Gardening to support moths

Elephant Hawkmoth (Deilephila elpenor) - Vaughn Matthews

Cathy Smith explores how you can make your garden more attractive to moths.

Whilst the majority of our moths conform to our expectation of being active at night, some behave like butterflies and take advantage of some of the popular ‘butterfly’ garden plants such as buddleia or red valerian, Centranthus rubra. One of our day flying moths which, in swarm years, draws most attention is the hummingbird hawk moth, Macroglossum stellatarum, fluttering its wings so quickly that it can make an audible hum.

Although some moths such as the Poplar Hawk moth, Laothoe populi do not need sustenance and as adults refrain from feeding at all, most adult moths feed on nectar to sustain their flight long enough to lay eggs in anticipation of the generation. A few wild-flowers and garden plants are noteworthy for their associated with moths, but moths almost certainly feed on a much wider range of nectar rich flowers. Like their very presence, the value of moths as pollinators is often overlooked, research** based on pollen analysis is demonstrating their role in crop pollination.

 

Typically, a ‘moth’ flower is white or pale in colour and usually pleasantly scented. Below are a few garden plants to try;

For shrubs, a flowering hebe will attract a number of pollinators. Great Orme a large evergreen is particularly recommended. Hebes suit many styles of garden, urban as well as more rural settings.

There are many cultivated varieties of the woodland twiner, wild honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum. Only moths with long tongues can extract the nectar from the deep-tubed flowers, but they will most certainly thank you. Find a tree or trellis for it to scramble up.

Summer flowering Jasmine officinale, is another climber, the ingredient of exotic tea, its night-time scent also attracts moths. It is a little tender so needs a sheltered sunny corner, which will no doubt suit moths too.

Clematis heracleifolia – a herbaceous sub-shrub, is best in poor, free draining soil. It has tiny, scented, blue flowers, easily accommodated in my garden and more easily available from nurseries in recent years.  

Easy from seed, sweet rocket, Hesperis matronalis is attractive to moths as well as to bees. It is a perfect contender for a cottage garden and will gently seed around if given free reign. 

Night-scented stock, atthiola longipetala, is another easy annual to grow from seed.  It is not a flamboyant flower, but what it lacks in exuberant form, it makes up for in scent. A contender for pots by the back door.

The scent of the tobacco plant, Nicotiana alata, was shown to be particularly attractive and energy providing to hawk moths when compared to similar Nicotiniana species.*

 

There are also reports of moths visiting the pinks, Dianthus species. Choose one of the old fashioned, single petaled forms and conjure up that delightfully sweet clove scent. Sweet Williams, Dianthis baratus, are also reputed to attract moths, as biennials they are sown in June or July for flowers next year, or you can usually buy bare root plants around November time.

Evening primrose, Oenothera biennis, has flowers which open by evening. The flowers are buttercup-yellow and are embellished with nectar guide patterns, the latter invisible to us but assist insects which can see ultra-violet light. It prefers free draining soil in a sunny position and will seed around if not enjoyed by birds.

For a wilder place in the garden, the campions; Silene spp. are attractive to moths. Use a reliable seed merchant for native wildflower seed and maybe incorporate into a wider meadow scheme.

Whilst flowers might be uppermost in the minds of us gardeners, the adult, winged stage is a small part of the moth life cycle. What moths really need is the caterpillar food plants. Many species are catholic in their tastes but our native wildflowers and trees are in the most part best suited. Like, their lepidopteran counterparts, the butterflies, moths also have a pupal, resting stage. Some species, such as the Hebrew character, Orthosia gothica, overwinter as pupae underground, others rest amongst the leaf litter. As simple requirement to provide for the ‘not-too-tidy’ gardener!

*Max Planck institute 2016

** Dr Callum Macgregor et al 2018  Large Yellow Underwing and the Common Rustic/Lesser Common Rustic group were found to be transporting pollen from the greatest number of different plant species.

 

Red campion - Vaughn Matthews

Red campion Vaughn Matthews