2022 has been a good year for butterflies on the wing in spring. The earliest seen are those like comma and peacock which overwinter in the adult imago stage and frequently appear from their slumber on warm days in March. Those which overwinter as pupa clearly need a bit more time, but the orange-tip butterfly is off the blocks sooner than most, with specimens seen in the second half of April.

Many early-flying butterflies may settle for lengthy periods with wings open in the warm spring sunshine, but not the orange-tip butterfly. This flighty specimen flits between flowers, scenting out sources of nectar and females seeking larval food plant species on which to lay their eggs. As such, the orange tip is not an easy butterfly to photograph.

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I was lucky this year, because on a warm and sunny late April day I came across a fine looking male orange-tip butterfly on a damp-meadow-loving plant called Cardamine pratensis, commonly called cuckooflower, with delicate pale-pink petals. Cuckooflower flowers during the months of April and May and is a favoured food plant for the orange-tip’s larvae. But my orange-tip butterfly was male, presumably nectaring on the delicate pink flowers.

Cardamine pratensis is a member of the family Brassicaceae and, together with the closely-related Alliaria petiolata (garlic mustard), is commonly used as a food plant by the larva stage of the orange-tip butterfly. Other botanically related plants less frequently used include charlock (Sinapis arvensis) and turnip (Brassica rapa).

The scientific name of the orange-tip is Anthocharis cardamines and the butterfly’s close association with cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis) is recognised in the species part of the name.

Cuckooflower is thus called because its flowers were traditionally seen at the same time as the call of the cuckoo was heard. It is also called milkmaid and lady’s smock, presumably because the flower petals’ delicate, pink colour was likened to the cheeks of a young milkmaid and the colour of a girl’s smock.

Male orange-tip butterflies are unmistakable. They have clean-white upper wings with bright orange wingtips, while the less conspicuous females are also white, but with black wingtips. Both male and female orange-tip butterflies have mottled green underwings. Orange-tip butterflies prefer damp habitats such as meadows, woodland glades, hedgerows and the banks of streams and rivers, but will readily visit gardens.