Butterfly man
By Lankika de Livera
Do you dream of your own Garden of Eden with flowering plants, buzzing bees, colourful butterflies and birds? It's possible if you have plants that not only attract these creatures, but also afford nourishment to their young, says Dr. Michael van der Poorten.

Michael and his wife Nancy, currently in Sri Lanka to bring awareness on butterfly conservation here feel the best way forward is to start with our own gardens in the home or office.

Sri Lankan-born Michael is based in Toronto, Canada where he works as a consultant for IBM. Having a doctorate in plant physiology, he has done extensive studies on butterflies in Sri Lanka and Canada over the past 40 years and lectures interested groups on the subject. Nancy is an expert on dragonflies.

Dressed in his khaki shorts, white banian and khaki hat (which he wears even indoors), relaxing at his ancestral property on Hammaliya Estate in Bandarakoswatte, Kurunegala, Michael explains that most common and exotic ornamental plants do not attract butterflies.

It is a myth that roses attract butterflies, he says. One has to choose plants that will be host plants for the larvae of the butterflies, for them to lay their eggs. Later the caterpillars should be able to feed on those plants. Then when the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis - there should be flowering plants in the garden that will enable them to sip the nectar.

When Michael came to Sri Lanka on his annual visit five years ago, he realized there was a decline in the butterfly population. Growing plants that butterflies need in his 40-acre coconut estate in Bandarakoswatte was his answer. Now the plants are thriving and numerous butterflies haunt his garden.

"You can replenish the wild butterfly population that is becoming extinct if you rear them in your garden. We have to create the habitat for them. On an individual basis we could have plants that attract these creatures, however small the garden is," he says. But the garden should not be completely open because butterflies need a certain amount of shade to take refuge from the hot sun, he adds.

A keen nature lover from an early age, Michael's interest in butterflies dates back to his schooldays at Trinity College, Kandy. At Hammaliya Estate, Michael has painstakingly selected and planted shrubs that attract and nourish butterflies. Visitors are enthralled by the profusion of butterflies gathered around his flowering plants and the many chrysalises and cocoons of moths in the process of metamorphosis.

Taking us on an educational butterfly walk through the forest at Arankele, he told us of the various tricks adopted by different species of butterflies for survival, why the ants eagerly wait to protect the eggs of the Acacia Blue butterfly, how one can learn the subtle differences in identifying butterflies, whether it is a male or female, the life span and cycle of different butterflies, the reasons why butterflies fly to mountains such as Adam's Peak and a host of other amazing facts. And why do butterflies come out after about ten o'clock in the morning? Because one of their predators, the birds are gone by this time, he smiles.

Places with large gardens such as hotels, schools, churches, city parks, cemeteries, the Zoo, etc can all attract butterflies by cultivating the correct plants. Estate gardens where the greatest impact could be got with border hedges which could have larval host plants and nectaring plants are ideal too, he says. On hill-country tea estates, he points out, one can see butterflies like the Indian Fritillary, Red Admiral, The Common Hedge Blue, The Ceylon Tiger, The Tree Nymph and the Ceylon Tree Brown. And different butterflies like different elevations; some the open meadows, others forest boundaries and yet others thick jungle.

Sri Lanka has 245 recorded species of butterflies and around 2000 moths but butterfly numbers have been dwindling due to deforestation and cutting down of plants and shrubs that promote their breeding, Michael warns.

How should your garden grow?
For private gardens, Michael recommends two categories of plants to attract butterflies. Larval host plants and nectaring plants. Michael stresses the importance of having both; plants which will attract the butterflies to lay eggs and start the butterfly cycle as well as for them to feed on.

Larval host plants are - 1) any member of the citrus family such as orange, lime, narang, mandarin - these would attract the Lime butterflies, the Common Mormons, Blue Mormon and the Lime Blue butterfly. 2. Aristolochia (Sap Sanda) - which attracts the Common Rose, the Crimson Rose and the Common Bird Wing. 3. Wild Ixora (not the ornamental ones sold at plant sales) - attracts the Monkey Puzzle butterfly and many other kinds of adult butterflies. 4. Dregea Volubilis (Kiri anguna) which attracts the Blue Tiger and the Dark Blue Tiger. 5. Loranthus (pila gas) is a parasite, but don't remove this plant if you want the butterflies - it attracts the Common Jezebel, Peacock Royal and the Red Spot. 6. The Ficus species will attract the Common Indian Crow, the Double Branded Crow and the Brown King Crow.

Nectaring plants as the name suggests, will have blooms which have plenty of nectar for butterflies to feed on. For nectaring plants Michael recommends Durantha (purple and white), Jatropha, Tridax, Wild Ixora, Lantana (Gandapana), Hibiscus (only the commonly grown red variety), Zinnias, Kalanchoe, Calotropis and Poinsettias. Wild Ixora plants could be bought at the Ayurvedic Medicinal Garden at Nawinna (close to the Arpico showroom).

Among other general plants he recommends as larval host plants are creepers (sudu vellangiriya and kalu wellangiriya - which are thorny creepers), wild passion fruit and cassia (Ranawara). As nectaring plants, Cape Jasmin(Atteria), karapincha flowers ( attract lots of butterflies), Tridax, Goda Rath Mal and many other wild flowers are ideal. For more information check out Michael's website: Or e-mail

Back to Top  Back to Plus  

Copyright © 2001 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.