Balconies for butterflies: a guide for the urban gardener

There are few creatures quite as charming as our native butterflies. Unfortunately, urbanisation has pushed many of these once-common insects from our cities and some local butterflies are now threatened with extinction. Increasingly, though, city dwellers are looking to welcome wildlife back into their urban gardens, no matter how small the available space may be. This is incredibly easy thanks to a widely available range of attractive indigenous plants suitable for any balcony. Most importantly, they’re both inexpensive and easy to grow.

Although easy enough, creating a balcony for butterflies does require some forethought. Both adult butterflies and caterpillars need to be catered for with appropriate food plants. The plants themselves must also be carefully chosen to guarantee that they will survive and thrive under the particular conditions of your balcony.

 The Common Brown.  Image: Ian Sutton [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Common Brown. Image: Ian Sutton [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Start your butterfly balcony off by planting Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra) and Common Tussock Grass (Poa labillardieri). Both these species tolerate harsh sun and dry conditions, although by no means does that mean you should go easy on the water when it comes time to give them a drink. These two species are food plants for the Common Brown (Heteronympha merope), a showy butterfly now rarely seen in Melbourne probably due to a decline of these two native grasses within the city.

To add a little height and colour, include a Hop Goodenia (Goodenia ovata) which flowers profusely for long periods with beautiful yellow blooms. This little shrub is an incredibly hardy, drought-resistant species and can be pruned to whatever size you desire. It is a food plant for the Meadow Argus (Junonia villida) and its larvae.

Kangaroo Grass, Common Tussock Grass and Hop Goodenia like some sun but they all tolerate a range of conditions from shade to direct sun.

The Golden Everlasting (Xerochrysum bracteatum) is another must-have for any Melburnian butterfly balcony due to its drought tolerance. These showy flowers attract the Australian Painted Lady (Vanessa kershawi) which feeds on both the leaves, as a caterpillar, and the flowers, as an adult butterfly. This golden daisy is also one of very few indigenous species to bloom throughout the hot summer months. It does require a sunny position though, so place it where it will get plenty of direct light.

 The Meadow Argus.  Image: JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons.

The Meadow Argus. Image: JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons.

The Splendid Ochre (Trapezites symmomus) is perhaps Melbourne’s most audible butterfly species. Its rapid wingbeats sound more like a small bird than a butterfly, and it can be attracted by Mat Rushes (Lomandra longifolia). These provide year-round green, even when your native grasses have turned brown in the summer heat. They tolerate a range of light levels from full sun to shade.

Another fabulous plant to include on your butterfly balcony is the Finger Lime (Citrus australasica). Although native, it is not indigenous to the Melbourne region but is from the lowland subtropical rainforest and rainforest of the coastal border region of Queensland and New South Wales. Not only does it provide delicious zesty fruits for you, but it attracts the Dingy Swallowtail (Papilio anactus), Melbourne’s largest butterfly. Its caterpillars begin life camouflaged as little bird droppings but grow to a gargantuan size over the course of a month or two. This will allow you to observe their life cycle from the comfort of your own home.

 The Splendid Ochre.  Image: John Tann (Flickr: Splendid Ochre) [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Splendid Ochre. Image: John Tann (Flickr: Splendid Ochre) [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Many Melburnian balconies suffer from a distinct lack of direct sunlight. Fortunately, there is a perfect plant for such places, the Scrub Nettle (Urtica incisa). This delicate little native is the favoured food plant of the Australian Admiral (Vanessa itea) which constructs a little tent to shelter in during the day by folding the leaves of its host plant. The Scrub Nettle is a lover of damp and shady places so find a nice sheltered spot for it and don’t skimp on the water.

Finally, for your adult butterflies you need a source of nectar. Although many introduced flowers will suffice, there is one native genus of plant that numerous butterfly species love during the hot summer months: tea tree (Leptospermum). The nectar-filled white blooms of these plants provide a rich meal for your butterflies to fuel their busy period of mating and egg-laying. One common indigenous species with particular drought tolerance is the Prickly Tea Tree (Leptospermum continentale) which can handle partial shade to full sun.

Now that you know some of our common Melburnian butterflies and their favourite food plants, go forth and build a butterfly oasis on your balcony. Not only will you create a wonderful little garden full of butterflies to enjoy, but you will also provide a habitat which helps our six-legged friends traverse the often perilous and resource-poor concrete jungle. All it takes is one person, a few plants, and the better half of an afternoon to set up a habitat garden which will serve hundreds of butterflies for years to come.


Mackenzie Kwak is a zoologist with a broad interest in Australia's diverse flora and fauna. His research focuses on the biogeography, systematics and ecology of Australasian ectoparasites, particularly ticks, fleas and lice.


Banner image of an Australian Painted Lady courtesy of fir0002 | Canon 20D + Sigma 150mm f/2.8 + Canon MT 24-EX [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)], from Wikimedia Commons.