May 2022: Val Bourne on ‘Butterflies in Gardens’

CABAHS welcomed Val Bourne to speak at our May meeting, sharing her photographs, experience and knowledge of butterflies in the garden. She emphasised that she is not a butterfly expert (but she knows one!), she’s an organic gardener who has spent a lot of time observing butterflies, their habits and preferences – and, sadly, their decline in recent years.

Photograph of the FSC's Butterfly ID chart

As a starting point, Val recommended a book and a tool: ‘The Philips Guide to Butterflies’ and the Field Studies Council’s butterfly identification chart. Butterfly Conservation also provide a range of identification guides online. Photographs of a wide range of species – 24 different ones have been spotted in the Spring Cottage garden – showed us the beauty of even the smallest, brownest examples!

Val explained how useful even a small meadow area is for many species, how some species rely on quite a narrow range of plants for nectar, and how the timing of a butterfly lifecycle is intrinsically linked to the lifecycle of their food plants. She stated that climate change – causing plants to flower at different times – is demonstrably messing up this synchronisation, so as gardeners it’s important to grow a wide range of butterfly-friendly plants to try to mitigate that situation.

Some examples of butterfly-friendly plants, and the butterflies that particularly need or enjoy them:

  • Buddleja davidii – known as the ‘butterfly bush’ for good reason! It can attract up to 22 different species
  • Origanum majorana aka marjoram – its nectar is particularly sugar-rich
  • Urtica dioica aka stinging nettle – this plant is especially good for five butterfly species (the Small Tortoiseshell, Comma, Red Admiral, Peacock and Painted Lady)
  • Scabious – this group of plants, including the field scabious (Knautia arvensis), have a long flowering season and are rich in nectar
  • Sweet pea – especially the perennial sweet pea (Lathyrus latifolius) for Brimstone butterflies
  • Cardamine pratensis aka cuckoo flower or lady’s smock – for Orange Tip butterflies (also garlic mustard, wallflowers, sweet rocket)
  • Ilex aquifolium (holly) – for Holly Blue butterflies (also Hedera – ivy – for later in their lifecycle)

Long grass is especially important for the ‘brown group’ of butterflies (which are not all brown!) because they lay their eggs on native grasses. Examples of these are Gatekeepers, Graylings, Small Heath and Marbled White butterflies. This is a group that tends to be smaller and less noticed, but it is worth paying attention as they are as beautiful as the showier, higher flying butterflies on closer inspection.

Val took a number of questions at the end of her interesting talk, and heard about plans for leaving some long grass in Charlton House Gardens and a suggestion from the floor to visit Ladywell Cemetery, which is actively managed with butterfly conservation in mind and occasionally holds butterfly identification walks through Big City Butterflies.

A full house for Val Bourne’s butterfly talk!


Val Bourne gardens at Spring Cottage in Cold Aston, Gloucestershire and is an award-winning garden writer, organic gardener and lecturer. Her writing appears regularly in the press, and her most recent book is ‘The Living Jigsaw’.

One thought on “May 2022: Val Bourne on ‘Butterflies in Gardens’”

  1. Ever since Val’s talk I have been noticing butterflies, moths – in fact all insects – so much more in the garden. And prancing round like crazy trying to capture them in camera!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s