Gardening for Butterflies

Forget pesticides and ignore the mower

Bronwen Scott

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Female Orchard Swallowtail (Papilio aegeus). Caterpillars feed on a range of host plants, including Citrus. Photo by Kylie Osullivan on Unsplash

It’s spring in the South and the butterflies are making their presence known. In my garden — which is mostly lawn, because I live in a rental property — Common Grass-blues (Zizina otis) are present in their hundreds. This is one of the most widespread species in Australia, abundant in parks and on sports ovals and in the gardens of people with a relaxed attitude to mowing. Common Grass-blue caterpillars have broad diets, feeding on a wide range of native and introduced peas (Fabaceae). The ubiquity of grassy spaces and weedy groundcover has contributed to the species’ survival in suburban spaces. Other butterflies have not been so successful.

I wrote about butterfly conservation and how to encourage butterflies into your garden. The key is caterpillar food plants, which means the gardener has to put up with a less than perfect display. The result is worth it.

Ragged leaves, untidy corners and no pesticides: how to plant a butterfly garden

The Richmond birdwing is a show-stopping butterfly. Males are black and dazzling green; females are black and white with a flashy gold trim. They are not easily overlooked as they flutter around subtropical rainforests between Ballina and the Sunshine Coast. For 80 years, the Richmond birdwing population declined precipitously as natural habitat was diced by farming, forestry and urban expansion. Then a concerted effort by community, scientists and government brought the species back from the edge.

The Richmond birdwing is a conservation success story, and it was achieved in the gardens of south-east Queensland.

“Back yards saved the butterfly 100%,” Matt Cecil, a project officer at the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland, says.

Read the article at the Guardian (no paywall).

Perhaps the most spectacular regular in my garden is not a butterfly but the day-flying Zodiac Moth (Alcides metaurus). They come for the flowers on the lillypilly trees that my neighbour grows along the boundary. Once the blossoms have gone, the moths will move on.

Their caterpillars eat Moon Tree or Toywood (Endospermum myrmecophilum, Euphorbiaceae), which occurs in rainforest in NE Queensland, the Northern Territory and New Guinea. They also feed on Omphalea queenslandiae, a vine restricted to the Atherton Tablelands and adjacent area. Neither of those species grow in my garden. I won’t be able to plant them here but maybe in the next place…

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Bronwen Scott

Zoologist, writer, artist, museum fan, enjoying life in the tropical rainforest of Far North Queensland. She/her. Website: bronwenscott.com