Small tort

Grow plants for caterpillars

Activity time:
More than 2 hours
Difficulty level:
Suitable for:
Large garden, Medium garden
To help:
Butterflies & moths

Butterfly caterpillars are very fussy about their food.

Adult butterflies only lay their eggs on one or two types of plants, which they know their caterpillars need to survive when they hatch.


It is only by growing the right plants that we can boost the population of adult butterflies.


By providing a regular food source for them and caterpillars in our gardens, we can provide safe places for them to thrive.


Some caterpillars are quite noticeable, like the dense congregations of black, spiky peacock caterpillars which cluster on nettles in June. With many of the other butterflies, you might not see the caterpillars but hopefully you'll see more adults flitting around your garden.


Not sure what butterflies are using your garden? Buy a butterfly ID chart and you'll know which of the 57 commonly encountered species in Britain and Ireland are in your garden.


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What you will need

  • Nettle seeds
  • Alder buckthorn or purging buckthorn plants
  • Lady’s smock plugs
  • Garlic mustard seeds
  • Birds-foot trefoil plug plants
  • Holly bush
  • Ivy
  • Spade
  • Gloves

Butterfly chart

This eight-panel laminated fold-out chart shows colour images of 57 of the more commonly encountered butterfly species in Britain and Ireland.

Buy now

Step-by-step guide

    1. Which butterflies live where you live? Look through the list of common garden butterflies below, and check which ones are found in your area.

      • All over the UK: red admiral, small tortoiseshell
      • All over the UK except Shetland: green-veined white, small copper, common blue, meadow brown
      • All over the UK  except north and west Scotland: orange-tip, peacock
      • All over the UK except north England and south and Central Scotland: speckled wood
      • Lowland England & Wales and southern Scotland: large skipper
      • Lowland England & Wales:, small skipper, brimstone, comma, gatekeeper 
      • Lowland England & Wales and eastern Northern Ireland: holly blue
    2. Now check what each butterfly wants. Once you know which species to focus on, see if you already have their caterpillar's foodplant in your garden, or if you have a space to grow it.

      Orange-tip and green-veined white caterpillars eat lady’s smock and garlic mustard. Lady's smock is a beautiful little pink flower of damp areas, like a lush meadow. Garlic mustard can be grown in drier areas and has fresh green leaves and little white flowers. Both are available from good wildflower suppliers as plug plants, or are easy to grow from seed.Orange-tip butterfly on garlic mustard plant

      Common blue caterpillars eat bird's-foot trefoil. It is a pretty yellow pea-flower which grows in meadowy area. You can add plug plants from a wildflower supplier into your lawn.

      Holly blue caterpillars eat holly and ivy, so grow ivy up walls and plant a holly bush, preferably female (because that will have berries). A good garden centre or supplier should l be able to tell you whether you are buying a male or female plant.

      Brimstone caterpillars need one of two native small trees called alder buckthorn and purging buckthorn. Alder buckthorn grows on wet, clay soil and purging buckthorn grows on chalky soils. The type of buckthorn you can plant depends in the type of soil you have. Both will grow to about five metres tall as a small tree. You can buy these very cheaply in winter as bare-rooted 'whips' (these are just short stems with roots). They are very easy to plant; just keep them well watered in their first year and they will soon grow.

      Red admiral, peacock, small tortoiseshell and comma caterpillars all eat nettles. Most gardens are too small to grow a big enough patch, but if you have a large garden, you might have space for a nettle patch. The caterpillars like to eat in the middle of large clumps in sunny, sheltered locations, so consider this when planting. You can harvest nettle seeds from the wild, after the flowers have gone in the summer - remember to wear gloves!Peacock butterfly caterpillars on nettle plant

      Gatekeepers, meadow browns and skippers like to eat wild grasses left to grow tall. Check out our activity of how to turn your lawn into a meadow to find out how to help them.
    3. Once you have planted your caterpillar plants, keep a look out for adult butterflies. They are easier to spot than most caterpillars, which like to keep themselves well hidden.

Bird's foot trefoil flowers

Holly flowers and leaves

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