Caterpillars (the larvae of butterflies and moths) eat very little of the food plants they’re found on and have a bad reputation owing to a few, heavy-feeding species like large white butterflies.
As specialist feeders, they specialise in feeding on one particular species or group of plants, compared with other garden herbivores, like slugs, which are generalist feeders capable of feeding on a wide range of plants.
In doing so, they prevent any one plant species from becoming too dominant, helping to produce a balanced ecosystem. They serve as prey for other species, such as hedgehogs, birds and bats, too.
One of the best ways make room for caterpillars is to leave areas of your garden to go ‘wild’, and to plant native species that they can feed on. Most caterpillars feed discreetly, so you needn’t worry about doily-like foliage.
Check out some of the best food-plants to grow in the garden for caterpillars.
Attracts: large white (Pieris brassicae), small white (Pieris rapae) and green-veined white (Pieris napi).
Nettles (Urtica dioica)
Attracts: red admirals (Vanessa atalanta), commas (Polygonia c-album), peacocks (Aglais io), and small tortoiseshells (Aglais urticae). Also, mother of pearl (Pleuroptya ruralis), burnished brass (Diachrysia chrysitis), Jersey tiger (Euplagia quadripunctaria), beautiful golden Y (Autographa pulchrina), spectacle (Abrostola tripartita) and snout (Hypena proboscidalis) moths.
Attracts: comma (pictured), currant pug (Eupithecia assimilata), buttoned snout (Hypena rostralis), buff ermine (Spilosoma lutea), pale tussock (Calliteara pudibunda).
Willows (Salix species)
Attracts: sallow kitten (Furcula furcula), poplar hawk-moth (Laothoe populi), puss moth (Cerura vinula), herald (Scoliopteryx libatrix), red underwing (Catocala nupta).
Attracts: brown hairstreak (Thecla betulae), blue-bordered carpet (Plemyria rubiginata), peppered moth (Biston betularia), Chinese character (Cilix glaucata).
Attracts: swallow-tailed moth (Ourapteryx sambucaria), brimstone moth (Opisthograptis luteolata), feathered thorn (Colotois pennaria).
Sweet bedstraw (Galium species)
Attracts: hummingbird hawk-moth (Macroglossum stellatarum), red twin-spot carpet (Xanthorhoe spadicearia), barred straw (Gandaritis pyraliata).
Oaks (deciduous, native Quercus species)
Attracts: purple hairstreak (Neozephyrus quercus), merveille du jour (Griposia aprilina), oak beauty (Biston strataria), December moth (Poecilocapma populi).
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)
Attracts: scarlet tiger (Callimorpha dominula).
Bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)
Attracts: common blue (Polyommatus icarus), green hairstreak (Callophrys rubi).
Lime (Tilia species)
Attracts: orange sallow (Tiliacea citrago), lime hawkmoth (Mimas tiliae).
Includes: Agrostis species, Dactylis glomerata, Elytrigia repens.
Attracts: skippers (Thymelicus sylvestris), marbled white (Melanargia galathea), meadow brown (Maniola jurtina), gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus), ringlet (Aphantopus hyperantus), speckled wood (Pararge aegeria).
More caterpillar food plants to grow
Verbascum thapsus, Verbascum bombyciferum for mullein moths (Cucullia verbasci)
- Alder buckthorn, Frangula alnus for brimstones (Gonepteryx rhamni)
- Holly (Ilex aquifolium) and ivy (Hedera helix) for holly blues (Celastrina argiolus)
- Thistles (Cirsium and Carduus species) for painted ladies (Vanessa cardui)
- Dog rose (Rosa canina) for shoulder stripe (Earophila badiata), streamer (Anticlea derivata) and barred yellow (Cidaria fulvata) moths
- Fuchsias (Fuchsia species) for elephant hawk moths (Deilephila elpenor)