Wherever the hardy brassica is sown, the delightful springtime butterfly will follow
There are many reasons to grow honesty, Lunaria annua: for the transparent, silvered, papery discs of the seedpod that persist all winter; because it merrily self-seeds, so once established you need do little else than remove the odd seedling in the wrong place; or for the froth of flowers in purple, lilac or white that dance effortlessly between tulips and daffodils.
But for all its elegance, the real reason to grow lunaria is to entice its guests to your garden. Where there is honesty, there is always a fluttering of orange-tip butterflies. These are some of the first spring-emerging butterflies in our gardens and they are such a delight – a welcome sign that the new season has arrived.
Only the male has brilliant orange tips; the female has aged grey-black tips and could at first glance be confused with a cabbage white. Both have the most exquisite undersides to their wings, a mottled tapestry of dusky green that acts as camouflage when the wings are shut. The female stays low and mostly hidden, so you are more likely to spot the male, whose bright tips are a warning to predators of how unpleasant he would taste.
The larvae dine exclusively on young seedpods from the brassica family – hedge mustard, garlic mustard, lady’s smock, bittercresses and honesty. One could claim the caterpillars are weeding on your behalf; they have certainly never dented the population of honesty in my garden. The adult butterflies love to feed off the flowers and I have even seen them mate on the plants.
I love this butterfly so much that I am developing quite a collection to please it. There is the straight species, L. annua, in purple, and the pure-white form, L. annua var. albiflora, which is a wonderful filler for spring that looks effortless among kales and tulips. Chiltern Seeds stocks the rare ‘Corfu Blue’, which has mottled blue flowers and a blueish tint to leaves and seedpods. ‘Munstead Purple’ has purple-reddish flowers and purple-flushed flower stems and seedpods. I was thrilled recently to get some seed of ‘Chedglow’ from the Bay Garden in Co Wexford, Ireland; it has deep, dusky purple leaves and lilac flowers.
L. annua is a biennial. You can sow now, in situ, or in modules, but you won’t see flowers till next year. For those too impatient to wait, Crocus is offering 9cm pots of ‘Chedglow’. Finally, there is the perennial L.rediviva, which is much happier in shade than the rest and likes damp conditions, but has lovely, almost tear-shaped seedpods for variation..
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