The countryside is already starting to feel autumnal, with shrubs and trees laden with berries and nuts. Luckily, there are still butterflies such as Red Admiral and Small Tortoiseshell around to maintain the feeling of summer. I hope you have experienced some of the influx of Painted Ladies in your garden – it has been wonderful to see these migrant butterflies en masse this year.
Another migrant – the Humming-bird Hawk-moth - has also been spotted widely. In my garden it was feeding on the Red and White Valerian Centranthus ruber, alongside several Small White butterflies. These were additionally drawn to the Perennial Wallflower Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’. It was on this plant that I discovered the well wrapped bodies of three white butterflies in a web strung tightly between the flower stems. The army of spiders across the garden makes gathering nectar rather hazardous for all the pollinators.
Autumn nectar is essential for butterflies such as Brimstone, Comma, Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell, which need to feed up before hibernating. Nectar is also necessary for some migrant moths which could be around this month such as Clifden Nonpareil. This large moth, with a perfect name meaning ‘beyond compare’, has a stunning blue band on its hindwings. It is on the wing from late August to late October, and is the theme for this year’s Moth Night, which runs from 26 to 28 September. The caterpillars of this species feed on Aspen and poplars, which are rather uncontrollable trees for gardens as they tend to sprout from their powerful roots. The adult Clifden Nonpareil is attracted to sugar sources such as sap running from trees (but don’t damage your tree to provide this!) or aphid honeydew in the tops of trees.
Another migrant which could turn up is the Convolvulus Hawk-moth, which will feed on tubular flowers with its long proboscis, such as late-flowering, evergreen Honeysuckle Lonicera. Alternatively, if you are a lover of exotic plants it will also be attracted to the flowers of Ornamental Ginger Hedychium. These tall plants have colourful, highly scented flowers in autumn. They need a sheltered position in dappled shade. If planted in the ground they will need winter protection, such as a thick mulch of leaves or compost, and if in a pot they can be moved into a shed from November until spring.
For a native option, Hemp Agrimony Eupatorium cannabinum flowers should still be out this month. The plant will need a spot with moist soil in full sun or partial shade, as will Joe Pye Weed Eupatorium maculatum ‘Purple Bush’, which will form large clumps with tall, leafy stems up to 2m high. The stems are topped with large clusters of small pinkish flowers from late summer to mid-autumn after which the plant will die back, with new growth appearing in spring. Eupatorium looks lovely in combination with grasses and the orange daisy flowers of Sneezeweed Helenium. Other autumn nectar options include the flat pink flowerheads of Sedum Hylotelephium and the daisy flowers of Michaelmas Daisies Aster
In addition to the butterflies and moths, I have also been keeping an eye on the House Martin nest under the eaves, where there are still two young, from a second brood, eagerly leaning out of the nest when the parents arrive with food. The rest of the large flock, which nested in the neighbourhood, keeps disappearing for days and then reappearing briefly. It is captivating watching them doing close flypasts of nests with youngsters – swooping up, one after another in a flash. It really will feel that we are heading towards the end of the year when they all finally set off and the butterflies go into hibernation.
Make sure you take time to potter round your garden and watch all the wildlife appreciating the resources you have supplied.
The Secret Gardener