Butterfly Gardening

Butterfly Gardening in Florida

With more than 765 species of butterflies found in North America north of Mexico, Florida boasts over 180 verified butterfly species representing some 170 native or newly established species and 17 tropical vagrants.  Of this number, approximately 40 are considered either unique to Florida, or are found primarily within its boundaries.  This diverse assortment of butterflies is the highest encountered in any state east of the Mississippi River.  This contributes to establishing Florida as a premier location for butterfly gardening and butterfly viewing in general.

Planting a butterfly garden can be a great way to beautify your yard.  With proper planning, you can create a sustainable landscape to help attract many of the different butterflies found in Florida.  While your focus may be on butterflies, butterfly gardens can also be a magnet for hummingbirds and beneficial insects.  A productive butterfly garden does not necessarily require a large area; a few key plants in a container can create rewarding results.

Whether your butterfly garden is confined to a patio container, or covers several acres, your design can be as simple or as complex as you wish to make it.  The same basic gardening concepts and concerns apply, regardless of the size. The primary consideration is to be aware that different butterfly species have different requirements, and these requirements change throughout their life cycles.  A well planned butterfly garden should be diverse and appeal to many different butterflies found in the area. 

The butterfly garden should also cater to both the adults and their larvae (caterpillars); taking  into account the food and shelter  preferences of both. Proper garden design and choice of plants are essential to accomplish this task.   Taking the time to make informed choices will help influence which butterflies are attracted,  and encourage them to remain and reproduce in the area.

While most adult butterflies feed on flower nectar and will be attracted to a wide variety of different flowers, their larvae (caterpillars), often rely on specific plants (called host plants) for food.  These host plants are often greatly limited with respect to the number of plants on which a specific caterpillar can feed.  Host plants may also provide shelter, camouflage, chemicals used for protection, courtship, and reproduction.  Although it is not necessary to include these larval host plants in order to attract butterflies, adults tend to stay close to the areas where their larval food plants can be found for reproduction.

Butterfly Stages to Consider:

All butterflies have a life cycle which consists of four distinct stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult (butterfly).  Female butterflies lay their eggs on or near an appropriate larval host plant. The eggs typically hatch within a few days and the small larvae begin to feed. Butterfly larvae have enormous appetites and grow rapidly. To accommodate the change in proportions, each larva will shed its skin (molt) several times as it grows.  The appearance of the larva often changes after each molt.  At maturity, the larva seeks a sheltered place, and typically attaches itself with silk to a leaf or twig while it molts for the last time into the pupa.  During this stage, the caterpillar will transform into a winged adult we know as a butterfly.

Butterfly Garden for the Caterpillar (larvae):

Caterpillar host plants are key ingredients to any well-designed butterfly garden to support not only the continued presence of the butterfly, but future generations as well.  Not as showy as nectar plants, nor a necessary component to attract adult butterflies, a garden without larval host plants ignores the requirements of the butterfly's life cycle.  While nectar plants invite butterflies into your garden, the presence of suitable host plants offer them a reason to stay and reproduce.

Unlike nectar plants, host plants must be tailored to individual butterfly species.  Unless you have a great deal of land at your disposal, you will need to be selective in your plant choice.  Remember also that larval host plants are meant to be eaten.  Your garden will undoubtedly include damaged leaves or even some plants which have been completely defoliated.  While it means that your butterfly garden is being productive, it may be prudent to plan your garden with these plants tucked away from view.  Soon after the larval stage, most of these plants will recover and soon be able to support a new generation.  Butterfly larvae feed exclusively on their host plants, and will not cause damage to other landscape plants like some garden pests who are less discriminating.

Be careful when buying larval host plants as many nurseries use pesticides which are systemic.  These chemicals can be deadly to butterfly larvae and often remain within the leaf itself.  When in doubt, always ask the nursery whether or not the plants you are purchasing have been treated with pesticides.  Remember to also be very careful when using pesticides near your garden.   If your plants have been affected by another garden pest, use chemicals sparingly and only treat the infected plant.

Butterfly Garden for the Adult Butterfly:

As mentioned, most adult butterflies found in Florida rely on flower nectar for food. While many tend to be attracted to a variety of available brightly colored blossoms, different butterfly species have distinct color preferences and feeding considerations. The butterfly's proboscis is like a long coiled straw which it uses to sip liquid nectar from flowers and often determines which flowers it visits.  As a general rule, small butterflies will nectar from small flowers and large butterflies will select larger ones.  Some butterflies flutter while feeding, pausing only briefly at each flower.  These butterflies can often gain access to nectar in long tubular blossoms. Other  butterflies are known to rest for some time on each blossom. Providing a wide variety of flower colors, shapes, and sizes helps to create a garden which will appeal to a greater number of butterfly species. 

Adults of some butterfly species rarely or never visit flowers; feeding instead on tree sap, or the fermenting juices from rotting fruit or plant material, animal dung (droppings), and dead animal remains.  While still beautiful to watch in nature, your butterfly garden will be unlikely to entice these species to visit.

Planning Your Garden:

The complete butterfly garden requires a bit of planning, with are a few basic rules to follow.  A creative and unique garden is encouraged, but you must start with a plan that considers both the requirements of butterflies you wish to attract and the requirements of the plants you will use to invite them.  While planting a productive and beautiful butterfly garden is not hard, it does require a bit of proper planning along with a some basic research.

A well-planned butterfly garden becomes a small but representative sample of the surrounding habitat and provide a safe haven for butterflies, along with other local wildlife.  It should provide a place to gather, seek shelter, acquire food and water, and reproduce.  Remember that your garden will also be visited by other fauna and it will usually be easier to promote their  welfare than discourage them altogether.

Determine what species of butterflies you are going to be able to attract based on the area you live in.  Although Florida boasts over 180 different butterflies, you wont be able attract species that do not naturally occur in your region.  You will also be unable to successfully grow plants which aren't adapted to the soils and climate encountered in your region.

To help get started with creating your butterfly garden, follow these easy steps to plan your garden:

Garden Design:

  1. Provide a combination of adult nectar sources and larval host plants to attract a maximum variety of butterfly species.  This also encourages butterflies to remain in your yard, reproduce, and build populations instead of just passing through.
  2. Incorporate native plants into the landscape whenever possible.  Most larval host plants are native to the area. These plants are adapted to the region, will produce a small but representative extension of the natural ecosystem, and can attract other wildlife.
  3. Create both horizontal and vertical heterogeneity by choosing plants that have different heights and growth habits.  The varying elevations creates numerous microclimates which in turn appeal to a greater diversity of butterfly species, provides shelter, and creates levels/strata of feeding opportunities.
  4. Aim for a consistent host plant and floral venue throughout the growing season by choosing plants that have different blooming times.  This ensures that your garden remains attractive and productive as long as possible, and provide food for butterflies during periods of low natural availability.
  5. Provide a number of different flower colors.  Different butterfly species are attracted to different flower colors, so include yellow, orange, white, and blue flowers as well as reds, pinks, and purples.
  6. Provide a mix of flower shapes and sizes.  The feeding behavior and proboscis length of a butterfly dictate which flowers will be visited by any particular species.  Long-tubed flowers, for example are typically more accessible to species with long proboscis, whereas many composites (daisy-like flowers) provide a feeding platform and easy nectar accessibility for smaller species.
  7. Plant in shade as well as full sun.  This variety appeals to more butterfly species, since many forest species prefer shadier locations.
  8. Plant in groupings which are aesthetically pleasing, provide masses of color, and are more apparent in landscape.  Doing this can also allow larvae to locate additional food resources in event of shortage.
  9. Choose appropriate plants for each location, considering each plan's basic water, light, and soil requirements so it will perform well and grow to its maximum potential.
  10. Provide shelter with vegetation that provides protection from temperature extremes, rain storms, and predators as well as locations for roosting.
  11. Be sure to include a water source with fountain allowing for easy and consistent access to water for drinking and thermoregulation.  Provide a wet soil area for adult butterflies as they do not "drink" from pools of water.

Garden Maintenance:

  1. Give new plants a good start by providing ample water initially.  Mulch new plantings to insure firm establishment.
  2. Fertilize regularly to help produce maximum growth and flower production in your butterfly garden.
  3. Avoid pesticide application when possible.  Remember that all butterfly life history stages are very sensitive to pesticides when pest problem arises treat only the affected plant(s).  Attempt to use beneficial insects (such as lady bugs) in your garden whenever possible (often available at your local nursery) .
  4. Learn to identify the butterfly species in your garden to not only provide greater enjoyment , but also allow you to plant  for particular local species.

Check out some of the books and items of interest displayed below for more information about butterfly gardening both in Florida and elsewhere (use the left and right arrow buttons to turn the carrousel).  Click on items of interest for more information.

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