By Charlotte Owen
Some of our most beautiful butterflies are the least colourful. Shying away from the garish yellow of the Brimstone and the exuberant red of the Peacock, the whites have chosen a sleek, minimalist look.
Among the commonest is the ubiquitous Cabbage White – a title applied interchangeably to the closely related, yet subtly different, Large White and Small White. Size is often the best way to tell them apart and the Large White is a much stronger flyer. Its bright white wings are tipped with black and, in the female, finished with two dark spots, whereas the Small White’s markings are paler. Their hungry caterpillars do indeed feast on cabbages – and sprouts, broccoli, radishes and rocket - earning them a terrible reputation among gardeners and allotment-holders. Of course, the butterflies existed long before we cultivated their beloved brassicas, and they will also lay their eggs on garlic mustard, wild mignonette and sea kale along the coast.
Often tarred with the same brush but completely innocent of the Cabbage Whites’ crimes is the Green-veined White. This really is a subtly beautiful butterfly, with delicate dark lines tracing its white forewings and distinctive green veins on the undersides. These are best displayed while at rest, although the green colour is an optical illusion created by black scales atop a creamy yellow background. This species prefers damp meadows and woodland rides where females seek out cuckooflower, hedge mustard and watercress.
Not every white butterfly is so subtle, and the unmistakeable Marbled White sports a flamboyant chequerboard pattern. Somewhat surprisingly, it belongs to the ‘browns’ rather than the ‘whites’ and is related to the Gatekeeper, Ringlet and Meadow Brown. It shares their love of flowery grassland and has a preference for purple, from thistles and knapweeds to field scabious and wild marjoram.
But the grandest of all must be the White Admiral, whose black velvet wings are boldly striped with white. This high-flying woodland butterfly glides gracefully around the canopy, occasionally swooping down to nectar on bramble blossom or lay eggs on honeysuckle. When settled, it offers a glimpse of the spectacular orange and white underwings that truly set this aristocrat apart.