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How to grow a garden for butterflies

AUG 29, 2022 | Written by Zoë C Poulsen. Photos by Doug Charlton, Bart Wursten, Caity Mackenzie, Athol Ferguson, Lourens Erasmus, and Sandra de Swardt.

Garden for butterflies



Above: Garden Acraea (Acraea horta). Photo: Doug Charlton/iNaturalist.


Some of the world’s most loved flying insects, visiting butterflies can light up your garden or community green space as much as the most vividly coloured blooms. They are found worldwide and in a wide range of environments from tropical rainforests to mountain peaks.

There are around 28 000 butterfly species globally and 800 found in South Africa. Of these, 420 butterfly species and subspecies (50%) are endemic to South Africa, meaning they occur nowhere else on Earth.

The earliest butterfly fossils date back to the early Cretaceous period 130 million years ago. They are thought to have evolved alongside flowering plants and are among their most important pollinators.


Above: Citrus Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio demodocus) in the Garden Route Botanical Gardens. Photo: Ettiene De Beer/iNaturalist.


From the very hungry caterpillar to a beautiful butterfly

Butterflies have a fascinating lifecycle, as epitomised in the much-loved classic children’s book ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’. They start life as a tiny egg, many of which are laid on the undersides of leaves or tree branches.

Soon young caterpillars, also known as larva, hatch from the eggs. They grow rapidly, munching on leaves and flowers almost constantly.

Some caterpillars become food for hungry birds and other wildlife. Many have bright colours and irritant hairs to discourage predators from making them dinner.

Milkweed butterflies such as the African Monarch have caterpillars that feed exclusively on milkweed plants in the Asclepiadaceae, Apocynaceae and Moraceae families. The poisons from the plants that they eat accumulate in their bodies, which also discourages predators from eating them.

Those that survive and grow large enough to metamorphose into butterflies go through a pupating stage, where they become a pupa, also known as a chrysalis, while they mature. Some butterflies pupate while hanging from the undersides of leaves or branches. Others may pupate underground in the soil.

Eventually the butterfly emerges from the pupa as an adult, having transformed from the caterpillar stage of its lifecycle. The butterfly soon takes flight, visiting flowers to feed on their nectar with a long ‘tongue’ known as a proboscis.


Above: Citrus Swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio demodocus) in the Garden Route Botanical Gardens. Photo: Colin Ralston/iNaturalist.


Providing food plants for caterpillars

If you would like to welcome butterflies into your garden, then it is just as important to provide food plants for the caterpillars as well as for the adult butterflies.

Many caterpillars feed on specific host plants, and you can help butterfly conservation in your area by planting these plants in your home garden or community garden. A notable exception are the larvae of the painted lady butterfly, that feed on a wide range of food plants.

Wherever you are in South Africa, great host plants include the wild peach tree (Kiggelaria africana), which hosts the garden acraea butterfly, citrus trees which host citrus swallowtails, and spurflowers (Plectranthus spp.) which host the garden inspector butterfly.

A golden rule for a butterfly friendly garden is to avoid the use of herbicides and pesticides. Use of these can often kill butterflies at both the larval and adult stages.


Above: Garden Inspector butterfly (Precis archesia). Photo: Bart Wursten/iNaturalist.


Beautiful blooms for butterfly food

Butterflies are most attracted to flowers that are blue, mauve, pink, white or yellow. So go for those soft pastel colours if you would like to encourage them to call your garden home.

If you are gardening in Gauteng, then blue plumbago flowers (Plumbago auriculata) are often visited by the common zebra blue butterfly. The paperbark thorn (Vachellia sieberiana var. woodii) attracts a range of butterflies.

In KZN the KwaZulu-Natal flat crown (Albizia adiantifolia) attracts butterflies to visit the flowers. With their beautiful ornamental blooms, salvias or sages are another popular choice.

The butterfly bushes (Buddleja spp.) are large shrubs with sweetly scented flowers that, like their name, attract many butterflies into the garden when in bloom.

Indigenous to the Western Cape, through to the Eastern Cape, KZN, the Free State, Lesotho, and northwards to tropical Africa, Buddleja salviifolia grows well in almost all parts of the country. Young plants should be protected from frost, but once mature they tolerate both frost and drought conditions.

It is important to remember that planting butterfly plants should be done in gardens and other cultivated areas, and that planting of garden plants of uncertain origin should not be undertaken in areas with natural vegetation.


Above: Green-Banded Swallowtail (Papilio nireus) Photo: Athol Ferguson/iNaturalist. 


Places for butterflies to shelter from the wind

With their delicate wings, it is important for butterflies to have places in the garden where they can rest and feed while sheltered from strong winds.

Careful planting to shelter your garden if you live in a relatively windy area is popular both with humans and butterflies. If you have the space, consider planting trees and larger shrubs near the garden perimeter.

The Cape ash (Ekebergia capensis) is a hardy choice and is also the food plant for the larvae of white-barred chyrax butterflies. The white ironwood (Vepris lanceolata) is loved by mocker and green-banded swallowtail butterflies.

If you have a smaller garden, then trees and shrubs such as the camphor tree (Tarchonanthus camphorata) can be trimmed to size to be grown in a small space.


Above: Mocker Swallowtail (Papilio dardanus). Photo: Lourens Erasmus/iNaturalist.


Growing larger and smaller plants for butterflies in your garden

Different butterflies tend to fly and forage for nectar at different heights. It is therefore worthwhile to have a range of butterfly food and nectar plants in your garden from taller shrubs, which also help to give your garden height at the back of the borders, and smaller spreading plants which can be placed near the front or in pots.

The hardy and waterwise succulent Crassulaceae are a robust family of plants with many attractive options for butterflies. The brightly coloured pendulous flowers of pig’s ears (Cotyledon orbiculata) are popular with both birds and butterflies.

Traveller’s joy (Clematis brachiata) is a resilient climber with soft white flowers which can be planted to add height to your garden, growing in most parts of the country. It is both a host plant for caterpillars and a nectar plant for adult butterflies.

We wish you happy gardening!


Above: White-Barred Charaxes (Charaxes brutus). Photo: Sandra De Swardt/iNaturalist.


Further Reading

Botha, Charles. Botha, Julie. (2006) Bring Butterflies Back to Your Garden, Botanical Society of South Africa, KZN Branch, Mayville, South Africa.

Butterflies of South Africa’s National Botanical Gardens

South African Red Data Book: Butterflies 


  1. Thank you don’t think I have seen a swallow tail ever . thanks for the photos.

  2. What great text and photos, clearly, form talented people!
    Well done.

  3. Fabulous! what a wonderful website! thank you very much!

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