It was a day like any other, five years ago, but little did I know that it would change my life forever. My neighbour, who happened to be my high school teacher, was moving to a new house and gave me some potted plants. Nothing fancy, just ten pots. I started taking care of them and gradually, I became aware of an interest growing within me like a silent creeper. I had always dreamt of a beautiful garden but it had remained just that.

I loved the book Secret Garden; one my sister had introduced to me to. Since then, I had always fantasised about a colourful bed of bright flowers for myself. Thanks to the gift from my neighbour, I got into the habit of buying small flowering plants that a street vendor would peddle from his pushcart. And that is how it all began. One flowering plant at a time, I started building my own ‘secret garden’, my spot for rejuvenation, my tiny oasis of solace.

My terrace garden, with rich greens and vibrant flowers

After a while, I noticed that my garden had some ‘secret visitors’ – butterflies! They would flit around, stay for a while, and fly away. They piqued my curiosity, and I started studying their visiting patterns and their favourite plants. I observed that they seemed to like a few plants but just flew past the others. Without making a conscious effort towards it, I had stumbled into the fascinating world of butterflies. Curious by nature, I started learning more about them. I researched about how to find out their names and gradually began to differentiate one species from the other. I also found many mentors along the way – some of them explained the basics of identifying butterflies, some taught me how to photograph them, and some introduced me to fortnightly walks, courtesy the Bangalore Butterfly Club.

Common Leopard (Phalanta phalantha)

As I dived deeper into the world of butterflies, I understood the importance of larval host plants. These were plants on which butterflies laid eggs, and their leaves were then eaten by the caterpillars that emerged from the eggs. Each species had one or more larval host plants. Once my knowledge broadened, I started collecting butterfly-friendly plants and removed a few of the more ornamental ones. My little garden was not so little now. In the place of ten pots, there now stood two hundred. Having a garden on the second floor was not an easy task, either. It was a challenge to nurture a slice of nature in this concrete jungle.

Indian Pioneer (Belenois aurota) on a Scarlet Milkweed flower

It was no more my ‘secret garden’ for it became quite well known, and not just among butterflies. Anyone visiting home, especially children, wanted to see the garden. It was an unusual sight for them – a world of green and vibrant colours on a terrace. The butterflies were the cherry on the cake. Children love butterflies instinctively, and it is a great idea to ‘catch them young’. Introduce them to butterflies and they will learn to love the natural world on their own. This is perhaps the best way to instil a culture of care for Mother Nature. As for me, my garden is more than just a bunch of pots that I religiously water every day. It is a self-sufficient ecosystem. It is also a little lesson on how to protect what we have, and an eye-opener on how easy it is to do it.

Indian Peacock Royal (Tajuria cippus)

For example, I have Singapore Cherry plants, frequented by sunbirds and flowerpeckers for the fruits. The birds also visit other plants, bring back loranthus seeds from a tree nearby, and rub their beaks on jatropha and oleander plants. The partial parasite that is loranthus sprouts there and attracts butterflies like the Common Jezebel, the Gaudy Baron, and the Peacock Royal. These butterflies lay eggs, and when they hatch, caterpillars eat the leaves and attract the birds again – and the cycle continues. The ones that survive as caterpillars become butterflies and become food for praying mantises and spiders.

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) on pentas flowers

The garden has also allowed me to observe various butterflies in different stages of their life cycle. One such example is the Tawny Coster. The host plants of this beautiful butterfly belong to the passiflora species. The plant had been in my garden for almost three years when one day I noticed tiny caterpillars all over the leaves. They were black in colour and barely two millimetres in size. Over the next few days, I observed that these little caterpillars were voracious feeders and had a very unique eating pattern in which they scraped off the topmost layer of the leaves. They grew to nearly three centimetres in size before they pupated. The pupae, or chrysalises as they are called, were all over my terrace. A week to ten days down the line, I noticed the chrysalises darkening in colour and then the butterflies themselves emerged! There was a profusion of Tawny Costers in the garden for a few days.

Caterpillar of a Tawny Coster (Acraea terpsicore) 

A Tawny Coster (Acraea terpsicore) emerging from its pupa

Another butterfly species that emerged in large numbers in my garden is the Red Pierrot. I noticed that the caterpillars of this butterfly tunnel under the top layer of bryophyllum leaves. This is supposed to protect them from predators. I have also seen that Grass Demon caterpillars had a very low survival rate as they were attacked by parasitic wasps. These wasps apparently inject eggs into the caterpillars. I have seen wasp larvae emerge from within a Grass Demon caterpillar’s body and immediately pupate. I have also witnessed the camouflaging ability of the Plain Tiger’s pupa where it was green in colour when attached to a leaf and white when it had pupated on the wall.

Striped Albatross (Appias libythea) on Euphorbia

Along my journey, I have learnt so much. I realised that organic manure works wonders and that many weeds are butterfly-friendly plants – like Coat Buttons, Butterfly Needles, Wild Amaranthus, Scarlet Milkweed, and Jamaican Spike. I used to weed away loranthus initially, which I have learnt never to do now! Some host plants that make the magic happen are Plumbago auriculata, curry leaf, lemon, Nerium oleander, Bryophyllum, ginger lily, turmeric, cycad, wild passiflora, and castor. Plants like jatropha, bush daisy, vinca, pentas, zinnia, lantana, and ixora are wonderful nectar plants. I also observed a natural pest control that happens with caterpillars of the Apefly butterfly. They feed on the mealy bugs that infest plants and are the only carnivorous caterpillars. When they pupate, the chrysalis appears like the face of an ape and hence the name Apefly for this butterfly.

A female Yellow Pansy (Junonia hierta)

I have had some frequent visitors and some special visitors too, which include butterflies such as castor, ceruleans, commander, Common Gull, Cornelian, crows, cupids, emigrants, grass blues, jays, Painted Lady, Pale Palm Dart, pansies, pioneer, redspot, roses, sailor, Slate Flash, and Zebra Blue. My favourite, the Silverline, has eluded me both the times it visited. Luckily for me, my son managed to get it on camera.

My love for plants and gardening has also made me more eco-conscious. I understand the interdependence of nature. I often fondly look back on that day, when those ten plants were gifted to me by my neighbour. One of the finest presents I have ever received in life!