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Butterfly Gardening in Iberia

Steve, aka Green Beard, is an expert on nature and loves to write about wildlife and conservation.

Monarch on Bougainvillea

Monarch on Bougainvillea

Butterfly Gardening in Portugal and Spain

We all enjoy seeing pretty butterflies flying in our gardens, parks and countryside, though many gardeners are not happy seeing cabbage whites, for rather obvious reasons.

Sadly, in many parts of the world, butterflies are under threat due to habitat destruction, the widespread use of pesticides and herbicides, as well as the effects of climate change.

Fortunately, Iberia is still home to many types of butterfly, and many of these we can help by planting our gardens to cater for their needs.

Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar

Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar

Bristly-Fruited Silkweed

Bristly-Fruited Silkweed

Gardening for Monarch Butterflies

Many people do not realise that different butterfly species need specific plants on which their caterpillars feed, and without those plants these beautiful insects simply cannot survive. For example, the colourful candy-striped larvae of the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) can only eat species in the milkweed family (Asclepiadaceae). So if we really want to help these butterflies, we must grow the food-plants they require.

Adult butterflies need a very different food-source to their caterpillars, because the mature insects require nectar-bearing flowers on which to feed. To create a garden that provides both food for butterflies and food for their caterpillars, is the key to successful butterfly gardening.

About Monarchs

The large and colourful monarch butterfly, which is famous for its incredible migrations each year across America from the northern states all the way down to California and Mexico where they overwinter, can also be seen flying in the Algarve.

Monarchs are easy to recognise with their black-veined orange-red wings and very large size. This species is a real beauty in all stages of its metamorphosis. The caterpillars are ringed with black, yellow and white, and the chrysalises are a delicate minty green.

What to Plant

  • Bristly-fruited silkweed
  • Scarlet or tropical milkweed

This butterfly has only been able to establish breeding colonies in southern Portugal because the swan plant or bristly-fruited silkweed (Gomphocarpus fruticosus) has become naturalised in many places. This plant, which is closely related to the milkweeds (Asclepias), has curious inflated seed-pods and is often grown in gardens for its ornamental qualities.

The caterpillars of the monarch will eat the bristly-fruited silkweed and any of the many species of milkweed. The scarlet or tropical milkweed (A. curassavica) is a popular species that grows well in warm climates and is sold on the Internet as a plant for helping monarch butterflies.

I used to live in Tenerife and proudly remember one week when I had the pleasure of watching as many as 50 monarchs take their first flight due to my efforts. I had reared them on tropical milkweed plants I grew in pots on my terrace.

Swallowtail Butterfly

Swallowtail Butterfly

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Freshly Emerged Swallowtail Drying Its Wings

Freshly Emerged Swallowtail Drying Its Wings

Gardening for Swallowtail Butterflies

The swallowtail butterfly (Papilio machaon) is another very pretty butterfly we can help attract to our gardens. In the UK, this butterfly is very rare and confined to the Norfolk Broads, because for some reason in Britain, the caterpillars will only feed on the equally rare milk parsley (Peucedanum palustre).

What to Plant

  • Rue
  • Fennel
  • Almond, plum and pear trees

Here in Portugal it is not such a fussy eater and the caterpillars will thrive on rue (Ruta graveolens), an aromatic herb often grown in gardens. In the wild, the swallowtail lays its eggs on fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), another herb that is widely distributed here.

The southern scarce swallowtail (Iphiclides feisthamelii) is another type of swallowtail butterfly found in Portugal. Its caterpillars feed on the leaves of almond, plum and pear trees.

Buddleia davidii

Buddleia davidii

Lantana camara

Lantana camara

Flowering Shrubs for the Butterfly Garden

There are plenty of other butterflies we can hope to see in our gardens, including many that are found in the UK too. Some of the species found in both countries include:

  • The painted lady (Vanessa cardui)
  • The red admiral (V. atalanta)
  • The holly blue (Celastina argiolus)
  • The clouded yellow (Colias crocea)

Butterfly Bush

As already pointed out, it is flowers we need to grow to attract butterflies, and here we have plenty of choice. There are some plants that are more popular than others though, and the butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) is perhaps the best-known of these. It forms large bushes and gets covered in flowering spikes that are strongly perfumed.

The butterfly bush comes in a wide variety of colours, ranging from various shades of purple through to pink and white. At night it will attract many moth species too, so after dark it is time to get out your torch and go investigating.


Another shrub that many butterflies enjoy feeding from is the lantana (Lantana camara). Also known as Spanish Flag, due to its red and yellow flowers, this plant is very popular with many types of butterfly and very easy to grow. It tolerates heat and drought well so is ideal for gardens in the south of Portugal.

The closely related trailing lantana (L. montevidenis) has lavender-purple flowers and makes a great groundcover addition to your garden, as well as being a magnet for many types of butterfly.

Enjoy Watching for Butterflies!

Planting your garden to attract butterflies is part of the fun but so too is wondering what types will turn up.

Footnote: This article was published in Mediterranean Gardening and Outdoor Living Magazine, June 2015.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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