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The Butterfly Effect

PUBLISHED: 16:21 17 March 2008 | UPDATED: 15:04 20 February 2013

This is atypical view of an orange-tip butterfly at rest and this is a female

This is atypical view of an orange-tip butterfly at rest and this is a female

Once we get into April there is a good chance of seeing half a dozen species of butterfly, and most of these have one thing in common, they will have spent the winter in hibernation and emerged as adults. The peacock, painted lady, brimstone and s...

The orange-tip can be seen on the wing between April and August but is most numerous in April and May. It was once known as the 'lady of the woods' and can often be seen flying through woodland, though it is more likely to be encountered laying its eggs along hedgerows or even in damp pastures, where the food plants of its caterpillars can be found.

The male and female of this species are very different. Males have an orange patch on their forewing, giving the species its name, whereas females simply have a smudgy black margin to the forewing. Both sexes have the same markings on their rear underwing, which is usually all we see when a butterfly is at rest; this intricate mossy-green veining is actually as attractive and distinctive as the male's orange wing tips. In flight the male orange-tip is one of our most easily identified species, the orange tips to its wings contrasting markedly with the creamy-white of the majority of its upper wings.

Fortunately, the male of this species is more active than the female and is therefore more likely to be seen. He doesn't try to defend a territory, in fact he will wander widely along hedgerows and other linear features. When he meets another male orange-tip a small-scale squabble may take place, but these butterflies seem too graceful to show real aggression and they soon go their separate ways.

The female usually lies low, only when she is laying her eggs does she become more active. Orange-tips lay their eggs on cuckoo flower ('Cardamine pratensis'), garlic mustard ('Alliara petiolata'), hedge mustard, aka 'Jack-by-the-hedge' ('Sisymbrium officinale') and other related plants. The eggs are tiny, elongated and orange, with a ribbed surface. They are laid amongst the young flower heads or on the fresh shoots of its chosen plant types but only one egg is laid on each plant because the caterpillars can become cannibalistic if too many occur together.

The orange-tip butterfly can be seen on the wing between April and August but is most numerous in April and May

Once the eggs hatch, the caterpillars eat the seed pods of the host plants, and looking for half-eaten seed pods is often the easiest way to find them, though they are exceptionally well camouflaged, since the caterpillars are designed to resemble these pods. The caterpillar of the orange-tip butterfly grows to about 3cm. Its underside is dark green, its back varies from bluish-grey to greyish-green and it has a white stripe along its flanks. After fattening itself during May and June the caterpillar pupates during July, often attaching itself to a twig but hardly ever to its host plant. The chrysalis of an orange-tip is brown or green and is pointed, closely resembling a broken twig. The chrysalis will remain dormant until the following April or May, when an adult butterfly will emerge and the whole process starts again.

To attract this butterfly to your garden it is worth planting seeds of its host plant. The cuckoo flower (or lady's smock) has a very attractive flower which blooms in April, and its name is related to the time of year in which it flowers. In 1597, writer John Gerard ( wrote about the cuckoo flower that it flowers 'for the most part in April and May, when the cuckoo begins to sing her pleasant note'. This beautiful but very subtle-coloured lilac flower grows in wet meadows and, where conditions are suitable, it can flourish in great numbers.

If you have a garden pond then this is a good species to plant around its grassy margin, otherwise any damp piece of grassland will suffice. As well as attracting the orange-tip, the cuckoo flower will also play host to the green-veined white butterfly.

Garlic mustard and hedge mustard don't seem to be as readily available in wild-flower seed packets but there is another flower that can easily be grown in gardens and which is also tempting to the orange-tip, and that is honesty, a very common garden flower. Wild-flower seeds can often be bought in local garden centres but there are some online locations that specialise in native flower species. One such company that can supply seeds from just about any wild-flower species is called Landlife Wildflowers (

I find that setting out to attract wildlife to the garden is the most exciting and rewarding form of gardening, and there is nothing quite like seeing a wild creature, such as an orange-tip butterfly, taking up your kind offer of hospitality. BY DAVID CHAPMAN

Do you know any great spots for butterfly watching in Somerset? Exchange tips with other readers on our Forum


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