Certain plants will lure particular butterflies, an expert explains

Wondering which butterflies you might spot in your garden this summer during Big Butterfly Count, the annual UK-wide survey aimed at helping us assess the health of our environment by counting the amount and type of butterflies we see?

It depends on the planting within your outdoor space – but you don’t just have to look at buddleia (also known as the butterfly bush) to spot a wealth of different species.

“July is the peak season for some butterflies. Depending on where you are, you may well see small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies in your garden, which are among the most common species,” says Anthony McCluskey, conservation manager (Scotland) for Butterfly Conservation.

“You may also see small white and large white butterflies which should be on the wing.”

What plants are likely to attract particular butterflies?


Large white butterfly caterpillars on a nasturtium leafLarge white butterfly caterpillars on a nasturtium leaf (Image: Alamy/PA)


“Gardeners can plant certain plants which will attract white butterflies to lay their eggs there, including nasturtium, honesty and sweet rocket,” he says.

“Nasturtiums flower later in summer, so you’ll see butterflies on them. They will also be visible on other plants which flower earlier because they will be trying to lay their eggs on them.”

Large whites lay many eggs, which are orange or yellow in colour and are easy to see on leaves, while small whites lay their eggs singly, which are still visible on the upper surface of leaves.

“The caterpillars will cause some damage,” he concedes, “which is one of the ways you know caterpillars are present. Large numbers of caterpillars from the large white butterfly can strip the leaves.”

Some people plant nasturtiums near their vegetable patch to deter the caterpillars from cabbages.

A speckled wood butterfly on grassA speckled wood butterfly on grass (Image: Alamy/PA)

Long grass

If you leave an area of long grass underneath trees or hedgerows it can attract species like the speckled wood butterfly, which is fairly common and does appear in towns and cities.

He suggests extending No Mow May to attract these brown butterflies which have creamy speckles on the wings. They need long grass to lay their eggs.

A red admiral butterfly on sedum.A red admiral butterfly on sedum. (Image: Alamy/PA)

Sedum and scabious

The nectar-rich flowers of sedum are very easy to grow, with bright flowers in late summer, while the pincushion flowers of scabious in pink and white flower all summer and are a magnet for butterflies.

An open flowered Dahlia 'Bishop of Oxford'.An open flowered Dahlia 'Bishop of Oxford'. (Image: Alamy/PA)

Open-flowered dahlias

“Butterflies can get to the nectar in flowers that are quite closed, so go for more open single-flowered dahlias like Bishop of Oxford. You may see peacock butterflies, small tortoiseshell and red admirals,” he says.


At the end of summer, mint will come into bloom and it’s a really good one for attracting most butterflies, whether in a pot or anywhere in the garden.

A holly blue butterfly on hollyA holly blue butterfly on holly (Image: Alamy/PA)


“The holly blue butterfly is a lovely blue-coloured species which people can attract to their garden by planting holly because it lays its eggs on young holly flowers in the spring, but then emerges again in summer and will lay eggs on other plants including ivy or dogwood.”

Drought-tolerant plants

If you are planting in pots, choose drought-tolerant varieties which are not going to dry out. Herbs like thyme, marjoram and lavender are good for pots, especially later in the summer, and will attract butterflies which require a lot of energy, such as the peacock and small tortoiseshell, he suggests.

A red admiral butterfly on Verbena bonariensisA red admiral butterfly on Verbena bonariensis (Image: Alamy/PA)


Other plants which are colourful and which you could plant in pots include short varieties of Verbena bonariensis and sea holly, which has beautiful flowers and leaf shapes. Both are perennials which will come back year after year. Purple Salvia caradonna are also a magnet for butterflies, he says. “Any salvias are attractive to butterflies and bees and can do well in pots.”

Cirsium rivulare

In recent years this this thistle-like plant with deep red or purple flowers on tall branching stems has become popular with designers at the RHS Chelsea Flower Shows. It’s much enjoyed by red admirals and is often awash with bees.

Brimstone butterflyBrimstone butterfly (Image: Alamy/PA)

Buckthorn and alder

Large, bright yellow/green brimstone butterflies camouflage themselves in the leaves of alders to lay their eggs.

Two tortoiseshell butterflies and a peacock butterfly on a buddleia flowerTwo tortoiseshell butterflies and a peacock butterfly on a buddleia flower (Image: Alamy/PA) And what about the humble buddleia?

Some gardeners see the large varieties of buddleia as wayward thugs, and Butterfly Conservation acknowledges that while it is among the best plants to grow for butterflies and moths, it must be managed to prevent it from spreading across sensitive natural habitats.

Care should be taken to stop it from self-seeding and spreading beyond the garden, where it can invade native plants nearby, it warns.

However, you can get smaller varieties which are suitable for pots and are more controllable.

Which plants are NOT likely to attract butterflies?

Big blousy roses or any highly hybridised plants which are hugely difficult for butterflies to access.

“Some have been bred and selected to have flowers which last for a long time, but which have no pollen or nectar any more. Things like the pelargonium, the tender geranium, isn’t really good for any of our butterflies. Other bedding like petunias don’t seem to attract anything,” says McCluskey.

Big Butterfly Count runs from Friday, July 12 to Sunday, August 4.