New Zealand’s butterflies

May 2, 2013

With their complex patterns, beautiful colours and delicate nature, butterflies have a somewhat magical quality to them. As with bees, their presence brings life to gardens and plantings, elevating them to dynamic environments (similar to the effect of native birds within forest, whereby the forest can seem comparatively inanimate in their absence).

While a few (like the Boulder Copper photographed above) are unlikely to venture into most gardens, a good deal of species (such as the Common Copper) may be catered for in plantings. We have recently planted masses of pohuehue (Muehlenbeckia complexa) in a Te Atatu garden (which will form billowing clouds along the fenceline and above a retaining wall), to provide habitat for the common copper butterflies that inhabit the nearby shoreline to breed upon.

At present, Muehlenbeckia complexa is very popular within landscape design – on a wide range of scales (motorway plantings to small gardens). This is a great development in areas near existing populations of these butterflies, such as the Waiheke Headland house (that recently won Home of the Year), where large areas of pohuehue provide habitat for copper butterflies on this coastal fringe.

The breeding host plant for the Red Admiral (pictured below) is a much more difficult sell than pohuehue. However, over the last few years, there has been a marked increase in interest in the cultivation of our native nettles (Urtica spp.) for this purpose (amongst native plant enthusiasts). The Maori name for this extremely beautiful butterfly is ‘kahukura’, meaning ‘red cloak’.

Placement is of critical importance with nettles, due to the stinging pain caused by contact with their stems. In my opinion, they are best separated into a distinct area of planting (similar to a vegetable patch), rather than mixed with general planting, so that people do not inadvertently touch them too much (other than in the case of the largest nettle, Urtica ferox, a small amount of contact with these plants is not harmful).

The Yellow Admiral also breeds on nettles, but is more adaptable in its requirements – as it will occupy more species of Urtica than the Red Admiral. Although both of these species have a close connection with their host plants at breeding times, they range far and wide, and butterflies can be seen feeding on the flowers of many species.

The remaining images are of one species of Tussock Ringlet (Argyrophenga antipodum), a beautiful butterfly that is closely associated with several species of tussock, as may be inferred by the name. The photograph shown above is of a male (the males are darker in colour). The image below shows the underside of a Tussock Ringlet, with the pale, iridescent stripes that give the genus its scientific name.