A question from a reader:

If I want large white butterfly caterpillars in my garden AND I want my kale, is that like trying to have my cake and eat it? I suppose they don’t eat anything else, do they? I have sent you a photograph.

Hello Liz,
I am afraid that kale is the thing that large white caterpillars (pieris brassicae) like best of all. They do eat other things but not with quite so much relish: nasturtiums and the wild mustards are your best bet. Hedge mustard, field mustard (known around here as charlock) and garlic mustard are fairly easy to find. Whether it’s going to be fairly easy, or even possible, to translocate large white caterpillars to them is another question entirely.

[1] Hedge mustard (Sisymbrium officinale); [2] charlock or field mustard (Sinapis arvensis); [3] garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata)

The female large white lays her eggs in small clutches so the newly hatched caterpillars will be in an easy-to-find group; you could try picking their whole leaf and moving them to a suitable bed of garlic mustard in a nearby hedge or somewhere in the park. It might work. Next year, try growing a row of diversionary nasturtiums in your cabbage patch or plant a few sacrificial extra cauliflower plants just for the large white caterpillars. Kale is delicious but butterflies are extraordinarily beautiful insects.

Good luck

[4] Large white eggs and newly hatched caterpillars on brassica; [5] Late instar caterpillars on nasturtiums

7 thoughts on “Q&A

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  1. I’ve stopped putting in brassicaes because of the cabbage white butterflies……but fine netting is what you need to keep them off 🙂

  2. Fine netting works but you have to keep it above the plants, not resting on them. If you can do this you can sit back with your coffee (or wine) and enjoy them fluttering about. They can lay their eggs on your neighbours plants.

  3. Thank you so much for all the tips! I’ve relocated some caterpillars to a garlic mustard patch in a nearby hedge, and I like the idea of sacrificial nasturtiums next year. I’m now eating the kale as fast as possible before the next lot of butterfly eggs are laid. 🙂

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