How to create a South African butterfly garden using host plants

Most butterfly garden blogs will tell you to plant nectar-rich plants like lavender, Freylinas, Salvias or Buddleja species and to stop using insecticides in the garden.

But those gardeners are forgetting one thing: a butterfly garden is not about the butterfly and the flowers - it’s about the caterpillar and the leaves of the host tree. The most important aspect of a butterfly garden is the host tree on which the butterfly’s larvae pupate on.

Well, I must endure the presence of a few caterpillars if I wish to become acquainted with the butterflies.”  ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

learn about butterflies day

It is also a common misconception that butterflies only survive on nectar but in actual fact a lot of butterfly species rely on fermenting fruits and myrmecophily. Some indigenous butterfly species don’t even eat at all in the final adult phase of its four state life cycle.

Butterfly species in South Africa

South Africa has 670 known species of butterfly. According to Jeremy Dodson, an active member of LepSoc, 30% of South Africa’s butterfly species are ant-associated, or partly ant-associated – meaning they don’t feed on leaves but on ant brood. These types of butterflies are difficult to attract to gardens as they mainly live in endemic grasslands and fynbos region. This is why it is also important not to kill ants and use insecticides.

Indigenous butterfly host plants

Life Landscapes, the landscaping division of Life Green Group, along with Jeremy, have provided a list of common indigenous host plants that attract urban butterflies to the garden.

Bush violet (Barleria obtusa)

Those looking to bring hordes of the yellow pansy butterflies (Junonia hierta cebrene) should be planting bush violets. This scrambling shrub gets brilliant fandango purple flowers that are appreciated by gardeners.

Cape Chesnut (Calodendrum capense)

The Cape chesnut is a must for a pink palette garden and is the host tree for the citrus swallow-tail butterfly (Papilio demodocus demodocus). The Citrus swallow-tail also relies on certain citrus trees for its larvae to pupate on.

Cape Willow (Salix mucronata)

The Cape willow is the host tree for beautiful orange African leopard (Phalanta phalantha aethiopica). This tree grows prolifically along the rivers and stream of the Western and Eastern Cape.

Cork Bush (Mundulea sericea)

When it comes to naturescaping the highveld's cork bush is best. The purple flowers of the cork bush provide food for multiple insects and birds and the Natal Bar’s (Cigaritis natalensis) caterpillar feeds on its leaves.

Learn about butterflies day


Create a butterfly garden with the Creeping foxglove (Asystasia gangetica)

This ground cover attracts the Common Diadem butterfly (Hypolimnas misippus) to urban wildlife gardens. For landscapers it makes for useful ground cover in the garden.

Indigenous Pelargonium and Geranium species

If nothing ever changed then wear do butterflies come from?  And what needs to change is the way South Africans garden. Landscapes need to  include more indigenous tree and non-hybrid flower species like pelargoniums and plectranthus. Along with your nectar-filled flowers, plant indigenous pelargonium and geranium species to attract the Geranium bronze butterfly (Cacyreus marshalli). Make sure you get the non-hybridized varieties.

flower for a butterfly garden

Indigenous Vachellia speices

The buffalo thorn is an excellent bee-keeper's tree as well as attracting  weaver birds and butterflies such as the Eastern scarlet (Axiocerses tjoane tjoane). It is 2017's tree of the year and it does get rather large for a garden. The sweet thorn, that grows country-wide attracts:

  • Club-tailed charaxes
  • Siler spotted grey
  • Black striped hairtail
  • Common hairtail
  • Otacilia hairtail
  • Talbot hairtail
  • Black heart
  • Topaz spotted blue
  • Thorn-tree blue
  • Natal-spotted blue
  • Velvet spotted blue

Learn about butterflies day

Jacket-plum (Pappea capensis)

The jacket-plum is a very useful tree to have in the garden. It does not get too large you can plant it in groups, space permitting.  It's a law of numbers - the more host trees you plant, the more angel-winged insects, landscapers attract.  Insect-eating birds naturally predate on caterpillars and butterflies so with more trees the insect has greater odds of surviving. The Pappea capensis is known to bring:

  • Pearlspotted charaxes
  • Common hairtail
  • Brown playboy

Natal Mahogany (Trichilia emetica) for a butterfly garden

The Natal mahogany charms the  white-barred Charaxes (Charaxes brutus) as well as sunbirds into the garden. Its flowers are also dripping with nectar making them a tasty treat for butterflies. The white-barred charaxes larve also enjoy the grewia species.

Plectranthus species

South African plectranthus species do wonders for butterflies, particularly the Garden Commodore (Precis archesia archesia).

South African Ficus species

The fig-tree blue (Myrina silenus ficedula) particularly enjoys the Ficus igens but most butterfly species like indigenous fig trees for the ambiance of fruit they produce as a lot of South African butterflies like to feed on indigenous fruits. Indigenous fig trees are also known to attract fruit-eating birds.

Wild peach  (Kiggelaria Africana)

If conservation begins in the garden, then the garden needs a wild peach. The Kiggelaria Africana and the Acraea horta is a wonderful example of a symbiotic relationship between plant and insect. The larve stripe the tree bare but while doing that the caterpillar droppings act as a fertiliser for the tree. If you plant a Kiggelaria Africana you will definitely attract the Acrae horta to a  Western Cape and Gauteng garden.