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

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

Rewilding, the case of urban Birdwing butterflies

Here I explain how you can think about ecosystems and how to restore them. The case study of the Golden Birdwing Butterfly, which can be found in the urban forest patch that is Rimba Ilmu Botanic Garden located inside the University of Malaya.

Merely reintroducing a species does not produce long lasting results. Butterfly farms all over the country constantly have to restock wild caught butterflies due to captive butterflies dying and not reproducing. When an animal is placed in a system that does not meet its needs, there’s nothing much that it can do except go extinct.

The secret to the birdwings survival is the fact that it has a functioning ecosystem that produces resources can satisfy its ecological requirements.

In a butterfly farm, the basic requirements for survival are met; the temperatures are suitable and there is enough food supplied through cut flowers and fruit. The ecosystem in a butterfly farm looks like this:

To be more sustainable and reduce the cost of having to feed the birdwings, you could plant food plants for the birdwings, so they can feed on the nectar. Birdwings prefer flowers that grow on in large clusters like Saraca, Ixora and Bauhinia kockiana so they can walk along and feed. The ecosystem would look this this:

As mentioned before, once the end of the lifespan of the butterfly is reached the ecosystem collapses. This is because all butterflies require a host to develop on as a caterpillar, in this case the Birdwings are breeding on a climbing plant known as Pipevine (Aristolochia tagala). If supplied with a host plant, the butterflies can lay their eggs and reproduce and create a new generation. This ecosystem would look like this:

However, Birdwing caterpillars damage the stem once they are about to pupate into a butterfly. This behaviour is believed to increase the nutrient density of the leaves while reducing the water content. Because of that, the above ecosystem will also eventually collapse after enough caterpillars damage and kill off all their hosts.

The special thing about the Rimba Ilmu ecosystem is that it has pollinators for the Pipevine, so the Pipevine can reproduce and replace the population that is lost to caterpillars. What is the pollinator of the pipevine? Tiny flies (Drosophilla spp., Megaselia spp.), which get caught in trap chambers in the flower of the Pipevine and forced to become pollinators without any reward. So a more viable ecosystem looks like this:

Of course since the Pipevine doesn’t feed them for the service of pollination, the fruit flies require their own food source, which is often rotten fruit, decomposing materials or fungus. These decomposition systems happen when there is enough fallen fruit, mulch and rotting logs in the overall ecosystem. This is supplied by leaves, fruit and branches falling off the plants in the system (which is an important reason to always leave some decomposition around). This results in this ecosystem:

The example above is a functioning, self sustaining ecosystem. As long as it gets enough sun it can keep going without any human interference. But the most interesting thing about this ecosystem is the fact that it assembled itself. While this “let nature find a way” approach is possible, we can help it along by being aware of the different parts and the needs of each part of the system. If you want butterflies in your garden, you need to think about more than butterflies.

References:

http://rainforest-australia.com/birdwing.html


This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant

Wildflower meadows in Malaysia, a beginners guide

Naturally occurring wildflower patches are the first step in succession. These small sun loving plants are usually the first to colonise bare land. They then help to regenerate the soil and make it suitable for secondary vegetation like shrubs and small trees to grow.

It should be stated that modern wildflower meadows are not native ecosystems. Many wildflowers found along our roads and in our fields are not native to Malaysia. Some are escaped ornamental plants that have gone wild, others have been brought accidentally by trade and a few have been introduced because of their usefulness to humans.

However, a patch of many small flowers and shrubs are more beneficial to pollinators and wildlife than just a lawn of grass. Stingless bee farms often encourage the growth of wildflowers such as Beggarsticks (Bidens alba, Biden pilosa), Coralvines (Antigonon leptopus), Goat weed (Ageratum conyzoides) and Cupids shaving brushes (Emilia sonchifolia) due to the nectar and pollen that they produce.

Some wildflowers are also food plants adult butterflies and host plants for caterpillars. Passion flowers (Passiflora spp.) are the host plants for the Tawny Coster (Acraea terpescore) and Julia Heliconian (Dryas iulia), while the Touch-me-not plant (Mimosa pudica) is the host for Lesser Grass Blues (Zizina otis lampa) and the Peacock Pansy (Junonia almana).

Lavender Sorrel (Oxalis barrelieri)

Some wildflower patches produce fruit and seeds which are eaten by birds. The small sour fruit of the Lavender Sorrel (Oxalis barrelieri) are eaten by Zebra Doves (Geopelia striata) and other small birds. Insects such as grasshoppers, true bugs, crickets, ants and moths that hide in the wildflowers are also the food of insect eating birds. Occasionally smaller water birds will also forage these sites for insects too. Be careful if you intend to use any wildflowers, not all plants are safe to consume or use as medicines. Some wildflowers are harmful to humans and vertebrates, as they can contain poisons that can harm your liver or cause blindness. Be sure to ask an expert before you decide to use any part of a wildflower.

Star-of-Bethlehem (Hippobroma longiflora) produces toxic sap

This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant