Attracting butterflies to your garden

I would like to thank Dr Americo Bonkewitzz for much of the information contained in this article.


The Mpushini and Mkhondeni River catchments support a tremendously vast biodiversity. Wherever you go you will see evidence of this diversity. The area has many attributes that make it attractive to the wildlife enthusiast or the casual city dweller who likes to get out into the countryside once in a while.

One of the striking features that is always evident – no matter what the season – is the number and variety of butterflies that you will see flying around from plant to plant. The butterflies that are particularly evident are the many species of “white” butterflies. This abundance of butterflies is an indication that the natural vegetation in the area is alive and healthy. At the same time we should always bear in mind that the area is highly vulnerable to the effects of human development. These factors make the area unique due to its closeness to the city, its accessibility and the dedication of the property owners to conserving the area for future generations.

Now many of the residents of the corridor area would also like to experience the abundance of these gorgeous creatures in their own gardens. Unfortunately, most gardens are full of exotic flowering plants that, although they may provide nectar on which the butterflies can feed, are not suitable as butterfly host plants on which they can lay their eggs and on which their larvae can feed. We should also remember that not all plants that are sold as being “indigenous” at the nurseries are really indigenous. The only really indigenous plants are those that occur naturally in the area in which you are living. While these exotic plants may serve to attract butterflies for brief periods from a nearby natural area they will not stay.

All butterfly species specialise in only one or two host plants for breeding and all of these plants must be indigenous to the area. A so-called “indigenous” plant that originates from the Western Cape or the Limpopo Province will be an exotic in our area!

I will now suggest a few truly indigenous plants that you should plant in your garden to act as host plants for the butterflies. You will not be able to find some of these plants in any nurseries, but you can propagate them from seed or cuttings that you collect iCadaba natalensisn the wild.

Let’s start with host plants for the white butterflies (Pieridae). All of the white butterflies that you see in the area use only three species of plants of the Caper family (Capparaceae). These are the Worm Bush (Cadaba natalensis), the Bush Cherry (Maerua rosmaniroides) and the Caper Bush (Capparis sp.).

Other butterflies that visitors and residents will see are the Sulphur Orange Tips (Colotis auxo) and Scarlet Tips (Colotis danae). These feed on a single species of plant: the Worm Bush, which is abundant in the area. The Bush Cherry and the Caper Bush are not so abundant in the area but they still sustain the many other white butterfly species, the magnificent Purple Tip (Colotis ione) in particular. The Autumn-leaf Vagrant (Eronia leda) that is so abundant throughout the year feeds on the Capparis tomentosa.

The area is not rich in the swallowtail butterflies. However, the Green-banded Swallowtails (Papilio nireus lyaeus), Citrus Swallowtails (Papilio demodocus demodocus) and Mocker Swallowtails (Papilio dardanus cenea) are plentiful. The Citrus Swallowtails use the Small Knobwwod (Zanthoxylum capense), the White Ironwood (Vepris lanceeolata) and cultivated citrus trees as their host plants. The Green-banded Swallowtail and the Mocker Swallowtail also use these plants.

The following is a list of butterfly plants that you should plant in your garden. The book references are: “The Complete Guide to the Trees of Natal, Zululand and Transkei” by Elsa Pooley (abbreviated as TN); and “A Field Guide to Wild Flowers KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Region” by Elsa Pooley (abbreviated as WF). Please note that the plants that are marked with an asterisk (*) are not available at nurseries!

*Cadaba natalensis (Natal Worm Bush). This is a straggling shrub or small tree (2 – 3m). TN p.104.

*Capparis sp.( any of C. tomentosa, C. sepiara, or C. brasii). These are small shrubs or climbers. TN p. 104 – 105.

*Maerua rosmaniroides (Needle-leaved Bush Cherry). This is a small tree or multi-stemmed shrub (2 – 5m). TN p.108.

Clausena anisata (Horsewood). A spindly shrub or small tree (3 – 10m). TN p.192. (An essential plant in any butterfly garden!)

*Zanthoxylum capense (Small Knobwood). Small to medium sized deciduous tree (2 – 15m). Best grown from seedlings found beneath the tree. TN p.184.

Vepris lanceolata (White Ironwood). Shrub, small to large tree (5 – 20m). NT p.188.

Plecthranthus spicatus (Long-spiked Spur Flower). Perenial succulent, spreading to scrambling (up to 1,5m). WF p.476.

*Ruellia chordata (Veld Violet). Perennial low-growing herb. Useful host plant and groundcover. WF p.488.

Barleria sp. Scrambling herb or shrublet. All species are useful as a butterfly food plant as well as a nectar plant. (WF p.488.

*Crabbea hirsute (Prickle Head). Perennial herb up to 400mm. WF p. 198. This plant makes a nice ground cover.

*Graderia scabra (Wild Pentemon). An erect perennial shrublet that grows up to 60omm in grassland. WF p. 480. It is good as a hostplant for the Eyed Pansy (Precis orthi madagascariensis) and as nectar plant.

*Diclis reptans (Dwarf Snapdragon). A sprawling, mat-forming herb that grows up to 200mm in damp, shady and rocky places, or in open dry grassland. It has a nice flower and makes a nice groundcover. However it requires a humid position. WF p. 428.

*Iglossa woodii (Buckweed). A shrub that grows up to 4m in the forest understorey. It requires shade ansd is the host plant for the Mother of Pearl butterflies. It is easily grown from seed or cuttings. WF p. 200.

*Gomphocarpus physocarpus (Milkweed). An annual or perennial herb up to 2m that grows in grassland and disturbed areas. It’s a hardy, poisonous garden plant and is host to the African Monarch butterflies. WF p. 546.

*Pachycarpus appendiculatus (Soccerball Pachycarpus). An erect herb up to 500mm that grows in rocky grassland. It is extremely poisonous and is host to the African Monarch butterflies. WF p. 546.

*Ehrharta erecta (Shade Ehrharta). A sparse tufted grass up to 1m tall. It is host to the Brown Butterflies. Guide to the Grasses of Southern Africa by Eben van Wyk and Frits van Oudtshoorn p. 119.

These plants may be found growing in the wild on the fringe of thickets and along the streams. The recommended reference books give suitable methods of propagating them.