Planting Guide

The easiest way to attract native butterflies to your garden is to plant a variety of food plants for caterpillars and nectar plants for butterflies.

The following plants are some of the best plants to attract Admiral, Blue, and Copper butterflies.

Plants for Caterpillars

It is best to place larval plants in clumps of at least three or four. Otherwise, voracious caterpillars may quickly eat all the leaves from one plant and end up stranded on an island of bare twigs.

Nettles

Urtica Ferox.Photo: George Gibbs

Urtica Ferox.Photo: George Gibbs

Admiral caterpillars require stinging nettles to breed. Three native kinds of nettles will attract red admirals: Tree Nettle or Onga Onga (Urtica ferox), Chatham Island Nettle (Urtica australis), Scrub Nettle or Pureora (Urtica incisa). Urtica incisa can be used to brew an herbal tea and is perhaps the most appealing nettle with small, heart-shaped leaves. But don’t be fooled by its small stature! Like its larger relatives, Urtica incisa has a powerful sting, and must be approached with care.

Red Admiral caterpillars will eat most native and non-native nettles, but the eggs are laid almost exclusively (with the exception of a Scrub Nettle or two) on native Nettles. Yellow admirals prefer the non-native kinds including Common Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) and Annual or Dwarf Nettle (Urtica urens).

All of these nettles grow best in damp, semi-shady areas and loamy, nitrogen-rich soil. Chicken-coops, or farms often provide the high-nitrogen levels they need, so they’re commonly found around these areas. Top dressing the nettles with sheep pellets from a nursery helps to create this high nutrient environment. Admirals locate nettles by following the trail of oils that they produce. For this reason, it is best to plant a patch of nettles (~4m2 is a good size) that is free of any other butterfly plants because scents of other plants can overpower the volatile cues the butterflies follow.

TAKE CARE with these nettles: all of them have vicious stings, and it is best to wear thick gloves when handling or planting them.

A more comprehensive guide to nettles can be found here:

Legumes

Blue butterfly caterpillars are restricted to plants in the legume family (Fabaceae) including New Zealand Broom, Gorse, clover, and pea plants. All but one species (Carmichaelia exsul) of New Zealand Broom are native but most are without normal leaves and hence little use for butterfly caterpillars. Longtail blue caterpillars are normally found inside the flowers of non-native legumes including Peas (Pisum sativum), Sweet Pea (Lathyrus odoratus), Broad Bean (Vicia faba), Gorse (Ulex spp), Vetch (Vicia spp), Lupin (Lupinus spp), Tree Lucerne (Chamaecytisus palmensis) and members of the Rattlepod family (Crotalaria spp).

Muehlenbeckia/Pohuehue

Muelenbeckia australis

Muelenbeckia australis

Pohuehue is a hardy, twining or climbing native plant with rounded leaves and small, white flowers. It grows best in full sun or semi-shade and grows well in dry, rocky areas and inclines. Common Copper caterpillars enjoy munching on 3 different species Pohuehue: Wire Vine or Pohuehue (Muehlenbeckia complexa) characterised by its small round leaves, Large-leafed Pohuehue (Muehlenbeckia australis) a climber with larger heart-shaped leaves, and Creeping Pohuehue (Muehlenbeckia axillaris) which has very small leaves and grows amongst loose shingle.

Nectar Plants for Butterflies

Hebe

Hebe in flower. Photo: George Gibbs

Hebe in flower. Photo: George Gibbs

Butterflies are attracted to flowers of Hebe, a genus of plants that is native to New Zealand.

Great Orme hebe, the Midsummer Beauty hebe, the Sapphire hebe, Purple Queen hebe, Hebe salicifolia and Hebe stricta (Koromiko) are all favoured by Red Admirals, Yellow Admirals and Coppers.

Hebes are evergreens that like sunny areas with some shelter from the wind.

Lacebark/Houhere

Lacebark. Photo: Ang Wickham

Lacebark. Photo: Ang Wickham

Admiral butterflies find Lacebark particularly tasty. Lacebark is a small native tree with green serrated leaves and elegant clusters of white flowers. It grows best in sun or semi-shade and well-drained soil. It is best if lacebark is germinated in autumn and grows in a shaded environment during its first winter.

Flowers in the non-native genus Heliotropum (heliotropes) are favoured by Admirals. The best varieties usually have purple flowers.
 
Other non-native species that are good for attracting butterflies include: Buddleia (Butterfly Bush), Monarda (Bee Balm), Rudebeckia (Black-eyed Susan), Echinacea (Corn Flower), Solidage (Goldenrod), Eupatorium fistulosum (Joe Pye Weed), Single petal varieties of Tagete (Marigold), Tithonia (Mexican Sunflower), Phlox, Dianthus (Sweet William), Sedum, Verbena, Alyssum (White Alyssum), Zinnia, and Syringa vulgaris (Lilac), and Leucheria suaveolens (Vanilla Daisy).