Butterfly Gardens

from Biodiversity Gardens Capacity Building Workshop with Dr Cyren Wong Zhi Hoong

Dr. Cyren is an ecological anthropologist and ethnozoologist who studies the relationship between human society and the natural environment. He is also a lepidopterist who specialises in the study of butterflies & moths. One of the chapters of his PhD research focuses on the butterfly naming and collection practices among Semai people living in Gopeng and Cameron Highland.

Why Butterflies?

Butterflies are a suitable flagship species for insect conservation because the adults share resources with a wide range of other beneficial insects such as flower flies and bees. As generalist feeders, many of the flowering plants for adult butterflies are also suitable to sustain populations of other pollinating insects.

Besides, both adult and larval stages of butterflies are very important food sources for a wide variety of animals including birds, reptiles and amphibians.

Also, many butterflies, especially the urban ones, are large, brightly coloured and easily recognisable. These characteristics make them prime candidates for simple observation. From an educational perspective, butterflies possess a strong cross-cultural appeal, across relatively broad demographics.

Another reason is butterflies are unable to cause physical harm through transmission of diseases, biting or stinging, which makes them excellent candidates for community science projects and amateur studies.

Plant Selection

To create a butterfly garden, the first thing you need to do is to make a distinction between larval-host plant and the adult-food plant. Larval-host plants are species of plants that are necessary for butterflies to complete their larval stages whereas the adult-food plants are flowers that butterflies prefer to feed on.

Food plants for adult butterflies

The great thing about butterfly gardening is that the different life stages of butterflies have different needs. You can partition your garden or create a segregated area in such a way that you have plots of more attractive flowers that butterflies can fly around, and put your larval-host plants somewhere hidden if you worry the site would be full of caterpillars or the leaves would be full of holes.

Fortunately, most butterflies are generalists. It is not that difficult to choose adult-food plants for the butterflies. Of course, there would be certain flowers that butterflies are more attracted to than others. These are flowers that meet the CEWL criteria.

  • C – cluster flowers
  • E – exposed nectaries
  • W – warmer colours
  • L – longer stamens

Cluster flowers

If you observe butterfly-attracting plants, one of their common characteristics is that they have flowers that bloom in a clustered pattern. These are plants where multiple flowers are grouped together on a single stalk. For example, flowers of Lantana, Ixora, Bauhinia, Saraca and Buddleia.

Exposed nectaries

Butterflies also prefer flowers with exposed nectaries. Flowers that have short nectar receptacles such as those of the family Asteraceae, i.e. daisy or daisy-like flowers, are usually excellent choices because most of them possess bright colours and short nectar receptacles. They are easy for butterflies to access.

Some people ask whether they can grow morning glory and butterfly pea to attract butterflies. The fact is butterflies do visit them but as a general rule, many tube-shaped flowers tend to be more frequently visited by bees compared to butterflies as their receptacle are too deep for many small or medium-sized butterflies. Therefore, they don’t prefer these flowers although they still visit them when there is a shortage of food sources.

Warm colours

In terms of colours, butterflies tend to be more attracted to colours on the warmer end of the spectrum as opposed to bees that tend to be attracted to colours on the cooler end of the spectrum. Butterflies tend to go for flowers that are in shades of pinks, reds, yellows, oranges, or even white. In fact, if you are in the forest and you want to see butterflies, you can lay down a piece of red cloth on the forest floor. You will find that many species of butterflies even the ones that usually just stay at the upper canopy level descend to investigate when they see the red colour.

Long stamens

If you are fortunate enough to notice larger butterflies in your area such as the swallowtail or birdwing butterflies, and you wish to attract more of these butterflies to your garden, you can also try to grow plants with longer stamens. The stamens and the anther are parts of the flower that stick out where the pollen is attached. Examples of flowers are Hibiscus, Clerodendrum, the pagoda flower, and Caesalpinia.

Larval-host plant

The other thing you need to know is how to select the larval-host plants. The adult-food plants and the larval-host plants are equally important if you want to sustain a stable population of butterflies.

It is definitely not enough to just grow flowers without a reliable food source (for their young) that they can breed on. The butterflies will not be able to sustain themselves in the long run and you will eventually see less and less butterflies as time goes by.

Try to observe and identify the butterflies that you see in your surrounding area and the plants that they visit, since butterflies are also found near plants that they reproduce on. You can do a bit of research on their interactions with the local flora. Look at the plants where butterflies stop and lay eggs. These plants are the first plants that you should be cultivating.

Unfortunately, many of these larval-host plants are what we consider weeds. You might not be able to buy the plants at a nursery. On the other hand, because many of them are weeds, upon discovering a larval host plant, you could just dig it up and bring it home.

Community-Assembly Approach

The thing to remember is that we are trying to build a sustainable habitat for a community of local butterflies and other pollinators. In nature, every species is a member of a community. It goes through a series of checks, balances and filters that ultimately decide whether the species is capable of adapting and integrating with other plants and animals that are already in that area. This process is what ecologists know as community-assembly theory.

In our urban gardens, every stage of this selection that would otherwise be driven by environment and inter-species interaction, is driven by us since we decide the plants to be grown and propagated in our gardens.

By controlling the species composition of plants to be grown, we also control what animals are capable of living and thriving in the spaces that we create. Therefore, when you are creating your butterfly garden, it is useful to think of it as living experiment and you get to decide what the final community structure would look like.

Dr Cyren’s advice is to always start small. Try to pay attention to not only how well your plants are growing in your garden but also whether the plants are attracting local butterflies or any other pollinators. If they are, you can add more of these plants in your garden. However, if the plants are not doing well or more importantly, if none of the local butterflies are interacting with them, then maybe it is time to get rid of the plants and try something else.

Challenges

The mindset that many people have today, especially if they are not wildlife enthusiasts or environmentalists, is that the human environment needs to be carefully designed, manicured and sterile. Even in these so-called green cities and communities, we tend to witness spaces with closely manicured lawns, and an abundance of non-native ornamental plants which are not really of any use to local wildlife.

You can see the beautiful green walls and trees. But, if you look closer, there is no sign of fauna interaction. Birds are not building nests in the trees. There is no insect munching at the leaves and no flower attracting butterflies and bees. There is very little space in our urban communities to set aside and allow nature to thrive, to run wild, which is precisely what the beneficial animals need.

The other important thing to consider is to try and just allow things to go a little wild. In fact, a lot of grasses and wild flowers that are very weedy or ‘semak’ to us play an important role and are irreplaceable. We cannot swap them out for ornamental ones as they have the vital position in the life cycle of countless species of native animals.


This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant

You can watch the entire session here.

A Beginner Butterfly Garden

A beginner’s butterfly garden uses host plants and flowering plants that grow wild. Shade is not an issue for many of these butterfly species here since they are adapted to living in hot open areas. Because this garden uses wild plants, it requires almost zero maintenance (except for occasional trimming).

For aesthetic value, you can hide the host plants behind or between ornamental plants, or use them as verges (edge or border plants).

Some of these butterfly species may already be present in your gardens. But enriching your garden for butterflies can bring them closer for you to view.

Target butterflies

This garden is suitable for sustaining populations of these species of butterfly.

Passionflower butterflies

These are recent introductions to Malaysia; they can use passionflower vines as a food source for their caterpillars

Coromandel and Cleome butterflies

These butterflies have a variety of host plants but they can use coromandel and cleome as host plants.

Lawn butterflies

These butterflies lay their eggs in lawns on low growing plants that can withstand being mowed.

Roadside tree butterflies

These butterflies can use common roadside trees as a host. This means that you don’t have to plant their host plants but they will still be attracted to your garden.

Host plants

Common four rings use grass as a host plant. A pesticide free lawn is enough to sustain these butterflies

This is the list of host plants that can be planted in a beginner butterfly garden. You can choose to plant all or just some of them. A few of these are common urban wildflowers.

Passionflowers are creeping vines that can be grown on fences. Sometimes they can be found growing on the borders of drains or other plants.

Coromandel and Cleome are two easily grown wildflowers that are almost everywhere and require almost no maintenance. They grow low and won’t take over your garden, so a small patch or planting them between pots is possible. Both these plants produce seed pods that can be easily harvested from patches of wildflowers.

Lawn plants like grasses and some plants that grow together with grasses, such as Semalu and Desmodium, are also used by lawn butterflies.

Target butterfliesHost plant species
Passionflower butterfliesCorky passionflower, Passiflora suberosa
(other ornamental passionflowers can also be used as long as you don’t mind caterpillars)
Coromandel and Cleome butterfliesCoromandel, Asystasia gangetica (ornamental varieties are available if you would like to use them instead)
Purple Cleome, Cleome rutidosperma
Lawn butterfliesSemalu, Mimosa pudica
Desmodium
Goat grass, Ishaemum muticum
Roadside tree butterfliesAcacia
Raintrees, Albizia
Cassia
Desmodium is a host plant for the Tiny Grass Blue butterfly. It also enhances soil fertility and can grow in between grass in a lawn.

As with wildflower patches, allowing other plants to grow in between the host plants helps to fertilise the soil and lower the need for maintenance. Let it grow wild without pesticides and you might get additional biodiversity such as stingless bees and ladybugs.

Flowering plants

Little ironweeds can survive in degraded land and are very attractive to pollinators

Coromandel flowers can double as a nectar source for adult butterflies. Easily grown wildflowers such as Goat weed, Cupid’s shaving brush, Tridax daisy and Beggarticks are suitable sources of nectar since they are almost always flowering.  Since all of these are from the sunflower family, they produce dandelion like seeds that reseed the plot after the wilt.

The seeds can be harvested from wild patches and placed in a plot.

Tridax daisies are hardy plants that are used by a wide variety of pollinators

This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant

Urban Invertebrates: Butterflies and Moths

Butterflies

Active in the daytime, they have club-shaped antennae and their wings are held upwards when at rest.

Ecological function: pollinators, prey-predator relationship

Level in food chain: primary consumer

Feeding behaviour: herbivore (when caterpillar), nectarivore

Microhabitat: trees and shrubs where they can rest, flowering plants where they can feed

Moths

Active at night, they have antennae with various shapes and their wings are flat when at rest.

Ecological function: pollinators , prey-predator relationship

Level in food chain: primary consumer

Feeding behaviour: herbivore (when caterpillar), nectarivore

Microhabitat: trees and shrubs where they can rest, flowering plants where they can feed.