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Setting Gardens A-Flutter

Grow the right plants and attract butterflies as well as birds to your plot to liven it up
Natasha Ann Zachariah Straits Times 20 Jul 13;

For some avid gardeners, having butterflies enter their plot might be akin to the presence of an uninvited guest in one's home. After all, caterpillars are known to be voracious eaters that can destroy pockets of their gardens.

But these winged creatures add colour and life to what would otherwise be a static display of plants. Which is why the National Parks Board (NParks) is focusing part of its greening efforts on introducing butterflies and winged creatures such as dragonflies and birds to its parks and green spaces here, even in Singapore's urban landscape.

Dr Lena Chan, director of the National Biodiversity Centre, says that despite Singapore's small size, native butterfly species here number at 301 - about five times more than the United Kingdom.

The centre, which is under NParks, takes charge of and records biodiversity- related information and activities.

"There's so much rich biodiversity in Singapore," says Dr Chan, who is in her late 50s. "What can we do about it and how can we make use of its benefits such as having natural ecosystems that balance pests and insect populations?"

Across Singapore, some plots of land are being set aside to plant host and nectar plants, which will attract butterflies to feed and lay eggs in a natural environment. These include the three- month-old garden at Alexandra Canal Linear Park (see other story), Hort Park and community gardens such as the Tampines-Changkat Community Garden set up by residents of the neighbourhood.

And while most people might squirm at creepy crawlies, Dr Chan says: "Everyone loves butterflies but you need caterpillars too. We are trying to give nature a nudge by growing the right plants. We leave the rest up to the butterflies."

One community garden that has successfully nurtured butterflies is the Kebun Baru Palm View garden, trimmed and lovingly tended by gardening enthusiasts who live nearby.

Sandwiched between blocks 231 and 232 at Ang Mo Kio Avenue 3 is a plot that is filled with flowering plants such as morning glory creepers, roses, ixoras and hibiscus. Butterflies dart from flower to flower, sucking up nectar.

Mr Selvadurai Krishnamoorthy, 75, is behind the thriving plot. Together with three volunteers, he took 21/2 years to build up the garden, planting flowers that residents had donated.

The retiree, who used to work for a printing firm, says attracting butterflies was initially difficult as they did not have the right plants. But since he started, he has spotted 12 species of butterflies there.

Mr Krishnamoorthy adds: "Without butterflies, gardens will not look pretty. It is growing well now and I have never sprayed it with pesticides because that would keep the butterflies away."

At Hougang Primary School, his son Mohan, 38, also helped spearhead a butterfly garden project on the school grounds.

After two years of trying to start a butterfly garden at the school to no avail, the science teacher hit the jackpot after receiving saplings and seeds through a contact at NParks. The school also got $2,500 from Citibank's initiative, Ideas in Action, to help fund the project.

He put in Lantanas, Weeping Willows and Crotalaria plants, among others, and found butterflies swarming to the spot.

The garden, which started at a corner of the carpark, has since expanded to other spaces nearby, such as along the driveway. It will soon be extended to the plots in front of the school's main entrance.

Butterflies that have been seen include the Chocolate Pansy, the Tailed Green Jay and the rare Plain Tiger butterfly.

He says: "I started out trying to make the butterfly garden part of an existing eco-garden. But it was not bright enough for the flowering plants to grow, which meant the butterflies were not coming."

He says having a butterfly garden at the school helps pupils get up close to the fluttering beauties. "The pupils experience the life cycle first-hand because they get to see the eggs, the caterpillars, how they go into the pupa stage and finally grow into butterflies. It's just a modest garden that came out of hard work."

Small plot is a butterfly haven

To see an abundance of butterflies up close in an urban jungle like Singapore, most people would have to pay to enter an artificially created setting.

But a small plot at a public garden here is drawing these insects naturally - and people can see them for free.

On a sunny day at Alexandra Canal Linear Park, near Strathmore Avenue, the 100 sq m Butterfly Garden is a thriving ecosystem, attracting butterflies such as the whitish Common Tit. The three-month-old park was set up by multinational electronics company Sharp and the National Parks Board's Garden City Fund to celebrate Earth Day on April 22.

They worked with students from Serangoon Secondary School to create a design that would best help butterflies find food and lay eggs.

Upper-secondary students Nurfadilah Jalil and Dina Dayana Abdul Rashid won the design contest with their star-shaped garden.

In the middle of their garden is the Lantana camara, or a host plant, where only certain types of butterflies will lay their eggs.

Surrounding this round bush are four other types of plants, otherwise known as nectar plants, which attract all butterflies looking for food. Adding a pop of colour are plants such as the Red Ixora, Chinese Violet, Panama Rose and Ixora Dwarf White.

Dr Lena Chan, director of the National Biodiversity Centre, says if gardens are done right, the butterflies will come. "People are always shocked when they come by and see many butterflies around. It's about planting the right plants and creating a natural setting, and butterflies will just be attracted naturally."

Birds and bugs drawn to garden

Retired lecturer Wee Yeow Chin, 76, fancies himself a "citizen scientist".

Much like netizens who post about current affairs, DrWee regularly writes about birds and insects on his eight- year-old blog, Bird Ecology Study Group.

But he does not go deep into the forest to find wildlife. Instead, they come right into his garden in Binjai Park, nesting and feeding on the fruit, plants and trees that he has grown for the last 30 years.

Dr Wee, whose 100 sq m garden includes two towering palm trees and a hulking Terap tree, says: "I planted them from seedlings all those years ago. Then the birds came, ate and dropped seeds here. I just let them grow."

The trained botanist, who also worked as an agronomist for the Malayan Pineapple Industry Board, has documented 33 species of birds that have visited his garden. They include the Yellow-vented Bulbul, Eurasian Tree Sparrow and a pair of Spotted Doves.

He has also found insects such as paper wasps, ladybugs, cicadas, grasshoppers and rhinoceros beetles which nestle in his compost heap.

Even on a wet, rainy Thursday morning, the garden is bustling with activity. Sparrows twitter around a bird feeder that Dr Wee made out of a plastic soda bottle for bird seeds.

He lives with his retired piano teacher wife Eileen, also 76, and their daughter Jean, who is in her 40s, in the one-storey semi-detached house.

He tells of his experiences dealing with his feathered visitors, including mopping up broken eggs that fell out of their nest from trees in his garden, or wasps that have built a nest in the roof's eaves.

Once, crows nested in one of the trees in his garden but Dr Wee realised that a cuckoo had actually laid its eggs instead in the nest, leaving the unknowing crows to raise the baby chick.

"Some of the birds return regularly and they have become a little tame, so they let me go close to take photos."

The active life in the garden makes for exciting documentation for Dr Wee, who is the founding president of the 22-year-old Nature Society (Singapore). "For the cuckoos... We have never actually seen for ourselves this behaviour where they lay eggs in other birds' nest.

"Posting about it makes people become more aware of how these birds behave."

His secret to attracting the wildlife: an untidy garden.

Dr Wee, who tends the garden by himself, lets plants such as the white-stemmed button vine and butterfly plants grow wild. He says he trims the trees only when branches spill over into his neighbours' yards.

Recreating a jungle-like garden, he says, allows the birds to nestle and hide from prying eyes.

"I may not have green fingers but the garden has grown well," he says. "It's nice to sit here and watch the birds and butterflies come in and fly around. It's peaceful."

How to attract butterflies and birds to your plot

Tip 1: Butterfly caterpillars are fussy about what plants they feed on. For example, the Monarch butterfly spends most of its time as a caterpillar feeding solely on poisonous milkweed. As such, the leaves from the plant - also known as the host plant - are the food source for the caterpillar through its larval stage.

Grow plants that attract the butterfly you would like to have, as it will lay its eggs where it knows its caterpillar can find food.

Tip 2: Caterpillars will be present in any garden that attracts butterflies. To avoid having all your plants eaten by the caterpillars, plant nectar plants, or plants that are filled with the sugar-rich liquid, around the host plant to attract other butterflies looking for nectar. That way, only the host plant will be eaten by caterpillars.

Caterpillars will not go to the other nectar plants as each species has certain types of plants that it will feed on.

On the presence of caterpillars, Mr Anuj Jain, 28, chairman of the Butterfly Interest Group at the Nature Society here, says: "Don't worry because they are only temporary. They are a natural phenomenon and the plant never dies. The leaves will regenerate themselves."

Tip 3: Learn about the conditions that your plant needs to thrive in.

For example, flowering plants that have nectar need good sunlight to grow, while fruit trees need good fertilisers and enough water.

Check with local nurseries about which plants are suitable and what care methods are required to produce the best plant.

Tip 4: To attract birds, grow plants that have a lot of foliage so that they can nest and burrow.

Birds will also visit your garden if there is food available, so set up a bird feeder with seeds or plant fruit trees.

Tip 5: Avoid touching birds' nests or feeding caterpillars. This upsets the natural breeding cycle of the birds and butterflies, and discourages them from returning.

Tip 6: You may not attract butterflies if you live on higher floors, Mr Jain says, as it is unlikely that butterflies will be able to reach heights taller than most trees.

Sources: NParks,, Mr Anuj Jain, Dr Wee Yeow Chin

Grow a butterfly with a butterfly kit

Step 1: Collect the eggs or caterpillars from the host plants. Use either a twig or toothpick to coax the caterpillar to climb on or cut the leaf that they are attached to. Avoid touching them as you might hurt the caterpillar or get bitten.

Step 2: Put the caterpillar into a well- ventilated, covered plastic container with a handful of leaves from the host plant. Make sure the container is shielded from direct sunlight. Mist it occasionally to create a humid condition.

Step 3: Clear the dried leaves in the container every few days and put in fresh ones for food.

Step 4: When the caterpillar is about to pupate and become a chrysalis, it will attach itself either to the side or the lid of the container.

Check the pupa regularly. If it turns black, it could have been attacked by parasites and will no longer develop.

Different species take different amounts of time to transform between each phase. Most spend three days as an egg, one month as a caterpillar and one week as a pupa.

Make sure the chrysalis is hanging in an area that has space for the butterfly to spread its wings without touching the base or the sides of the container. If it falls off from the area it has attached itself to, it may not survive.

Step 5: After the butterfly comes out from the pupa, it needs to get the fluid from its abdomen into its wings, which have been crumpled from being in the chrysalis. This process takes about several minutes, after which the butterfly will rest and let its wings dry.

The drying can take up to three hours before it starts flying. Release the butterfly in the area where you first found the caterpillar or near nectar flowers so that it can feed.

The average lifespan of a butterfly is a month.

Sources: NParks,

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