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Comma (Polygonia c-album)

Comma butterflies have also been called a 'tattier tortoiseshell', but that does a disservice to one of the butterfly world’s comeback kings.

Common name: comma

Latin name: Polygonia c-album

Appearance

Caterpillars: brown with a large white mark on its rear end, making it look like a bird dropping and so not interesting to predators.

Adults: orange-brown butterfly with darker markings and an unusual wing shape with irregular edges. It has a white ‘comma’ on the underwing.

Wingspan: 5-6cm.

Food plants

Caterpillars: stinging nettle is the preferred food, but adults will also lay eggs on species of willow, currant, elm and hops.

Adults: feeds on nectar of wild flowers such as thistle and knapweed, and can be seen in autumn feeding on ripe blackberry and fallen fruit such as plum.

When to spot them

Commas can be seen at any time of year. They occasionally wake from hibernation on warm winter days, emerging properly in March.

The species loves to bask – whether on a tree trunk, wood-pile or fencepost. If you disturb one staking out its territory along a sunny woodland edge, watch how it invariably flutters back to the same favourite perch to await a likely mate. In late summer you may also find commas feasting on blackberries or fallen plums, fattening up for their winter hibernation.

Where to spot them

By the mid-1800s comma was confined to the Welsh Marches, perhaps because of a decline in hop-farming – hops being a favourite food of comma caterpillars. But needs must, and the species has flitted on to nettles instead – and is back with a vengeance almost everywhere. It has recently even edged into Scotland. Look for them in woodland clearings and gardens.

Top Woodland Trust woods for commas

Prime pickings can be expected at our woods all the way from Trenant, outside Looe in Cornwall, to Pressmennan, just east of Edinburgh. There are commas too at New Pale Wood in Huyton on Merseyside; Reynolds Wood, east of Milton Keynes, Bedfordshire; Pipe Hall Farm, near Burton upon Trent in Staffordshire; and Reffley Wood outside King’s Lynn, Norfolk.

Discover commas in other woods too. To find woods near you, type your town or postcode into our search box.

Fascinating comma facts

  • One of the few species that is increasing its range, thought to be due to global warming
  • Named because of the white comma-shaped marking on its underwing
  • When resting with wings closed, the jagged outline makes it look like a withered leaf, inconspicuous against wood or foliage.