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Thursday, August 6, 2015

Butterfly Gardening

I get a number of questions about creating a garden area that will attract butterflies.  The types of flowers that attract butterflies will also attract many of our pollinators too.  There has been a lot of press about declining pollinator species including the all important honeybee.  You may think that they are only important for pollinating food crops, but what provides them food when these crops are not in bloom?  By providing plants in your landscape that bloom at different times or have a long season of bloom, you will help provide food to sustain pollinators year round, attract beneficial insects that can help with pest control, and also get to enjoy the butterflies and maybe a humming bird.

Look for an area in your yard that gets plenty of full sun.  Ideally, it will have some shrubs nearby that will provide butterflies a resting place in the shade and protection from predators and rain.  You might already have a landscape bed that fits these criteria.  Having a water source close by is also desirable.  The water source can be as simple as a shallow bowl with some rocks for landing to drink.  Change the water every day or so.

A thriving butterfly garden should have a good mix of butterfly nectar and larval (caterpillar) host plants so that butterflies will be attracted to your garden for food, and they will also have plants to lay eggs on. So you will provide a location for the entire butterfly life cycle to occur. Butterflies, eggs, caterpillars, and chrysalis can all be found in a good butterfly garden.  Nectar plants usually attract a variety of butterflies, but larval plants are very specific to one or two species of butterfly.  Also, choose flowers with a variety of colors and plant them in groupings of at least three of each species.  Use flowers with a variety of shapes; tubular and daisy like.  Butterflies feed by sipping nectar with a straw like proboscis.  There has been some concern about plants sold in nurseries that have had pesticides applied to them prior to sale.  These pesticides could possibly harm butterflies or their developing larvae.  This is especially true if the pesticide is a systemic one that moves into all areas of the plant including nectar and pollen.  I would ask pesticide usage before purchasing plants for a butterfly garden.

Some good plants to use in your butterfly garden are milkweed, pentas (especially red), salvia, coreopsis, blanket flower, rosinweed, ironweed, blue porterweed, verbena, yarrow, and native lantana.  Milkweed is a nectar plant for most butterflies, but is also the larval host plant for both the Monarch and Queen butterflies.  If you have a fence or a sturdy trellis, consider planting a purple passionflower vine or a corkystem passionflower vine.  Both of these vines are larval hosts of the Florida state butterfly Zebra Longwing along with Julia and Gulf Fritillary butterflies.   Several herbs; parsley, dill and fennel, are the larval hosts for several species of swallowtail butterflies.  Be prepared for the butterfly caterpillars (larvae) to strip leaves from the larval host plants as they feed and grow getting ready to go into the chrysalis stage prior to morphing into butterflies.  The University of Florida publication "Butterfly Gardening in Florida" (http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/UW/UW05700.pdf ) contains a very complete listing at the end of the publication of nectar and larval host plants specific for each species of butterfly.  Using native plants if available is desirable and has the advantage of providing the plants the butterflies evolved with.  Native plants usually need less water and fertilizer and can also attract beneficial insects that will help control pest insects.  You might notice from the lists of host plants in publications that some plants that we commonly consider weeds are larval host plants too, so consider leaving a few of them for the butterflies.  Once your plants are in the ground, mulch the bed well with an organic mulch to help retain moisture and keep down weeds.

Be very cautious with pesticides near butterfly larval host or nectar plants.  Butterflies are insects and most pesticides are broad spectrum and will kill butterflies along with any pest insects.  Pesticides containing Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) are especially dangerous to the larval stage because it specifically kills caterpillars.  There are predators of butterfly larvae too.  You could see wasps fly in and carry off caterpillars to use as food for their developing young or birds preying on caterpillars to feed their young.

There are a number of websites with very good information about butterfly gardening and identifying butterflies that visit your garden.  The "Gardens with Wings" site is not specifically for Florida, but contains good information. 

Gardens with Wings:  http://www.gardenswithwings.com/index.html

Butterfly Garden Basics: http://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/schoolgardens/school_gardens/butterfly_garden.shtml#comp

MOSI Outside Butterfly Gardening Guide: http://lepcurious.blogspot.com/p/start-butterfly-gardening.html

There are also several books that contain good information as well:

  • "Florida Butterfly Gardening: A Complete Guide to Attracting, Identifying, and Enjoying Butterflies of the Lower South" by Marc C. Minno
  • "Your Florida Guide to Butterfly Gardening: A Guide for the Deep South" by Janet C. Daniels
  • "Gardening for Florida's Butterflies" by Pamela F. Traas

And one book to help you identify the butterflies that visit your garden:

  • "Florida's Fabulous Butterflies" by Thomas Emmel and Brian Kenney


All pictures are from various University of Florida photographers.

11:19 am edt          Comments

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Pampered Gardeners LLC * Oldsmar, FL * USA *  Phone: 727 483-3783 * pam@pamperedgardeners.com