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How to make a butterfly-friendly garden

September 1, 2012

Some visitors to Dokmai Garden have remarked we have more free-flying butterflies than many butterfly houses. Consequently many ask for advice on how to make a butterfly-friendly garden. These are our advice based on five years of experience and from observing over one thousand plant species:

A. Chemical gardening is hard to combine with thriving butterfly populations. Skip pesticides as far as possible.

B. To bring many different butterfly species from outside your garden you need good nectar plants, wet soil, decaying fruit and heaps of dung. Different butterflies are attracted to different liquids, so that a nectar plant does not replace dung, but if you offer both alternatives, you will have more species. Buying manure, adding a small heap in the sun and sprinkle water on top will do the trick. Blues (Lycaenidae) and Kallima inachis (Satyridae) like this. Some of the best places for spotting butterflies in a jungle is the wet, sunny and sandy sides of a shallow creek surrounded by trees. If you can create such a habitat you hold the rainbow!

Good nectar plants in Chiang Mai are:

1. Golden dew drop, Duranta erecta (Verbenaceae). This is the most important nectar plant, always blooming!

2. Pagoda flower, Clerodendrum paniculatum (Lamiaceae). Beautiful in itself and very popular among the butterflies. A rainy season flower, the peak season of butterflies. See picture below.

3. South American Hamelia (Rubiaceae) is also a very good nectar plant.

4. To a lesser extent, Ixora (Rubiaceae) attracts butterflies.

5. Elaeocarpus spp. (Elaeocarpaceae) is a native jungle butterfly restaurant.

6. Saraca, Saraca indica (Fabaceae). It blooms when hardly anyone else does (November-December), so leftover butterflies are grateful.

7. Bignay, Antidesma bunius (Euphorbiaceae). The male flowers replace carrion, which is another attractant. Plant it at least 20 meters away from your house, the stench is terrible! During its ten days of blossom it will attract fantastic insects you may never have seen in your garden before. If you plant a female specimen too, you will have delicious berries.

Surprisingly, Buddleja paniculata (Scrophulariaceae sic!) is not that attractive, nor is Lantana camara (Verbenaceae) which you find inside all butterfly houses worldwide. Chinese Buddleja davidii which we grow in Europe does not thrive in Chiang Mai due to the heat.

C. To rear butterflies within your garden, you need food for their larvae. Generally, the larger the biodiversity of native plants, the larger the butterfly fauna. If you have limited space, you may want to focus on a few popular or important plants. Remember to teach your Thai staff that these plants are supposed to be eaten, and that the larvae will turn into butterflies. Metamorphosis is an unknown phenomenon to many Thai farmers.

Good hostplants are:

1. Aristolochia tagala (Aristolochiaceae) to rear the golden birdwing (Troides aeacus, Papilionidae) and the common rose butterflies (Pachliopta aristolochiae, Papilionidae). This plant can not be bought, but come and collect seeds at Dokmai Garden. Other Aristolochia such as South American A. ringens are not good substitutes.

2. Any member of the bean family (Fabaceae) such as a Cassia tree. Many pierid butterflies live on Fabaceae.

3. Any hardy member of the Citrus genus (Rutaceae) such as pomelo (Citrus maxima). Many swallowtails (Papilionidae) lay their eggs on citruses.

4. A longan tree (Dimocarpus longan, Sapindaceae) provides fruit for your family and also food for a range of insects including the common tit butterfly Hypolycaena erylus (Lycaenidae).

5. The ‘shampoo tree’ (Litsea glutinosa, Lauraceae) provides food for some swallowtails (e.g. the common mime, Chilasa clytia, Papilionidae). It is a common tree in the Chiang Mai valley and we have countless seedlings at Dokmai Garden where it grows wild.

6. Milkweeds such as Calotropa gigantea in the Apocynaceae family support larvae of e.g. the Thai monarch (Danaus spp. Danaidae).

7. Leave a grassy area which you do not mow and you shall have many Satyridae.

8. There is a gorgeous, large orange-tipped butterfly named Hebemoia glaucippe (Pieridae) which feeds on capers such as Crateva magna (syn. C. religiosa, Capparaceae).

If your garden is very shady you may have thriving butterfly communities in the sunny tree canopies, but you will not see them. To bring them at eye level, keep some sunny areas where you grow the nectar plants mentioned above.

If you live nearby a national park you may attract rare jungle butterflies to your garden if you keep their host plants. Purchase Pisuth Ek-Amnuay’s butterfly book to read about the different butterflies and their host plants.

Pagoda flower, Clerodendrum paniculatum.

Good luck!

Eric & Ketsanee

(A summary of the August 2012 precipitation: 86 mm, which is 39% of the average 220 mm. Almost 2/3 of the August rain (56 mm or 65 %) fell during 48 hours. In conclusion – a terribly dry growing season. Remember the erroneous doomsday prophecies made for 2012. I now understand why the government frantically tries to convince indoor Bangkokians and media that this is another year of flooding: to defend their poor decision to empty some dams. The amusing debate between more or less educated civil servants can be read here:  We hope that September and early October, normally the wettest time of the year, will randomly send thunderstorms our way. After that, embrace yourselves for an upcoming El Nino drought which may last another 12 months, although with occasional rainstorms. As was clear from August 2012, a single heavy rainstorm does not have longer impact than about a week. A growing season demands frequent rain fall and more than 5 mm at a time to have any effect.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. roland mogg permalink
    September 1, 2012 8:28 PM

    wow! i am impressed! i only suggested it a few days ago! or was it just coincidence! lol
    i will be over on thu to buy some of your suggestions. pity about Buddleja davidii ! one of my favourites. is b. globerus any stronger? in england i also had a patch of ‘stinging nettles’ popular for egg laying. possible in thailand?

  2. September 2, 2012 9:33 AM

    Dear Roland,

    You triggered this blog – the time was ripe! Since the interest in native plants is negligible, we no longer keep a sales nursery. However, we can give you a Litsea glutinosa seedling and we can search for Aristolochia tagala seedlings, although they are flowering now (seeds come later). Clerodendrum, Duranta and Citrus are all easy to find downtown. Milkweeds grow along highways, stop and dig.

    The hardiest Buddleja is B. paniculata, and although amazingly fragrant from far away, it seems this is the choice for moths, while butterflies take a polite sip and hurry to the Duranta bushes.

    We have not tried Buddleja globosa here, but since it likes the cold and wet England and comes from the Andes, I fear it may have problems with the Chiang Mai drought.

    Stinging nettles are usually excellent in northern Europe for a range of Nymphalids, but the only examples I know in Thailand are Vanessa indica which larva feeds on Girardinia (Urticaceae) and the rare ‘wizard’ (Rhinopalpa polynice) which feeds on Poikilospermum (Urticaceae). Thai nymphalid larvae feed on e.g. Passiflora, mango, Flacourtia, Smilax, Ruellia, Barleria, Ipomoea, Ricinus (the Biblidinae subfamily feeds on Euphorbias and figs in general), Fabaceae (a favourite of the Limenitidinae subfamily), Rubiaceae, Melastoma, Cratoxylum, oak etc etc.


  3. Ron Milbourne permalink
    March 12, 2013 4:14 AM

    Your information is very helpful. I am about to rent in Saraphii, and would like to encourage wild-life, in particular butterflies. Your advice will be greatly appreciated. Regards, Ron.

  4. Maggie permalink
    August 9, 2013 8:58 AM

    What a wonderful site! We are building in Hua Hin and are very keen on natives and anything that will encourage butterflies and bees. Well done!

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