Butterflies seem to be more rare in and around the Norwood area than they used to be. At least when Butterfly Conservation recently sent out a thousand forms locally only three replies were received. This may mean that butterflies are not seen in suburban gardens or people have no interest or never bother about butterflies, or simply have no garden. One hundred years ago when Richard Jefferies lived south of the Thames at Eltham, and at Ewell Road, Surbiton, he wrote a book “Nature near London”. These places now are not so much near London as part of London but in 1880 he wrote on “footpaths” in which he paints a word picture:
“No part of this grass can be represented by a blur or broad streak of colour….. it is composed of innumerable items of grass blade and flower each in itself coloured and different from its neighbour… Then there are drifting specks of colour which cannot be fixed. Butterflies, white, part-coloured, brown and spotted, and light blue flutter along beside the foot path.”
There are some footpaths left although difficult to find such a grassy one in Norwood nowadays. A footpath runs through Biggin Wood over the hill-side from Norbury Hill to Biggin Hill, bordered by grass and wild flowers. Up and down the path flutter the brown spotted wood or speckled butterfly. The small white, and sometimes the green-veined white, as well as the common blue. These are some of the species of brown, white and blue butterflies that gave Jefferies such pleasure.
Next door to the Wood on the Biggin Hill side are allotments, not a very large area but it has enough herbage and a few edges of rough meadow grass and flowers to support some butterflies; only the caterpillars of the small white feed on the vegetable leaf of the cabbage. Here the partly-coloured ones can be seen.
One year a brood of dark furry caterpillars on a patch of nettles growing in a bank on the top of the plot had managed to escape the enthusiasts’ pesticide spray gun and in due course about twenty beautiful peacock butterflies appeared flying about the blackberry bushes and settling on the flowers of the brambles.
In August the Meadow Brown can be seen without fail in varying numbers, having a preference for mint, bean flowers, thyme, lavender and marjoram, flowers rich in nectar. Some years the common blue makes its appearance on the wing in July and August and the holly blue earlier in May.
Quite early in spring, the small tortoiseshell ventures out and about in twos and threes throughout the summer, an attractive butterfly of brown and cream spots and bars and a slightly serrated blue edge to its wings. It likes the clover and vetch flowers, mallow and mint though this year not so prevalent as usual owing to more intensive cultivation of the plots, some of which had been neglected and had reverted to rough grass and wild flowers; though liked by the butterflies this is not liked by the gardener.
Back in the 1930s in my garden at Norbury, next to Biggin Wood, there was a buddleia bush struck from a cutting from an old-fashioned mauve variety that had a sweet smell and huge flower trusses originally growing in a friend’s garden in Sydenham., It used to attract many butterflies and in particular which in August used to come “in clouds” as one writer put it.
In the garden in Upper Norwood, near Gypsy Hill, the buddleia is only a self-sown variety but still attracts every year one or two Red Admirals, a few tortoiseshells and peacock butterflies and occasionally one or two Commas with the pretty chestnut-coloured indented wings. One or two peacocks appear every spring and sun themselves in the sunny south-facing bay window sill and wall showing off their handsome colouring with outspread wings.
Another plant which attracts butterflies is the nutmeg-scented, white-flowered choisya. The comma settles on these flowers and the holly blue flies along the top of this shrub and also favours the tops of the elder bushes. One year a painted lady – a large butterfly with a wingspan of about two and half inches who flies some six hundred miles from the Continent on those tiny wings in early summer – made its home in the front garden and stayed for about six weeks, settling on the front bay window sill and flying over to the buddleia and wisteria for nectar. The apple blossom and tiny flowers of the cotoneaster are also attractive to the early butterflies and even the wall flowers attract them. Sometimes, in spring, the elusive orange tip appears on the allotment and garden. Another fairly open area composed of rough grassland and wild flowers is the cemetery in West Norwood. Some groups of gravestones have been neglected and have become overgrown and many of the varieties of butterfly manage to exist there beside the better-tended graves.
Another elusive butterfly is the brimstone or, as the country folk call it, the Sulphur Yellow. Early in the 1990’s for about three years one single butterfly would come in early spring, flying fast over the lawn, though never to settle. This sounds like the butterfly that Richard Jefferies described in his book “The Open Air” written in 1884:
“Down by the dusty road, inches deep in sand, comes a sulphur butterfly rushing as quick as if hastening to a butterfly fair. If only rare, how valued he would be! His colour is so evident and visible; he fills the road being brighter than all and for the moment is more than the trees and flowers. Coming so suddenly over the hedge in the road close to me, he startled me as if I had been awakened from a dream. I had been thinking it was August and awoke to find it was February, for the sulphur butterfly is the February pleasure. Between the dark storms and wintry rain there is a warm sunny interval of a week in February. Away one goes for a walk: presently there appears a bright yellow spot among the furze dancing along like a flower let loose. It is a sulphur butterfly, who comes before the earliest chiff-chaff, before the watch begins for the first swallow. I call it the February pleasure as each month has its delight. So associated as this butterfly is with early spring, to see it again after months of leaf and flowers – after June and July – with the wheat in shock and the scent of harvest in the land, is startling. The summer then is a dream! It is still winter, but no. Here are the trees in leaf, the nuts reddening, the hum of bees and the dry summer dust in the wiry grass. The Sulphur Butterfly comes twice. There is a second brood: but there are some facts that are always new and surprising, however well-known. I may say again, if only rare, how this butterfly would be prized!”
The Norwood Review Edition #147.