Spring is in evidence virtually across the country, . It’s been here for a while now, with winter annuals suddenly bustling with energy. You’ve probably noticed your curry leaves shed their winter sloth and throw up a crown of healthy green leaves. Spring has certainly arrived. Up north in the hills, where hailstorms continue off and on, as the snow melts and seeps back into the ground, you spot the robust green ears of the first tulips pushing out. This time next month, you tell yourself…
In Delhi, winged visitors are here to share your garden. The oxalis that grew back on its own from last winter’s planting is in full bloom. We may need sharp eyes to spot its small, trumpet-shaped yellow flowers, but butterflies do not. Look closely in the wild grass, and little flowers are there too. As the day gets warmer, tiny butterflies warm up and flit among them. Of course, the population isn’t as robust as it is around September. But it’s still a sight to soothe winter-sore eyes.
Their aesthetic appeal aside, the fact that butterfly populations are on the decline has set alarm bells ringing around the world. Since they are an integral part of an ecosystem, their absence is an indicator of the health of the place you live in. The more chemical pesticides we use, the more we kill butterflies. And now there’s less space for trees and bushes, so where do they lay their eggs? Fewer plants mean fewer flowers, so what do they feed on? As global warming spreads, butterflies are shifting homes. Bad news for plant lovers. We know butterflies are great agents of pollination, flitting as they do from flower to flower. However, they’re also friends of the gardener. They attract birds and lizards, which in turn gobble up insects that may be a nuisance in the garden.
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Plant a variety
Butterflies are not too demanding, though. All they want is flowering plants. Since each species (and there are at least 24,000 of them) has its preference, plant a variety of plants and invite them to share your space. In India, we’re fortunate to have hardy flowers all year.
Wingding: A Cabbage White butterfly feasts on a flower.
They love winter annuals. The Small Cabbage White butterfly is already around. In my childhood, I remember a lone Ixora (locally known as rangan) that drew a handsome black butterfly, speckled with white. If you can’t find an Ixora, you could bring home a Mussanda or even the much-maligned Lantana. Scientists are divided over the colour vision of butterflies, though they seem to prefer bright blossoms. Among trees, the small-leaved kadamba is an all-time favourite. It is India’s answer to the Buddleia or butterfly bush. Among the summer annuals, butterflies are happy to visit the Zinnia and the Cosmos. Come autumn, plant Petunia, Sweet Alyssum and Nasturtium if you want to host butterflies. In the kitchen garden and orchard, they love citrus trees and papaya, and anything you let flower, from methi to mustard. Put down your flowers in clumps. This makes it easier for the butterfly to spot your garden.
Although butterflies prefer to come out when the sun’s well up, they can’t take much direct heat. So hedges and leafy plants would be a thoughtful addition to your garden (they also break wind speed). Believe it or not, in very hot weather, the critters even stop at a water source.
Let larvae be
Every creature is a mixed blessing. Butterfly larvae can munch up an annoying amount of leaves. Much as I croon about planting Nasturtiums, the larvae of the Small Cabbage White, hatching around March, can make you want to yank the plant out. But let them be just a while. After all, without the larvae, you won’t find butterflies!
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