Butterfly Gardens: Key Concepts

Butterflies are nice to have in a garden, they help to make it feel alive with colour and movement. They also become food for birds and carry out important pollination of plants.

To have butterflies in a garden, you have to meet the requirements of butterflies. In no particular order, the requirements are: host plants (for caterpillars), flowering plants (for adults) and suitable amounts of shade.

Host plants

These are plants that caterpillars feed on before they become butterflies. Many butterflies have specific host plants, while some common species have a variety of plants that they can feed on. Sometimes the host plants of butterflies are plants that we eat or use for decoration.

coromandel and pollinator
Coromandels are host plants for many urban butterflies

If you are preparing a butterfly garden, please tolerate a few chewed up leaves. Natural predators like wasps and birds can help to keep caterpillar numbers manageable, so preparing habitat for them too can help to bring a balance to your garden.

Flowering plants

butterfly feeding on Bidens alba nectar
Allowing wildflowers to grow in your garden is a good way to ensure a consistent source of nectar for butterflies

Plants which regularly flower are very attractive to butterflies. These flowers are not necessarily big, but they usually occur in clusters that the butterflies can walk across.

Wildflower patches are a simple way to make habitat for adult butterflies to feed, although edible plants such as Ulam raja and some ornamental flowers such as Lantana, Ixora and Saraca are attractive to butterflies as well.

butterfly and a cluster of flowers
Clustered flowers are very attractive to butterflies

Shade

Butterflies are cold blooded creatures, so they control their body temperature by exposing themselves to sunlight. However, too much sunlight can be harmful to them. Many species of butterflies prefer shadier conditions where they can rest and cool off. Some forest butterflies never leave the shade of the forest, while open area butterflies can tolerate intense heat from the sun. 

Keeping these three things in mind will help make your garden a suitable habitat for butterflies. However, you can meet the requirements of some species of butterflies and still not get a desired species. This is because butterflies have to get to your garden, and usually, species that are more sensitive to urban environments may need pathways from forest patches that they can safely migrate through. So it is good to keep in mind that connectivity to forest patches is a good way to ensure that butterflies can establish themselves in home gardens.

If you want to experiment with these concepts, you can try planting a beginner butterfly garden that attracts very hardy urban butterflies.


This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant

See also

Wildflowers: Purple composites

wildflowers, goatweed, siam weed, cupid's shaving brush, tropical fleabane

Top (Left to right): Siam weed, Chromolaena odorata & Goat weed, Ageratum conyzoides

Bottom(Left to right): Cupid’s shaving brush, Emilia sonchifolia &
Tropical fleabane, Cyanthillium cinereum

Plants with small, fluffy purple or white flowers. It is found almost anywhere, favoured by beekeepers for the pollen and nectar it produces. It is grown to prevent Lalang growth but it can crowd out native plants. It is poisonous to vertebrates

Status: Least concern, invasive

Habit: Herbaceous

Cultivation: Planted by seeds or transplanting

Ecological Function: Attracts pollinators, ground cover

Pollinators:  Large bees, small bees, butterflies, flies, wasps

Soil: Sandy, loam, organic soils

Moisture: Well drained soils

Shade: Partial shade, no shade

Wildflowers: Monkey’s potato

wildflower, monkey potato, rimanji, plectranthus monostachyus

Monkey potato ~ Rimanji

Plectranthus monostachyus

An upright plant from the mint family. It has oval leaves that occur in pairs opposite each other, and at right angles to the following pairs. It produces small purple flowers at the top end of stems. The common name comes from nodules found on the roots of the mature plant.

Status: Least concern, Introduced (Tropical Africa)

Habit: Annual herbaceous

Cultivation: Planted by seeds or transplanting

Ecological Function: Attracts pollinators, ground cover, host plant for butterflies (Junonia orithya)

Pollinators:  Large bees, small bees, butterflies

Soil: Loam, clay, organic soils

Moisture: Well drained soils

Shade: Partial shade, no shade

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Wildflowers: Touch-me-nots

Touch-me-nots ~ Pokok semalu

Mimosa pudica

A creeping plant from the pea flower family. Its leaves respond to touch by drooping or closing up in defense. Each leaf is a compound leaf made up of many leaflets. Its flowers are purple-pink, ball-shaped and form clusters at the ends of stalks. It produces pods which bear seeds.

Status: Least concern, Introduced (Central and South America)

Habit: Annual

Cultivation: Planted by seeds or transplanting

Ecological Function: Attracts pollinators, nitrogen fixer

Pollinators: Large bees, small bees, butterflies

Soil: Loam, organic soils

Moisture: Moist soil

Shade: Partial shade, no shade

Wildflowers: Elephant’s foot

Elephant’s foot~ Tutup bumi

Elephantopus scaber

A plant from the daisy or sunflower family that grows well in shady areas. Its leaves are arranged in a circle at the lower part of the stem. It has tiny pale purple flowers at the top of erect stalks. Its fruits are small and dry with hair-like structures to attach to animals or people.

Status: Least concern, Native

Habit: Perennial

Cultivation: Planted by seeds or transplanting

Ecological Function: Attracts pollinators, ground cover

Pollinators: Butterflies, large bees

Soil: Sandy

Moisture: Well drained soils

Shade: Partial shade, no shade

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Wildflowers: Star of Bethlehem

Star of Bethlehem ~ Dedalu cina

Hippobroma longiflora

An attractive wildflower, originally introduced as an ornamental plant. However, the plant’s sap is poisonous. Its leaves have an elongated oval shape, a pointed tip and tooth-like margins. They are arranged in a spiral at the stem base. A single star-shaped flower with five petals grows on a stalk.

Status: Least concern, Introduced (Jamaica)

Habit: Perennial

Cultivation: Planted by seeds or transplanting

Ecological Function: Attracts pollinators

Pollinators: Possibly moths

Soil: Clay

Moisture: Damp soils

Shade: Full shade, partial shade

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Wildflowers: Tridax daisy

Tridax daisy ~ Kancing baju

Tridax procumbens

A common roadside plant that does not need a lot of soil or water to grow. It is a plant that helps nourish soils. Its leaves are arrow-shaped and have tooth-like margins. The compound flowers are yellow and white, at the top of long stems. Fruits are small and dry and have hair-like structures.

Status: Least concern, Introduced (Central America)

Habit: Perennial

Cultivation: Planted by seeds or transplanting

Ecological Function: Attracts pollinators, ground cover

Pollinators: Butterflies, bees, thrips, flies

Soil: Sand, loam, organic soils

Moisture: Dry soil, well drained soil

Shade: Partial shade, no shade

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Wildflowers: Beggarticks

Beggarticks ~ Rumput juala

Bidens alba, Bidens pilosa

A plant from the daisy or sunflower family. It is used by beekeepers as a source of nectar and pollen for bees. Its lower leaves are simple but upper leaves are compound with 4-6 leaflets. Bidens alba has 5-8 ‘petals’ longer than 1cm long, Bidens pilosa has 4-7 ‘petals’ that are less than 1 cm long.

Status: Least concern, Introduced (Central/South America)

Habit: Annual herbaceous

Cultivation: Planted by seeds or transplanting

Ecological Function: Attracts pollinators, ground cover

Pollinators:  Bees, butterflies, thrips

Soil: Sand, clay, loam, organics soils

Moisture: Moist, well drained and dry soils

Shade: No shade

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Wildflowers: Waterwillow

Waterwillow

Justicia procumbens

A plant that grows very close to the ground in open, grassy areas. Its leaves are elliptic with tiny hairs on the leaf margin. Its pale pink flowers cluster on top of a fuzzy structure at the end of the stem. It is the host plant of the beautiful Peacock Pansy butterfly

Status: Least concern, Introduced (India)

Habit: Perennial herbaceous

Cultivation: Planted by seeds or transplanting

Ecological Function: Attracts pollinators, butterfly host plant (Junonia orithya)

Pollinators:  Butterflies, bees, flies

Soil: Loam, sand, clay

Moisture: Moist soils

Shade: Partial shade, no shade

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Wildflowers: Two-flowered hedyotis

Two-flowered hedyotis ~ Rumput mutiara

Oldenlandia corymbosa

A common plant that has a tendency to grow in cracks near drains where it can get enough moisture. Its leaves are narrow and oval. Its four-petalled flowers are white with a purple tinge, very small, and often grow in pairs. Fruits are tiny capsules with numerous seeds.

Status: Least concern, Introduced (Tropical Africa)

Habit: Annual herbaceous

Cultivation: Planted by seeds or transplanting

Ecological Function: Attracts pollinators

Pollinators: Thrips, bees, wasps, butterflies

Soil: Sandy soil

Moisture: Moist soil

Shade: Partial shade, no shade

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