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

Plants for Food 1: Selom

Selom (Oenanthe javanica)
Photo by KENPAI (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Common name: Java waterdropwort

Malay name: Selom

Other local names: –

Scientific name: Oenanthe javanica

Distribution: East, South, and Southeast Asia, as well as Australia

Conservation status: Least concern, Cultivated, Native

Description

Selom is found in the rainforest in Malaysia. Selom is an erect, perennial plant growing from 10 – 150 cm tall. The plant has creeping stolons by which it spreads vigorously, often forming large clumps. It bears small, white flowers in clusters. Selom often grows wild in swampy places such as the edge of wetland and rice field. However, there has been cultivation of Selom nowadays in response of market demand. It is rich in Vitamin C and minerals.

Culinary use

Selom was once a staple of Malay diets, freshly harvested leaves and stems were often served with a mix of Ulam raja, Pegaga or Tenggek burung as ulam. If you are a food lover, you should not miss the Northern Laksa or Laksa Utara in Peninsular Malaysia. The dish is normally presented together with fresh leaves of Selom. Other than that, the tender stems and leaf stalks of Selom are used fresh as salad, to garnish steamed rice and other dishes, or boiled and chopped as greens.

Planting

Selom is considered a plant that is easy to grow. It thrives in various type of soil. However, it is best to grow the plant in fertile, moist soil with high organic content. To plant Selom in seed bed or nursery, the soil must be plowed before planting.

Instead of planting with seed, planting with cutting is faster to get the yield. Young plant needs sufficient water to grow well. It is good to water the plant two times per day, morning and dusk. The cutting start to develop roots within 2 to 3 weeks. After 4 to 6 months, reduce the times of watering. You can harvest the plant after 3 to 4 months of planting in soil.

The most common found disease of the plant is Sooty mould. Therefore, take precautions on the sanitation and implement good farming practices e.g. keeping a distance among plants and removing unhealthy plants.

Biodiversity benefits

As a small plant that grows in moist places, Selom makes for excellent shelter for small wetland animals such as frogs. It can also be planted near ponds to act as a shelter for fry and small fish. The small white flower clusters are attractive to pollinators like butterflies as well as short- and long- tongued bees.

Related websites:

  1. https://myagri.com.my/2017/12/selom/
  2. https://avrdc.org/water-dropwort-oenanthe-javanica/
  3. http://tropical.theferns.info/viewtropical.php?id=Oenanthe+javanica
  4. https://animhosnan.blogspot.com/2010/12/selom.html
  5. https://www.mstar.com.my/lain-lain/jamu-selera/2014/07/02/kerabu-selom

How to start a wildflower garden

billygoat weed

The simplest method is to not do anything and let a patch regrow with wild plants. You can remove any unwanted or dangerous plants through weeding, but there is not much maintenance involved with these patches. A wildflower patch that needs to be tended by humans is an oxymoron.

If you want a bit more control over which wildflowers grow in your patch. You can harvest seeds from existing patches of wildflowers and scatter them into your plot. Wildflowers from the dandelion family (Asteraceaa) have dandelion like seeds that you can blow into your patch. Others have small seeds, fruit or pods that you can harvest when the turn mature and brown. Just break the pods and release the seeds onto the surface of your patch.

Transplanting wildflowers is a bit risky since they wilt very fast. Try to not expose the roots of the plants and collect it with its surrounding soil.  Make sure that your patch is moist and watered regularly during the first few days to ensure that your plants don’t dry out. Some wildflowers grow by runners and can be planted similar to transplanting.

Not all your flowers might survive, but that’s perfectly fine. All plants require the correct amount of shade and the correct soil type. In other cases some of your plants will be outcompeted by other wildflowers or eaten by herbivores. These are all good learning opportunities to understand the ecology of these flowers better.

Try to allow a mix of different wildflower species to grow in your patch. This will make it more resilient and beneficial to the soil, as well as more useful to wildlife that forage for food in the patch.


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