Butterflies in the Garden

Everyone is charmed by butterflies! They represent metamorphosis, hope through change and are symbolic of the life-cycle of all living things. Some are brilliantly patterned and coloured with kaleidoscopic markings.

Everyone is charmed by butterflies! They represent metamorphosis, and hope through change and are symbolic of the life cycle of all living things. Some are brilliantly patterned and coloured with kaleidoscopic markings. Others are a little more subdued, and in this blog, we look at two of the common ones in our Cape gardens and one that is very unusual and special to the Cape Peninsula, but not the best looker! We also look at some plants to encourage butterflies in the garden that you can plant for next year’s prettiest visitors.

COMMON GARDEN Acaea hortara

You may have noticed that the common Acaea hortara butterfly is everywhere in summer. These are the little, soft-orange, black-spotted ones that are flitting from flower to flower and settling on the lawn to rest every now and then. The Garden Acaea hortara is one of the most common butterflies in Cape Town gardens but can be found in woodlands and gardens throughout the moister regions of South Africa, and is also known from Zimbabwe.


The male butterfly is more dark orange and the female paler in colouring. The female will lay eggs in clusters of about 50 eggs on the underside of the host plant that the caterpillars like to eat. The amazing thing about these little butterflies is that they only eat two known plant species. The first is the indigenous Wild peach tree or Kiggelaria africana. And the second plant they eat is the Passiflora family of plants (passionfruits yes!) My father-in-law, George, has a large Wild Peach tree in his garden and every year it is covered in thousands of tiny caterpillars munching on the new leaves. Amazingly they don’t seem to decimate the tree as the Cape cuckoos and orioles love to devour them too. The walls of his house also bear the little spotted pupa of the caterpillars and lots of more teenager-stage caterpillars with their prickly armour.


“In summer the larvae take 4-5 weeks to develop, whereas, in winter, development is arrested by the cold temperatures, so the larval period is considerably longer. Mature larvae can move a long distance to find a suitable pupation site which is usually against a wall or rock. To pupate, the larva spins a silken pad to which the pupa is attached.” After about 9 days, the newly hatched butterfly emerges slowly from the pupa. They usually spend an hour or so close by or on their empty pupa and then use their wings. I have seen them resting on the lawn with their wings a little crinkled still, flapping gently until they are ready. Their top wings are transparent, and only the lower set has spotted patterning. “Interestingly, this small, usually brick red and black butterfly and their caterpillars also absorb substances from their host plants which make them distasteful to most animals. The exceptions are the various cuckoo species which visit the Garden in summer; they apparently relish the Garden Acraea! The young caterpillars often fall prey to parasitic wasps, which help to keep their numbers in check.”


Another common small and very pretty butterfly is the Small White Cabbage Butterfly. These are not indigenous and be the most common butterfly in the UK. Their caterpillars are the culprit on my cabbage leaves. They can munch through a crop of nice new leaves overnight! I do love these butterflies though and find their tiny black dot on the wings so simple and elegant! I don’t mind a few caterpillars to have these pretties floating around. Planting many other vegetables and flowering plants like nasturtiums and marigolds helps to confuse these caterpillars and butterflies and apparently helps to deter them from eating the cabbage leaves.


Another very interesting butterfly that I don’t think I have seen before in the garden, is the Peninsula Skolly, Thestor yildizae. Apparently, it is the only endemic butterfly to the Cape Peninsula and spends most of its time underground in the nest of the Pugnacious ant, where it spends its entire larval and pupa stage. It is a rather dull grey in colour, but with powdery wings. “The female lays its eggs near an ant trail, from there the ants carry the eggs into their nest where they hatch. The larvae of the Peninsula Skolly are fed by the ants who regurgitate their food. An ant-attracting substance is excreted from glands on the larva’s skin, which the ants imbibe. This relationship continues for a year until the butterfly hatches out the following season. The adult butterfly does not possess a proboscis (long rolled up tongue) to feed on flowers and uses the stored up energy from the ant regurgitations to fly.” How very odd indeed and amazing what nature does to survive!


There are a lot of beautiful indigenous flowering plants that attract butterflies. Their nectar is loved by the butterflies who use their long, rolled proboscis to reach into the flowers. Some excellent butterfly plants are Scabiosa incisa and africana, all the Pelargoniums and Geraniums which also attract three other butterflies, the Water Bronze (Cacyreus fracta), Dickson’s Bronze (Cacyreus dicksoni) and the Geranium Bronze (Cacyreus marshalli). Asystasia gangetica supports up to 7 known species, hermannia, Imperata cylindra, Chrysanthemoides species, Hypoestes aristata, Pavonia burchelli, Cotyledon orbiculata, Plectranthus species, Selago species, Chaetacanthus setiger, Acacia karoo, Uvaria caffra, Vepris lanceolata an Ximenia species to name a few of the more common indigenous plants available in nurseries. Happy butterfly spotting!

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Let’s plan your landscaping project together!

We plan, install and maintain award-winning landscapes for our commercial clients and project partners. Clients who wish to add function, value and inspiration to their outdoor spaces and properties.

Our roots are in Cape Town, but our footprint stretches deep into southern Africa.