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Best Food Plants For Butterflies


©Shaun Barr Photography

Spring is when many of the UK's butterfly species emerge and take to the wing for the first time, encouraged to life by the warming sunshine. From Orange Tips to the Green Hairstreak (pictured above) a continuous succession of species become active. But like so many of our pollinating insects, butterflies are in trouble; in fact three-quarters of British species are in decline.

Our gardens are therefore more important than ever before for providing butterflies with a habitat in which they can survive. Planting nectar-rich flowers is of course an important step you can take to encourage butterflies. To find out some of the very best plants for providing nectar take a look at Top Ten Plants For Butterflies.

While it's important for us to provide the butterflies with nectar from flowers, ultimately their larvae need something to feed on, and it's usually more wild plants on which they depend. The list below contains some of the best food plants for butterflies; something worth bearing in mind when it comes to choosing plants for your garden or deciding which wild plants already growing are worth holding on to. 

If you can leave even just a small patch of your garden to grow wild for any of the following you'd be creating a much-needed habitat and food source. Allowing even just a small section of your lawn to grow longer for instance, will transform those grasses into a good food source for a variety of butterflies as you'll see under 'Grasses' in the table.

The size of your garden will obviously limit what you can grow, but as even small plants such as primroses and cowslips are useful as larval food plants there's something here for everyone.


Alder buckthorn                Brimstone

Aspen                                 Large Tortoiseshell

Bell Heather                      Silver-studded Blue

Bilberry                              Green Hairstreak

Blackcurrant                      Comma

Birdsfoot trefoil                 Common Blue, Green Hairstreak, Silver-studded Blue, Dingy Skipper

Bramble                             Green Hairstreak, Grizzled Skipper, Holly Blue

Brassicas (cabbages etc)  Small White, Large White

Broom.                               Green Hairstreak

Clovers                               Clouded Yellow, Pale Clouded Yellow

Common Stork's-bill         Brown Argus

Cotton Grass                     Large Heath

Cowslip                              Duke of Burgundy

Cuckoo Flower                  Orange Tip, Green-veined White

Docks and Sorrel               Small Copper

Dog Violet                         Dark Green Fritillary, High Brown Fritillary, Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Silver-washed Fritillary 

Elm                                     Comma

Garlic Mustard                  Orange Tip, Green-veined White

Foxglove                           Heath Fritillary

Grasses, various               Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Ringlet, Speckled Wood, Wall Brown, Small Heath, Marbled White, Large Skipper

Gorse                                Holly Blue

Hawthorn                          Black-veined White

Holly                                  Holly Blue (First brood)

Ivy                                      Holly Blue (Second brood)

Kidney Vetch                    Small Blue

Nasturtium                       Small White

Primrose                           Duke of Burgundy

Ribwort Plantain              Glanville Fritillary, Heath Fritillary

Small Scabious                Marsh Fritillary

Snowberry                       Large Blue

Stinging Nettle*             Red Admiral, Peacock, Comma, Small Tortoiseshell

Thistle                              Painted Lady

Viper's Bugloss               Painted Lady

Wild Marjoram               Large Blue

Willow                             Comma


*Stinging Nettle (To grow enough stinging nettles to encourage butterflies to use as a food plant you will need to allow a large clump to grow, so perhaps left to bigger gardens and fields.)  

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