You do not need to travel to exotic locations to see butterflies in the wild. While the live butterflies and moths in the Amazing Butterflies butterfly house come from Africa, Asia and America, award-winning garden designer Fern Alder has designed a butterfly garden outside the exhibition to attract local UK species.
Fern has taken inspiration from butterflies themselves. The flower beds are shaped like butterfly wings and a wildflower grassy hummock forms the ‘body’ in the centre. A metal sculpture inspired by butterfly antennae will spring from this.
More importantly, Fern has chosen plants that are favourite foods for butterflies and caterpillars, to encourage them to visit. Fern sewed and grew many of these wild and colourful species in a polytunnel on her Rochester allotment, before replanting them in the special Natural History Museum garden.
Create your own butterfly friendly garden
The decline of habitats in the UK is threatening butterfly species. To encourage more butterflies where you live, here are some top tips for a butterfly friendly garden at home:
• Grow both nectar-producing plants to feed the adult butterflies and ‘host’ plants for them to lay their eggs on and on which the caterpillars feed.
• Make sure there is space for sun in your garden, as flowering plants, especially those providing nectar for the butterflies, need sunlight. Being cold blooded creatures, butterflies use sunlight to regulate their body temperature and may need the sun to warm their wing muscles so they can fly. A large, flat rock in the butterfly garden provides a warm spot for basking when the temperatures are cool. Paved pathways, brick walls and fences provide good basking places.
• Provide shady areas, too, as the temperature can become too hot for the butterflies and caterpillars.
• You only need three to six nectaring plants that bloom at different times to provide a steady supply of nectar for the butterflies. Shrubs such as lilac and butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii) are perfect as they also provide shelter for the butterflies to roost at night.
• Butterflies need protection from wind and rain. Shrubs or vines or any type of fence or trees are ideal.
• Butterflies need a place to hibernate. Each species does this at a particular stage in its life cycle, either as eggs, caterpillars, pupae or adults. Some species that overwinter as adults seek buildings and basements for that purpose. A garden tool shed, rocks or trees could be ideal.
• Other butterfly friendly plants include: aubretia, red valerian, lavender (Lavandula stoechas subsp. pedunculata), primroses (Primula vulgaris), chives, marjoram, toadflax (Linaria purpurea).
You'll find you get different types of butterfly in your garden depending on where you live, the time of year and what sort of plants are growing nearby. In most urban gardens with plenty of flowers you’ll see these ‘usual suspects’:
• large and small (cabbage) whites
• red admiral
• small tortoiseshell
The Wildlife Garden (April–October 2008)
The Wildlife Garden is the Natural History Museum’s only living exhibition. Set in the southwest corner of the Museum grounds, the garden reveals a range of British lowland habitats, including woodland, meadow and pond, and beautifully demonstrates the potential for wildlife conservation in the inner city. Within the Wildlife Garden is the first natural demonstration bee hive, which shows the workings of a honey bee colony inside a tree trunk.
The garden includes more than 300 native species of flowering plant and attracts 50 species of garden birds. Since the garden opened in 1995, 18 species of butterfly and 465 species of moth have been recorded. Other regular, non-human visitors include foxes, bats and squirrels.
Nettle Weekend (17–18 May 2008)
The common nettle is a favourite food plant for caterpillars of some of our most colourful common butterflies and 17 and 18 May is Nettle Weekend at the Natural History Museum. Celebrate the common nettle, as part of National Be Nice to Nettles Week, and discover there’s much more to this intriguing plant than its sting. Join us to unearth the nettle’s many uses through the ages, both in Britain and around the world, with talks, demonstrations and displays throughout the Museum – you can even try some nettle soup and tea along with other edible nettle delights. The events are free and suitable for all ages.
• The butterfly garden and Amazing Butterflies exhibition are open daily 10.00–16.00.
• Fern Alder has been awarded a number of Royal Horticultural Society medals for her show gardens at Hampton Court Palace Flower Show: in 2004 she won a silver medal for Looking at the World Through Rose Tinted Spectacles and another in 2006 for KENT CaCO3. In 2007 Full Frontal won a gold medal. Fern has also won two garden design competitions in France, the Strasbourg Festival of Gardens in 2007 with a garden entitled Ceci N’est Pas un Jardin a surrealist garden design, and the Water-Glass Garden, now installed in the Parc de la Paix in Bitche in the Moselle region of the northeast, which opened in June 2006.
• The Wildlife Garden is open daily until 31 October, 12.00 to 17.00.
• Selected by Time Out in 2007 as one of the Seven Wonders of London, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in 68 countries.