While just about any flower with nectar could be a boon for butterflies – cottage garden plants especially – it is a slightly different story with caterpillar food plants (known as host plants). For most butterfly species there is only a short list of host plants. This is possibly because eating leaves and stems is a more tricky business, with plants evolving chemical and physical defences against this kind of munching. It may also be that caterpillars need particular chemicals from that plant to bring out their warning colouration as butterflies.

Growing host plants in the garden is not necessarily guaranteed to attract the relevant butterflies. Sheffield University’s BUGS research project found that nettles in containers were not colonised by many caterpillars. However, butterflies do breed in gardens, and it is worth experimenting with different host plants to see what species might find your garden suitable.

It is also worth remembering that some butterflies and caterpillars overwinter, so shelter in the garden is also important – for example in thick growths of ivy.

Plants for breeding butterflies

Species Host plant
Comma Common nettle, hop, currant, gooseberry
Common blue Common bird’s foot trefoil, other small legumes
Dingy skipper Common bird’s foot trefoil, horseshoe vetch
Green-veined white Cabbage family, cuckoo flower, charlock, nasturtium
Holly Blue Holly, ivy
Large skipper Cock’s foot, false brome
Large white Cabbage family, nasturtium, wild mignonette
Meadow brown Grasses: Fescue species, meadow-grass, bents
Orange tip Cuckoo flower, garlic mustard
Painted lady Thistles, common nettle
Peacock Common nettle
Red admiral Common nettle
Ringlet Cock’s foot False brome, tufted hair-grass, common couch
Small copper Common sorrel, sheep’s sorrel
Small skipper Yorkshire fog
Small tortoiseshell Common nettle
Small white Cabbage family, nasturtium, hedge mustard, garlic mustard
Wall False brome, cock’s foot, Yorkshire fog, wavy hair grass

For more information about butterfly borders and host plants download our leaflet.