Butterflies in the Garden – Some very Interesting Facts

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.

Butterflies charm everyone! They represent metamorphosis and hope through change and symbolise the life cycle of all living things. Some have brilliant patterns and colours 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. Furthermore, we discuss one that is very unusual and special to the Cape Peninsula, but it is not the best looker! We also look at various plants that attract butterflies to your garden. So, if you love butterflies, you can plant some of these plants for next year’s prettiest butterfly visitors.

COMMON GARDEN Acaea hortara Butterflies

You may have noticed that the common Acaea hortara butterfly is everywhere in summer. These are the little, soft-orange, black-spotted ones. They flit from flower to flower and settle on the lawn to rest every now and then. The Garden Acaea hortara is one of the most common butterflies in Cape Town gardens. One can also find them in woodlands and gardens throughout the moister regions of South Africa. Furthermore, they also appear in Zimbabwe.

HOST PLANTS for butterflies

The male butterfly is more dark orange, and the female is paler. 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. The second plant they eat is the Passiflora family (passionfruits, yes!) My father-in-law, George, has a large Wild Peach tree in his garden. Thousands of tiny caterpillars cover the tree every year. They munch on the new leaves.

Amazingly, they don’t seem to decimate the tree. These caterpillars attract birds such as the Cape Cuckoos and Orioles, which love to devour them. 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. This 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 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. These substances 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! Furthermore, 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 small white butterflies are not indigenous and are the most common butterflies in the UK. Their caterpillars are the culprits on my cabbage leaves. They can munch through a crop of nice new leaves overnight! I love these butterflies 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 companion 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. Inside the ant nest, is where it spends its entire larval and pupa stage. It is a rather dull grey in colour but with powdery wings.

The female lays her 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 lasts 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. Instead, it uses the stored energy from the ant regurgitations to fly. How very odd indeed and amazing what nature does to survive!

Which PLANTS will attract BUTTERFLIES to your GARDEN?

Many beautiful indigenous flowering plants attract butterflies. The butterflies love the nectar and use their long, rolled proboscis to reach into the flowers to feed.

Butterfly attracting Flowering herbs

Many herb plants will attract butterflies once they are in bloom. Some of them are Rosemary, Oregano, Lavender, Thyme, Basil, Lemon balm, and Verbena.

Buddleja davidii (Butterfly bush)

This is, without doubt, one of the best butterfly-attracting shrubs. Apart from the Buddleja Davidii, there are many other exotic and indigenous varieties of Buddleja shrubs. The exotic varieties are more ornamental, but the indigenous, larger-growing varieties are also attractive. Buddlejas attract Swallowtail- and Monarch butterflies. All Budllejas are hardy plants that do not require much maintenance and prefer sunny spots and well-drained soil.

Asystacia gigantea (Wild foxglove)

The Wild Foxglove is an indigenous groundcover that, although quite weedy, is a fantastic butterfly-attracting plant. It attracts several different butterfly caterpillars, which feed off the foliage. This versatile groundcover is great in sunny and shady areas. Furthermore, it is extremely hardy and does not require much watering. As mentioned, it is quite weedy, so you must control its growth pattern. This is a great plant to plant underneath trees where the soil is dry and barren and most plants struggle to grow.

Acacia trees

All forms of Acacia trees attract butterflies and bees with their sweet nectar flowers. There are so many species in this genus to choose from, and all grow differently or look differently. Remember that this tree has a substantial root system, so do not plant them too close to one another or structures.

Calodendrum Capense (Cape-chestnut)

The Cape Chestnut is among the most attractive indigenous trees, with the most beautiful sprays of large, scented, pink, orchid-like flowers. These flowers attract many different species of butterflies and other insects. One of the most beautiful is the Green-banded Swallowtail Butterfly. This tree is also a larval host to certain caterpillars. This small to medium tree is an absolute beauty. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to find and purchase.

Duranta (Saphire showers)

The Saphire Showers is an exotic shrub that gets masses of sprays of Dark blue flowers. These flowers attract butterflies, including the male gaudy commodore butterfly, which, as far as I am concerned, is one of the most beautiful butterflies. This shrub is available in its natural bush form and standard plants to form more of a small tree. The plants and flowers have a natural, lovely drooping look to them. This shrub is extremely hardy and also doesn’t require much maintenance. They flower better when planted in the sun.

Plectranthus species

A large number of Plectranthus are available. Plectranthus species attract butterflies and are also hosts to the commodore butterfly larvae. Most Plectranthus (not neochillus) are plants that do well when planted in the shade and in forest conditions. There are so many different bush and groundcover varieties, but ecklonii (large bush), Plectranthus ‘Mona lavender’ (small ornamental bush), and Plectranthus ciliatus (lovely groundcover) are the most common varieties.

Hypoestes aristata (Ribbon Bush)

The Ribbon bush is an extremely hardy, indigenous small shrub that produces masses of either white, pink, or purple flowers in autumn when few other plants are flowering. The flowers attract butterflies, bees, flies, and insect-eating birds. The leaves host numerous butterfly larvae and the swallowtail butterfly. This shrub does well in sunny and shady areas and is very low-maintenance, not requiring much watering or attention.

Pentas lanceolata (Star clusters, Star Flower, Egyptian Stars)

Star clusters, also commonly known as the Egyptian star cluster, are indigenous hybrids with heads of star flowers in various colours. They flower in profusion and attract numerous different butterflies, including swallowtails. This neat and tidy ornamental small shrub is great for sunny areas and makes a great pot plant. It requires moderate watering and is also pretty fuss-free.


Scabiosa columbaria, incisa, africana, or other scabiosa species are lovely indigenous plants with mauve, pink, and white flowers. The pincushion-like flowers are so pretty and dainty, giving the plant a country feel. However, these plants are actually quite hardy and water-wise. The Scabiosa flowers attract butterflies.


Salvia attracts different types of butterflies. Indigenous and exotic Salvia exist in many different sizes and colours. In particular, red salvia attracts many butterflies. Salvia loves the sun and doesn’t require much water. An unusual addition to the garden is Salvia elegans or pineapple sage. This shrub is actually classified as a herb, and the leaves and red flowers make a great addition to cocktails, ice teas, and puddings.

Bright coloured, butterfly attracting, Verbena

Verbena hybrids are exotic groundcovers that are extremely hardy. They come in various very bright colours and will provide you with a lot of colour. The flowers attract adult butterflies, and the plant is a host to caterpillars. This is a lovely plant for sunny areas, and it does well in retaining blocks and hanging baskets. It is a rather flat-growing groundcover.

Achillea millifolium (Yarrow)

Yarrow is an attractive exotic herb with flat heads of tiny flowers in various colours. It is an extremely medicinal plant that fits well into country gardens. This fluffy-leaved perennial makes a great backdrop to smaller-growing ornamentals.

Gaura lindheimerii

The Gaura is an exotic small shrub with white, light pink and dark pink flowers which attract butterflies. These shrubs flower in profusion, and the stalks with little butterfly-like flowers waft in the air when the wind blows. This sun-lover plant does well in garden beds and pots. It’s also great for the country garden look, but quite hardy and water-wise. Be careful when choosing the variety as all have different growing patterns.

Plumbago auriculata (Cape leadwort, plumbago)

Plumbago is an indigenous large shrub that comes in white, light blue, and dark blue. This plant is extremely tough and does not need much love, but it likes to be grown in sunny, well-drained soil. Plumbago flowers in mass and require some pruning to keep them in shape. The flowers attract Swallowtails and other butterflies, and the plant is a host plant to the common Zebra blue butterfly.

Aster novi-belgii (New York Aster, Michaelmas daisy)

This daisy is a sturdy clump-forming perennial with lance-shaped leaves. From September to October, it boasts masses of either pink or purple daisy-like flowers. The flowers attract many different butterflies but are very important to monarch butterflies. This sun-loving perennial is lovely as a backdrop and also has that country feel.


An exotic annual which comes in the most beautiful colours. It is known as a serious butterfly attractor and attracts butterflies like monarchs and swallowtails. It requires some watering but is still quite hardy. Lovely in garden beds, as well as in pots.

Then there are the Pelargoniums and Geraniums, which also attract three other butterflies: the Water Bronze butterfly (Cacyreus fracta), Dickson’s Bronze butterfly(Cacyreus dicksoni), and the Geranium Bronze butterfly (Cacyreus marshalli).

We at Contours Landscapes wish you many happy hours of 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.

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