Grow plants for caterpillars

Small tortoiseshell butterfly caterpillar
3-4 hours
Spring Summer Autumn
Not too tricky

Butterfly caterpillars are fussy about their food. Adult butterflies only lay their eggs on one or two types of plants, which they know their caterpillars need to survive when they hatch. It is only by growing the right plants that we can boost the population of adult butterflies. Having lots of plant variety in your garden will give the best chance of increasing butterfly populations.

Small tortoiseshell butterfly caterpillar

Step-by-step guide


Which butterflies live near you? Check which common butterflies you might find locally and grow the right plants for them.

  • All over the UK: red admiral, small tortoiseshell
  • All over the UK except Shetland: green-veined white, small copper, common blue, meadow brown
  • All over the UK except north and west Scotland: orange-tip, peacock
  • All over the UK except north England and south and Central Scotland: speckled wood
  • Lowland England & Wales and southern Scotland: large skipper
  • Lowland England & Wales:, small skipper, brimstone, comma, gatekeeper
  • Lowland England & Wales and eastern Northern Ireland: holly blue

Now check what each butterfly wants. Once you know which species to focus on, see if you already have their caterpillar's foodplant in your garden, or if you have a space to grow it.

Orange-tip and green-veined white caterpillars eat lady’s smock and garlic mustard. Lady's smock is a beautiful little pink flower of damp areas, like a lush meadow. Garlic mustard can be grown in drier areas and has fresh green leaves and little white flowers. Both are available from good wildflower suppliers as plug plants, or are easy to grow from seed. Common blue caterpillars eat bird's-foot trefoil. It is a pretty yellow pea-flower which grows in meadowy area. You can add plug plants from a wildflower supplier into your lawn.

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Holly blue caterpillars eat holly and ivy, so grow ivy up walls and plant a holly bush, preferably female (because that will have berries). A good garden centre or supplier should be able to tell you whether you are buying a male or female plant.

Brimstone caterpillars need one of two native small trees called alder buckthorn and purging buckthorn. Alder buckthorn grows on wet, clay soil and purging buckthorn grows on chalky soils. The type of buckthorn you can plant depends in the type of soil you have. Both will grow to about five metres tall as a small tree. You can buy these very cheaply in winter as bare-rooted 'whips' (these are just short stems with roots). They are very easy to plant; just keep them well watered in their first year and they will soon grow.

Red admiral, peacock, small tortoiseshell and comma caterpillars all eat nettles. Most gardens are too small to grow a big enough patch, but if you have a large garden, you might have space for a nettle patch. The caterpillars like to eat in the middle of large clumps in sunny, sheltered locations, so consider this when planting. You can harvest nettle seeds from the wild, after the flowers have gone in the summer - remember to wear gloves! Gatekeepers, meadow browns and skippers like to eat wild grasses left to grow tall. Check out our activity of how to turn your lawn into a meadow to find out how to help them.



Once you have planted your caterpillar plants, keep a look out for adult butterflies. They are easier to spot than most caterpillars, which like to keep themselves well hidden.


What you will need

  • Broom
  • Spade
  • Gloves
  • Garden flowers:
  • Birds Foot Trefoil
  • Nasturtium
  • Red clover
  • Marjoram
  • Garlic mustard
  • Foxglove
  • Lady's smock (if you have a damp spot)
  • Shrubs/hedging:
  • Ivy
  • Holly
  • Bramble
  • Black thorn
  • Alder/Purging Blackthorn
  • Black Currant