gardening

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.

Bloomin' Backyard

This is a guest post by Bruna Costa.

I lean against the kitchen sink and wait for my kettle to whistle. From my window, I see the city apartments scraping against the underside of grey clouds that blanket the western horizon. My weather vane on top of our garage tells me the clouds are driven by the south-westerly breeze that regularly drifts past its pointing arrow. I summarise the weather conditions for the day. Perfect! For my garden, that is. Overcast, with dapple sunshine, and the possibility of some showers. The weather report on my radio confirms my summation.

I savour a sip of tea from my first cuppa for the day and focus on our lively backyard. Fruiting trees planted in rows like a small orchard still bear the remains of the wonderful spring bloom we recently enjoyed. Nectarines, apricots and a variety of plums displayed their beautiful blossoms of white or pink petals with crimson stamens. The contrasting blooms seemed to compete against each other, trying to attract the attention of the visiting insects. But there were no winners. Instead, each tree, in their individual splendour, attracted a number of birds and bees that sought the nectar trapped in the heart of the magnificent blooms. Now, fresh green leaves shade the tiny fruit that cling to the branches where the fertile blossom has emerged.

The eastern spinebill can sometimes be spotted in Melbourne backyards.  Image: Cathy Cavallo

The eastern spinebill can sometimes be spotted in Melbourne backyards. Image: Cathy Cavallo

The blackbird, regular as a clock chime, welcomes the sunrise every morning with his melodious song, entertaining my senses while I sip on my tea. His message is heard by another blackbird in an adjoining yard and he responds. Are the two competing for the attention of the female who ignores them both and busily searches for her morning sustenance? Or are the two birds engaging in robust conversation, I wonder? Either way, they continue with their song until the sun has lifted above the eastern horizon.  My blackbird interrupts his discourse and drops down onto the grass to feel for subtle movements beneath his feet. He thrusts his beak into the ground and retrieves a long wriggling worm. I suspect it is his first morsel for the day. He hops across to different spots on the lawn and repeats the process several times. Once he is satisfied, he returns to his singing post, and continues his song of triumph.

The remnant blossoms of some plants bring a hint of colour to a post-spring garden.  Image: Bruna Costa

The remnant blossoms of some plants bring a hint of colour to a post-spring garden. Image: Bruna Costa

By now, other birds have begun their morning calls. I pause to enjoy my feathered visitors; breakfast can wait. The tiny thornbills busily flutter from tree to tree in search of insects. They help themselves to snippets of the sweet and attractive feijoa blossoms, then flitter off to another garden. Wattlebirds come to visit and perform their acrobatics on the fuchsia, one of their favourite feeding plants that they share with the eastern spinebill. The patient spinebill waits its turn. Once the greedy wattlebirds have taken their fill, the little bird hovers like a hummingbird, drawing sweet nectar from the petite fuchsias that hang, suspended in mid-air like Prima ballerinas poised on their tippy-toes.

I prepare my breakfast, and while I wait for the toaster to crisp up the raisin bread, I gaze out from my window. In the distance, beneath the cloud formations, three hot-air balloons glide eastward, partly guided by the winds and partly manoeuvred by their pilots. Then right before my eyes, a single bulging balloon suddenly rises up just beyond my neighbours’ rooftop. Up close, it looks enormous. Passengers in the basket chatter incessantly. I rush out onto my back verandah and wave enthusiastically.

   'What's the weather like up there?' I ask, when some passengers wave back.

   'Cold!' says one, huddling into her parker. Other passengers are engrossed in a lively discussion about their surrounds, admiring the views. Dogs in nearby backyards bark in disapproval of this intrusion. The blackbirds abruptly end their sweet song and my other feathered visitors disappear. The voices of the occupants in the baskets are so clear, I want to continue with the conversation. 

A striking orange blossom featuring a six-legged friend.  Image: Bruna Costa

A striking orange blossom featuring a six-legged friend. Image: Bruna Costa

   ‘Where are you from?’ I ask.

   ‘We’re from Elizabeth, in South Australia.’

In certain weather, hot-air balloons are not an uncommon sight over Melbourne.  Image: Bruna Costa

In certain weather, hot-air balloons are not an uncommon sight over Melbourne. Image: Bruna Costa

   'Your garden is beautiful,' one adds.

   'Thank you.'

   'You have a lot of fruit trees,' another passenger observes.

   'Yes.'

   'Do you make marmalade?'

   'Not really. We share the fruit with the birds.'

They take photos and drift away. Jets of flame shoot up into the hollow cavity of the balloon. The huge oval canvas responds to the heat from the flames and soars upwards towards the clouds. The bulging balloon continues to rise and drift in an easterly direction. I race inside and grab my camera and manage to take a photo.

Such a pity the passengers weren’t here a week ago. They missed seeing the splendid display of blossom on our fruit trees. All that’s left now are the various shades of green foliage sprouting from the branches.

I wonder if they noticed the one tree still covered with blossom: the orange tree. Its true beauty is in its simplicity; five opaque petals, white with yellow stamens. The blossoms crowd the stems and push past the fresh green leaves, and they emit a sweet subtle scent that dominates the herb garden. It does, however, have one competitor whose blossoms are equally beautiful, and that’s the lemon tree.  



Bruna Costa has worked in kindergartens for 26 years, and currently works with a 3-year-old group.
She is a member of Write Track Writers' Group in Box Hill, and enjoys bird-spotting in bushland and her local area.

Banner image of feijoa blossoms courtesy of Bruna Costa.

 

 

 

Review: Miniature Lives

The Book: Miniature Lives
The Authors: Michelle Gleeson

Easy reading, a pleasing layout and a touch of humour are what make this guide to identifying Australian garden insects a treat for the budding entomologist, gardening enthusiast, or child with an interest in our backyard bugs.

Over six chapters, author Michelle Gleeson discusses insect basics, morphology and habitat, how to find insects, and the characteristics of each order of insect.

There are many fascinating facts included throughout, such as:

  • How to tell when an ant is not an ant - and is in fact an ant-mimicking spider!
  • The picky eating habits of fleas- one flea species particularly chooses the blood of echidnas to feed on.
  • The parasitic behaviour of cuckoo bees – their eggs are laid in another species’ nest, allowing the larvae to consume the resident eggs and larvae.
  • If you lined up every plant and animal species in the world, approximately one in five would be a beetle.

A useful characteristic of the guide is the inclusion of ‘Don’t Confuse’ sections. For example, do not confuse beetles with cockroaches, lice with fleas, or flies with bees. Gleeson also discusses whether certain insects are considered ‘goodies or baddies’ within our garden habitats – with the feeding behaviour of some species resulting in ruined plants and the stinging nature of others causing many humans to be wary, it is important to remember the benefits that certain species may bring to your own backyard. Did you know that the production of almost one-third of all the food that humans eat is reliant on the pollination of plants by insects, such as bees? Ants are also considered to be ‘nature’s street-sweepers’ due to their foraging behaviour, whilst the disreputable nature of cockroaches does not reflect the role that many native species play in recycling soil nutrients.

Handy photos accompany species and order descriptions, aiding any would-be insect foragers in identifying potential backyard residents. Gleeson also refers to other helpful texts on insects if further reading is required.

Additionally, the guide features fun ideas for getting out and about in the garden to discover the unique and the unusual. Gleeson suggests an ‘egg hunt’ in which one searches for butterfly eggs, generally found on the leaves that they are often seen alighting on. Another, perhaps less popular activity is observing ‘cockroach grooming’. Simply trap a cockroach, cover it in flour and place it in a large jar – despite public opinion, these insects are somewhat obsessed with personal hygiene and will use their mouth to remove all traces of flour from their body.

But perhaps what this book demonstrates more than anything is that insects play a vital role in both our gardens and nature’s ecosystems – as naturalist Densey Clyne states in the foreword: ‘Insects have always had a bad press. But directly or indirectly they have had an enormous and mostly positive influence on the way we live.’ This is something to remember when we get that ‘icky’ feeling around some of nature’s most underrated creatures.

This book belongs on your bookshelf if… you are a child or adult with a recently sparked interest in insects, or an amateur entomologist in search of a funny and helpful field guide.

Head to the CSIRO Publishing website to purchase a copy.  

Banner image courtesy of Louise Docker, Wikimedia Commons.