Butterflies are declining more rapidly in urban areas than in the countryside. One way we can support our local pollinators – whether rural or urban – is by sowing wildflower seeds.
Meadows in the countryside have a great variety of wildlife associated with them. He flowers and grasses provide nectar for butterflies and moths along with food and shelter for their caterpillars. Even a tiny meadow area in a rural garden or a tub of colourful wildflowers in the city could provide a wonderful refuge for pollinators.
What to sow
Annual wildflowers, such as the intensely blue Cornflower Centaurea cyanus and bright yellow Corn Marigold Glebionis segetum will provide nectar or pollen for insects. Cornflower bloom from June to August and are attractive to the Common Blue and Gatekeeper butterflies.
.Note that Corn Poppy Papaver rhoeas has pollen for the bees but doesn’t produce nectar. Annuals will bloom in their first season, giving a show of colour from early summer onwards before dying and setting seed in late summer or autumn. The biennial Dark Mullein Verbascum nigrum has tall stems of yellow flowers with purple-haird stamens from June to September. It is a foodplant for the large and easily spotted Mullein moth caterpillars from late May to July. After that, from July to mid-September, the flowers are also food for the similar looking but scarce Striped Lychnis caterpillars. Formerly more widespread in part of southern England, the species has suffered a period of rapid decline and is now only found in West Sussex, Hampshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. If you live in these areas, please help this moth by sowing some Dark Mullein seed.
There are many colourful, native, perennial wildflowers to choose from:
- Ox-eye Daisy Leucanthemum vulgare is the largest-flowered native daisy with white petals and a yellow centre and it will enthusiastically self-seed.
- Meadow Cranesbill Geranium pratense, with violet-blue flowers from June to September, is the parent to many garden varieties of hardy geranium.
- Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil Lotus corniculatus, with yellow flowers, is a foodplant for the Common Blue and a number of moths including the Six-spot Burnet.
- Yarrow Achillea millefolium has tiny white or pink flowers arranged in flat umbel-like heads, which are great landing pads for insects, and it is also the foodplant for a number of species of moth.
- Bladder Campion Silene vulgaris, with white flowers from May to August, emits a clove-like scent at night to attract long-tongued moths.
- Field Scabious Knautia arvensis has blue-violet flowers from June to October and attracts large numbers of pollinators.
- Common Knapweed Centaurea nigra has purple, thistle-like flowers from June to September and is also a foodplant for the Lime-speck Pug.
- Red Clover Trifolium pratense can be a foodplant for the Silver Y moth.
- Greater Knapweed Centaurea scabiosa is particularly attractive to the Marbled White.
How to grow
You could select a native wildflower seed mix or just a few individual species (seeds are readily available to buy online). The perennial wildflowers listed can be sown from late March to April in either the ground or a container. Watch out for other seeds that should be sown in the autumn as they need a period of cold weather to encourage germination.
To sow in the ground, choose a sunny site and prepare the soil so it is weed-free and raked to form a fine bed in which the seeds can germinate. Delay sowing if the ground is too waterlogged. Scatter the seed thinly (if necessary you can mix the seed with dry sand to help with even dispersal) then rake or push onto the soil without covering too much as some wildflowers germinate better when exposed to light.
Finally, water very gently to avoid washing the seeds away. If sowing in a tub or window box, use garden soil mixed with a little peat-free compost as wildflowers generally don’t like soil that is too rich in nutrients. Many plants will flower six to eight weeks after sowing, so you should have a lovely display in the summer attracting butterflies such as the Small Tortoiseshell, Gatekeeper and Common Blue.
After flowering you can leave the plants to self-seed.