How to attract butterflies to your garden

How to attract butterflies to your garden

Provide food for caterpillars and choose nectar-rich plants for butterflies and you’ll have a colourful, fluttering display in your garden for many months.
Illustrated butterfly lineup

While just about any flower with nectar can be a treat for butterflies (cottage garden plants in particular), it is a slightly different story for caterpillar food plants (known as host plants). In fact, most butterfly species have just a short list of host plants. This is possibly because eating leaves and stems is a trickier business, with plants evolving chemical and physical defences against this kind of munching. It may also be that caterpillars need particular chemicals from that plant to bring out their warning colouration as butterflies.

Just about any flower with nectar could be a treat for butterflies


Growing host plants for caterpillars in the garden is not necessarily guaranteed to attract the relevant butterflies, but butterflies do breed in gardens, so it is worth experimenting with different host plants to see which species might find your garden suitable.

It is also worth remembering that some butterflies and caterpillars overwinter, so shelter in the garden, such as thick growths of ivy, is also important.

 Plants for butterflies



Host plant


Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica), Hop (Humulus lupulus), currants (Ribes spp.)

Common Blue

Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)

Dingy Skipper

Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), Horseshoe Vetch (Hippocrepis comosa)

Green-veined White

Hedge Mustard (Sisymbrium officinale), Cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis), Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)

Holly Blue

Holly (Ilex aquifolium), Ivy (Hedera helix)

Large Skipper

Cock's-foot (Dactylus glomerate), False Brome (Brachypodium sylvaticum) 

Large White

Cultivated varieties of Brassica oleracea, such as Cabbage and Brussel-sprouts, Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), Wild Mignonette (Reseda lutea) 

Meadow Brown

Grasses: fescues (Festuca spp.), meadow-grasses (Poa spp.), bents (Agrostis spp.)


Cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis), Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolate), Honesty (Lunaria annua) 

Painted Lady

Thistles (Cirsium spp. and Carduus spp.), Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica),


Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)

Red Admiral

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica), Hop (Humulus lupulus)


Cock's-foot (Dactylus glomerate), False Brome (Brachypodium sylvaticum), Tufted Hair-grass (Deschampsia cespitosa), Common Couch (Elytrigia repens)

Small Copper

Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa), Sheep's Sorrel (Rumex acetosella)

Small Skipper

Yorkshire-fog (Holcus lanatus)

Small Tortoiseshell

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica), Small Nettle (Urtica Urens)

Small White

Cultivated varieties of Brassica oleracea, such as Cabbage, Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), Wild Mignonette (Reseda lutea), Hedge Mustard (Sisymbrium officinale), Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolate)

Wall brown

Cock's-foot (Dactylus glomerate), False Brome (Brachypodium sylvaticum), Yorkshire-fog (Holcus lanatus), Wavy Hair-grass (Deschampsia flexuosa)


Nettle and red admiral illustration
wild about gardens butterfly

Want more info? Read our butterfly guide