attracts humans towards a specific plant may not appeal to butterflies. Even though I've seen butterflies dancing around blooms of my rose bed in the garden, but rose doesn't require cross-pollination as it propagates through stem. Perhaps that's why usually butterflies don't take special interest in roses. However, roses do attract pollinators. So if you want to add roses in your garden, I would suggest to plant varieties of roses to encourage growth of beneficial insect population in order to control unwanted pests. But the aroma of sage, basil and lavender attract butterflies much more.

Select the right spot and accessory:

  • While an area with abundant sunlight and good air-circulation is the way to go, it's also important to choose a garden space that's not assailed by wind. You can provide wind protection (windbreak) otherwise. While cold-blooded butterflies need the warmth of sunlight as a must, they also appreciate shades that will help them to regulate their body temperature and offer a cool resting place. Also, sheltered place allows caterpillars to pupate. So try to ensure that your garden receives copious amount of morning sunlight while there's canopy cover in the back.

  • Adding small water container or bird bath in your garden to create wet patches can be a nice addition for butterflies too, specially in dry seasons. No, they won't drink water from these containers. But the males participate in mud-puddling, in which they lap up water from the moist soils and gain necessary nutrients to pass on to females during copulation to create a healthy future generation. So you can facilitate the process by providing a shallow tray, with water and smooth pebbles to land without harming their delicate bodies. Keep these wet patches covered by plants in the surrounding to lower the evaporation. Along with birds and butterflies, other animals also get benefited by this in summer. Make sure to change the water on alternate days to provide fresh supply as bird droppings can infect the water.

Mud Puddling

  • You can also keep some rotten/overripe pulpy fruits and peels on a flat surface as butterflies derive nutrients from there as well. Keep this feeding tray on another larger tray filled with water to avoid ant infestation.

There are many species of butterflies (many belong to the brush-footed and brown butterflies) which never visit a flower. These butterflies like to get their stock of food from rotten fruits, decaying fish, crabs, or prawns, the scat or dung or urine of wild animals and so on. Common Baron promptly comes in my mind.

Owl butterfly

Common Baron

Avoid insecticides and pesticides:

  • Caterpillars are going to consume leaves like there's no tomorrow. Chewed leaves are tell-tale signs of healthy ecosystem, so don't bother about them to make everything look prim and proper.

In fact, it is said that if something is not naturally eating from your garden, your garden is not part of the ecosystem.

  • Eliminating pesticides and insecticides from the garden will attract spiders, ladybugs, dragonflies and butterflies along with other beneficial species. Otherwise, in an effort to create perfectly ornamental garden, we can damage the ecosystem by killing these important creatures. Also, this will impact the natural life cycle as butterflies at every stage of their life are food source for birds, lizards, frogs among others.

Unless you stop using pesticide, weedicide or any similar chemicals to kill or control some pests, butterflies will not thrive. If you are adding rose, which is quite ineffective in drawing butterflies, make sure that you are not going to spray insecticide to protect it from moth caterpillars.

  • While organic pesticides are less damaging than their synthetic counterparts, but ultimately all pesticides are formulated to kill. Also, chemicals can impact on either the larval or adult stage. Adults can encounter spray drift during flight or residues when contacting pesticide-contaminated surfaces, but damages can be inflicted by host plants, which provide bulk of the exposure in their life cycle. The monarch butterfly is an iconic species whose population is declining in North America. Numerous causal factors have been implicated in their decline with disappearance of its larval host-plant, milkweed, due to the introduction of the herbicide glyphosate being the leading hypothesis.

  • Maintaining an equilibrium of beneficial creatures and pests is important for sustainability. Habitat restoration is possible without letting pesticides cause havoc.

Marigolds, mint, petunias and other herbs are natural pest-repellents. Also, one can use natural fertilizers using leaf litters, dung and other garbage from the garden instead of chemical fertilizer for healthy growth of larval host plants.

Avoid over-maintenance:

Too much care is detrimental in nature and too much maintenance is detrimental for garden. Just because many of us like to see everything around organized, neat, fresh and in symmetry, do not cut off dead flowers from perennials. Some flowers need light deadheading, but removing spent flowers is not always advisable, specially for butterflies and birds.

Last but not the least, enjoy watching them form a distance as butterflies are shy. Keep your seating somewhat away from the action while you can still rejoice their presence and don't make them nervous by following their trails in order to photograph. Instead, invest in a suitable lens.

Imagine having a garden where butterflies visit and gently sit on your shoulder or flowers when you're admiring nature with your morning cup of favourite beverage or tending to a plant. These magical creatures are certainly going to uplift your mood and as they delicately flutter from flower to flower sipping on nectar, they pollinate, ensuring seeds for future and helping you create a holistic garden. Together with moths, birds, bees and bats, they pollinate over 75% of the planet's flowering plants.

PS As I was in the middle of writing this, Russian troops are closing in on Ukraine's capital. 'What are you doing here, you sensitive little fragile creature?’ asked I, and I was reminded of Ruskin Bond who said “and when all the wars are over, a butterfly will still be beautiful.”

Erich Remarque, a German soldier who served in the German Army in World War I, wrote a book narrating his experience of German front line troops. Remarque’s brilliant exposé of the collective calamity of modern war, All Quiet on the Western Front, describes a brief moment of respite and mirth following ferocious battle the Germans fought against French troops in the summer of 1917:

“For the whole morning two butterflies have been playing around our trench. They are Brimstones, and their yellow wings have orange spots on them. I wonder what could have brought them here? There are no plants or flowers for miles. They settle on the teeth of a skull”. (Chapter 6, pages 88-89, Vintage Classics edition)

Accidental or designed, beautiful or moribund, divine or sinister, fine and frangible wings of butterflies have carried the burden of our hopes and fears for centuries. For the ancient Greeks, "The butterfly was telling us about our own lives," says Peter Marren. In Rainbow Dust: Three Centuries of Delight in British Butterflies, Peter established why he believes that their journey from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to winged beauty has evoked many sentiments, myths and stories that resonate with the mysteries of the soul, life and death.

So if you catch yourself asking who cares about bringing butterflies into garden when there’s widespread hostility and an ongoing war, think again.


PhotoStory Date: 27.2.2022

Place: Bangalore

Words and Photograph: Amrita Ghosh