Attracting butterflies to your garden

Butterflies have a magical quality to them and everyone loves seeing these brightly-coloured delicate creatures dancing and flirting from flower to flower. South Africa boasts over 650 different species of butterfly and by hosting them in your garden, you can ensure that these living jewels can continue to thrive in our threatened environment. It’s easy to not only attract them to your garden, but by planting the appropriate indigenous plants, you can also encourage them to breed in your garden.

If you’re planning to have butterflies breeding in your garden, be warned, that it can in fact become an obsession! When starting out, you’ll have to get passed the idea of having a picture perfect garden as you’ll need to bear with some plants having their leaves eaten by the caterpillars. But, this is worth the sacrifice as the damage to plants is minor and in fact encourages more and abundant growth and flowering. In nature, butterflies and their larvae form part of a food chain and they fall prey to many creatures. So, you’ll get the additional benefit of attracting other wildlife to your garden such as birds, lizards, frogs, spiders, praying mantids and ants.

It’s important to understand the basic butterfly lifecycle to understand how to garden for these magnificent creatures. It starts with an egg which is usually laid on or near a specific larval (caterpillar) host plant. Different species have unique dietary requirements so host plants vary accordingly. When the egg hatches, a caterpillar emerges. It will feed on the foliage and once it reaches its full size will go into the next stage – the pupal stage. During this phase, it appears inactive but is in fact undergoing a transformation from a caterpillar to an adult butterfly.

Adult butterflies get most of their energy from the sugar-rich nectar from flowers. Again, different species have specific food preferences, favouring indigenous plants. Here are just some of the common plants which you can grow in your garden to attract butterflies.

Groundcovers: Arctotis stoechadifolia (Trailing Marigold), Asparagus species (Asparagus Ferns), Asystasia gangetica (Creeping Foxglove), Gazania species (Gazanias), Plectranthus species (Spur-flowers)

Small Shrubs and herbaceous plants: Barleria obtusa (Bush Violet), Pentas lanceolata (Pentas), Hypoestes aristata (Ribbon Bush), Freylinia tropica (Blue Honeybell Bush)

Trees and Shrubs: Vachellia/Acacia species, Buddleja species, Harpephyllum caffrum (Wild Plum), Kiggelaria africana (Wild Peach), Mackaya bella (Forest Bell-bush), Mundulea sericea (Cork Bush), Rhamnus prinoides (Dogwood), Vepris lanceolata (Ironwood)

To find out more about indigenous plants and the butterflies which use them, visit

Acraea horta, Garden Acraea