It's all in the sting

By Meg Liptrot

A nettle among the blooms is vital to attract a special native, writes Meg Liptrot.

Seldom seen today, the native Yellow Admiral butterfly needs stinging nettles, so plant them please. Photo / Angela Gibbons
Seldom seen today, the native Yellow Admiral butterfly needs stinging nettles, so plant them please. Photo / Angela Gibbons

Apart from the common white cabbage butterfly, we don't see many other types of butterfly in our gardens these days. So it was a special morning when a native Yellow Admiral butterfly flitted into our little garden and landed beside me on the sunny steps.

I can understand why this butterfly acquired the name "admiral". It has a proud bearing and upright stance befitting an admiral, with striking markings in military colours. It also happens to be very speedy, with quite a different flight pattern to the blouse-y style of the cabbage butterfly. In fact, this chance meeting would not have been likely if not for the efforts of dedicated butterfly enthusiasts in our neighbourhood.

A couple of years ago we had a butterfly workshop at the Sustainable Living Centre, presented by Angela Gibbons. Not just a butterfly wrangler and breeder, she is also adept at handling stinging nettles, and appreciates the plant's finer qualities, all for the benefit of this threatened native insect.

Red Admiral (Kahukura) and Yellow Admiral (Kahukowhai) butterflies depend on nettles as the primary food for their caterpillars. You can attract them to your garden with suitable flowering plants, but without the nettle, Admirals won't live near you, and you will probably never see one.

I'll admit nettles are unpopular plants in the garden, having fallen victim to a sting myself, but plant one in a secluded corner, in the back of your flowering or native border and it won't be a bother. If you have small children, put wire netting around the plant. Nettle plants are rare in populated areas, therefore the butterfly is rarely seen.

Larger gardens and public parks are getting in on the act, with naturalised areas left for nettles where they are found growing, such as a spot under trees in a paddock in Cornwall Park (well away from walking paths). Native nettles have been established at the back of the fernery in The Wintergarden in Auckland's Domain, and they were recently planted in secluded areas on Mt Eden by the community group, Friends of Mangawhau. Even the smaller Kelmarna Garden in Grey Lynn has a few patches left for the benefit of the butterflies.

Graeme Hill is a prominent local who has championed Red Admiral butterflies, setting up a safe haven in his garden with butterfly cages and nettles, releasing the butterflies once their vulnerable caterpillar and chrysalis stages are over. It is worth looking at his YouTube clip, A Guide to Breeding Butterflies, for a fascinating lowdown on Red Admirals and some easy tips on their care.

To attract butterflies, you will need colourful flowering plants of differing heights and flowering times. Fragrant flowers such as Vibernum and Heliotrope will improve your chances. Older or heritage varieties, rather than modern hybrids, will ensure better nectar production. Avoiding pesticide use is a good first step to creating a butterfly-friendly backyard. You will also be doing the bees a favour. Butterflies enjoy sunning themselves, so provide a few flat stones in a sunny part of the garden for them to settle on.

Good spots to view native butterflies are West Lynn Gardens, in New Lynn, which has a dedicated butterfly enclosure; Verran Road School on the North Shore; and Te Puna Quarry Park in the Bay of Plenty.

I also hear whisperings on the wind of a butterfly exhibit planned for Cornwall Park later this year.

Bring on the butterflies

Flowering plants with nectar to feed butterflies: Plant mixed colourful groupings in a sunny spot: Buddleja; Calendula/Marigold; Catmint; Chrysanthemum; Cleome; Cosmos; Dianthus; Hebe (NZ native); Heliotrope; Poinsettia; Rudbeckia; Salvia; Scabiosa; Viburnum; Zinnia. For more on butterfly gardening, or to buy Butterfly Mix seeds, go to Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust: www.monarch.org.nz

Plants for native butterfly caterpillar food

For Admiral butterflies:

Introduced nettles (keep in pots - can be invasive)

Dwarf nettle (Urtica urens)

Perennial nettle (Urtica doica)

Native nettles and others

Scrub/Pureora nettle (Urtica incisa)

Chatham Island Nettle (Urtica australis)

Onga onga (Urtica ferox). Ferox is latin for ferocious. Plant in a very safe place.

For a children's butterfly garden, plant NZ Pellitory, a sting-free relative of the nettle (Parietaria debilis)

Muehlenbeckia - attracts NZ native Copper butterfly

* For more on NZ native nettle species click here or for NZ native butterflies go to NZ Butterfly.

- Herald on Sunday

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