The sulphurous beauty of brimstone

How a single butterfly enhances my world – and we can support these little angels of delight, says Jane Adams.


The brimstone (an old word for sulphur) is a fairly large, pale yellow butterfly, with distinctive, leaf-shaped wings. Adults hibernate through cold weather, so may be seen flying on warm days throughout the year, although they are most common in the spring. Usually seen in ones or twos, they are never very common, but are widespread. They can be found in damp woodlands, along sunny, woodland rides and mature hedgerows, and in large gardens.

It feels good to be outdoors.
Up to my knees in last summer’s overgrown seed-heads and straw-coloured stems, a movement by the hedge catches my eye. It’s a yellow butterfly. After the uncertainties and fears in the world – the war in Ukraine, Covid, the lockdowns, job losses and isolation – watching this butterfly feels life affirming and gives me reassurance. Reassurance that at least one thing – the one controlled by our natural world – is still functioning. Just.
Why just?
Because butterflies are having a hard time. Research by the charity Butterfly Conservation confirms a ‘serious, long-term decline of UK butterflies’. And this has resulted in ‘70% of species declining in occurrence’ since 1976.
The principal causes seem to be the destruction and deterioration of the places they live, and extreme weather events caused by climate change. It brings a lump to my throat to admit it, but ultimately, it’s our fault. Enough doom and gloom. This little glittering gem in front of me is a brimstone butterfly. A male with butter-coloured wings, the shape and tone of two veined leaves. And, though it dazzles, it disappears when it lands for a second within the highlights and shade of a lichen covered branch.
Back in flight, its wings remind me of the waving hankies of a Morris Dancer. One minute it’s by my feet, the next it’s twenty metres away as if it can teleport. It’s exhausting to watch, but impossible to look away. Then, as swiftly as it appeared, it’s gone.

How we can help!

Even this early in the year, we can still help butterflies. Many of their caterpillars live within fallen leaves, so leaving piles of leaves around the garden (rather than burning them) will give them a home. And if you’re planning on adding new plants to your garden, buy as many as you can that are butterfly-friendly, with flowers that will overflow with sweet nectar.

Imagine a world without butterflies. No, nor can I. Hopefully we can keep it that way. We need to cherish our little harbingers of summer and life.

Help your garden butterflies:

Butterflies like warmth so choose sunny, sheltered spots for nectar plants. And different plants attract a wider variety of species; aim for flowers right through

the seasons. Spring flowers are vital for butterflies coming out of hibernation and autumn flowers help butterflies build up their reserves for winter.

The best plants for summer nectar in your garden:

  • Buddleia (The butterfly bush)
  • Verbena bonariensis
  • Lavender
  • Perennial Wallflower (especially Bowles Mauve)
  • Marjoram (Oregano)

by Jane Adams – Naturalist. bTB Badger Vaccinator. Nature writer. Photographer. Bee Watcher.

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