One of the most spectacular, for me almost magical, wildlife gardening plants I’ve discovered in my project to create a wildlife friendly garden is Purple Loosestrife, or Lythrum salicaria to give it its botanical name. This, probably my last butterfly photograph of 2019, a quickly grabbed series of a Small Copper butterfly, Lycaena phlaeas, nectaring on it’s flowers at the edge of my wildlife pond, on a sunny but blustery mid-September’s day, demonstrates beautifully the reason why its such a wonderfully wildlife friendly plant to grow.
A native perennial, widespread across the UK, Purple Loosestrife inhabits river edges, marshes and pond margins. It works well in gardens because it makes a strong impact, being visually impressive in the way that few other native wildlfowers are. Purple Loosestrife is also an easy to grow, vigourous plant which can grow up to a metre and a half tall, often in quite dense colonies. Its beautiful flowers are formed of striking rosettes of rich magenta pink coloured petals enjoying a prolonged flowering period from June well into September.
Purple Loosestrife is a particularly useful nectar source for a variety of long-tongued insects; not just butterflies and bees, but also several large moth species including Elephant Hawk-moth, Willowherb Hawkmoth and Powdered Quaker, all of whom use it as their caterpillar host plant.
It’s extended flowering period means it can serve pollinators as a nectar source both through the “June Gap” and also support later emerging insects through into early autumn when many other nectar sources such as meadow flowers have vanished with the haycut.
Its main common name suggests one of its herbal uses may have been to “loose strife” and it was also historically used medicinally to help gastric upsets. Alternative names for Purple Loosestrife include “blooming Sally, purple willow herb, purple lythrum, salicaire, rainbow weed, bouquet violet, purple spiked willowstrife”. A red dye and food colouring used to be made from its vividly coloured flowers.