At a time when the green spaces in our cities are losing out to concrete, a garden can be a wonderful retreat from the heat and dust of the city. But, gardens are also a great way to support your local ecology. When they are planned well and grow the right plant species, gardens become a refuge for birds, bees and butterflies that are disappearing due to habitat loss and growing pesticide use. A garden where they have access to a variety of plants, dependable sources of food, water, shelter and a place to breed are what will make your garden attractive to wildlife. So, whether you have a large backyard or a tiny balcony garden, why not make it a place wildlife will love?
Butterflies are members of the insect order Lepidoptera (from the Greek words lepis = scale; pteron = wing). This group also includes butterflies, skippers and moths, which at first instance may seem similar to one another, but require one to look closer to tell the difference.
There are a few things you must keep in mind before you set up your own butterfly garden. What most of us forget is that, the butterfly that we find hovering and gliding about is the culmination of a life cycle that develops in 4 stages.
The first stage in the life cycle of a butterfly is the egg, which is laid by the adult female butterfly. The outer most layer of this egg dries up and becomes solid. Depending on the species these eggs are round, oval or segmented. And more often than not, they have intricate patterns and hues etched on them which at times helps identify the family and species of butterfly that has laid the egg. Most butterflies prefer sunny areas for mating and laying their eggs.
The second stage in the life cycle of the butterfly is the larva or caterpillar stage. Caterpillars can be considered one of the most efficient eating machines. Caterpillars are known to eat enough leaves, adding up to few thousand times their weight, over the course of their lifetime. Their mouth, which is equipped with powerful jaws help them grind their food. At the lower lip of the mouth, these caterpillars possess silk gland outlets which secrete a sticky liquid which is used to secure itself as it enters the third stage. The chrysalis or pupa is a stationary, non-feeding, resting/transforming stage in the life cycle of the butterfly. When the metamorphosis is complete the chrysalis splits and the fourth stage begins, the adult butterfly crawls out.
When the butterfly first emerges, it looks wrinkled and it takes a while before the wings are pumped with insect blood. The wings have to spread and stiffen before the butterfly embarks on its maiden flight. What we usually see within our gardens is only this last phase of the life of the butterfly.
Bangalore is home to more than 100 different species of butterfly. Some of the most common ones that we find within the city include Lime Butterfly, Crimson Rose, Common Mormon, Common Pierrot, Red Pierrot, Common Jezebel, Common Grass Yellow, Striped Tiger, Common Crow, Grass Yellow, Common Palmfly, Leopard, Castor, Tawny Coster, Sailer, Lemon Pansy, Common Emigrant and the Danaid Eggfly.
Butterflies, much like humans, come in various shapes, forms, and sizes. Besides, each of them has its own preference of food and area. The closer your garden is to their natural habitat, the greater is the chance of attracting a butterfly.
So there are two different kinds of plants that one must take care to grow within a butterfly Garden. One group of plants includes those that provide nectar to the adult butterfly. The other is larval food plants that provide nutrition to the growing caterpillars. Besides this, it is also good to keep in mind to have some areas that are sunny and others that are sheltered within the garden.
Larval food plants are usually referred to as host plants. It is important to have the right kind of host plants in a garden in order to attract butterflies. Most butterflies are extremely picky about where they hang out, mate and lay their eggs. They will only lay eggs on plants that are suitable food sources for their young ones. Many caterpillars are limited to growing within one of few of these closely related host plants.
Some butterflies have come to depend on specific chemicals found in certain plants like for example the Plain Tiger, whose caterpillars feed on Calotropis, a shrub from the milkweed family. Milkweeds are a group of plants that contain toxins in their sap. The toxin is at a very low concentration within these plants. Low enough not to kill the butterfly which is feeding on it, but over a period of time, the body of the adult butterfly becomes so toxic that it affects the birds that feed on these butterflies. After all, we are what we eat! Over time, birds have learnt to stay clear of these butterflies.
Adult butterflies get their nutrition from nectar found in flowers. They investigate possible nectar sources using their feet and feed on the nectar using the coiled straw-like structure found beneath the head.
And water! But butterflies don’t drink water the way we do; they prefer to lap it up from little puddles of water on the soil rather than drinking it from a cup or bowl. They do something called mud-puddling which is a behaviour noticed in the male butterfly to obtain essential nutrients which are then passed on to the females during copulation, to produce a healthy progeny. Females don’t usually mud-puddle.
The shape, arrangement and fragrance of flowers are three means by which plants attract their pollinators. If you look closely, you will find that a number of flowers have a 'landing pad' that plays a significant role in the butterfly attending the flower. Butterflies are known to be drawn towards the colours pink, red, orange, purple, white and yellow. Many of the best butterfly plants are wild indigenous flowering herbs and shrubs we consider 'weeds', since butterfly have co-adapted/co-evolved with these species over hundreds, if not thousands of generations.
Ensuring that your garden has little nooks and crannies where butterflies can hide from predators, and avoiding any form of chemicals in the garden helps ensure that your garden attracts a whole lot of the winged creatures.
Some plants that attract butterflies include:
- Rattleweed - Crotalaria retusa
- Blue and Pink Snakeweed - Stachytarpheta mutabilis
- White Butterfly Bush - Buddleja asiatica
- Birthwort/ Dutchman’s Pipe – Aristolochia sp.
- Ganges Primrose - Asystasia gangetica
- Common Hibiscus (Red or White) - Hibiscus rosa-sinensis
- Lemon - Citrus limon
- Porcupine Flower - Barleria prionitis
- Peacock Flower - Caesalpinia pulcherrima
- Large Milkweed - Calotropis gigantea
- Blue-Fountain Bush - Rotheca serrata
- Shankapushpi - Clitoria ternatea
- Red Ixora - Ixora coccinea
- Air Plant - Kalanchoe pinnata
- Lavender - Lavandula officinalis
- White Flag Bush - Mussaenda frondosa
- Passion Fruit/Flower - Passiflora foetida
- Cape Leadwort - Plumbago capensis
- Wedelia - Wedelia trilobata
- Indian Laburnum – Cassia fistula
- Ivory Wood - Wrightia tinctoria
Featured image: Flickr/ sjoe
Ganeshram is a nature enthusiast with a strong passion for ecology and conservation. He works as a freelance consultant in the fields of indigenous landscaping, sustainable food production and enjoys facilitating nature walks. He loves exploring and living in sync with nature for most part of his day. He also enjoys sketching, healthy cooking, photography, writing and music. Write to him at contactganeshram(at)gmail(dot)com or reach him on 097417-27014/ 081971-83932.