Agri Leader

Hard-working butterflies earn their colors

Who doesn't love watching the wondrous wings of a butterfly as it gracefully flutters by? Their wing colors, bright yellows, fresh oranges, cool blues and rich greens, are a vivid contrast to their soft manner of flight. Gardeners especially delight in the butterfly's presence as a butterfly does a lot more than just provide beauty and serenity. These, what some call "living flowers," are actually hard-working insects that help pollinate flowering plants, fruits and vegetables. There are a few ways to attract more butterflies into one's garden. First, by choosing to implement plants that butterflies are attracted to and, secondly, to choose plants that make it tempting for them to hang around in the garden awhile longer. "Color seems to attract them," said Barb Feinberg, volunteer curator of the Butterfly Garden, a 3,000 square foot space with winding walkways at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota. "They appear to be more attracted to patches of color rather than to a single flower as there is more nectar in one place," added Feinberg who explained that April through October are the best time of year to see butterflies.
While colorful plants attract, what will keep butterflies coming back is by providing plants that can offer food for their caterpillars. These types of plants tend to be less showy, but still bring in the butterflies. "Although milkweed and passion vine have pretty flowers, others to consider are parsley, dill, fennel," said Feinberg who explains that these last three mentions will feed black swallowtails. The types of plants one does plant makes a difference as to what types of butterflies one will attract to their garden. For example, milkweed attracts monarchs and queens, passion vine attracts gulf fritillaries and zebra longwings, while plumbago attracts cassius blues. Feinberg suggested to check locally to see what kind of butterflies occur in one's area and then plant the foods their particular caterpillars need. (UF Extension would be a good resource.) "Most likely you won't be able to attract butterflies that don't occur naturally, which means no blue morphos," said Feinberg. Common species found in Florida include the zebra longwing, our state butterfly, along with the gulf fritillary, cloudless sulphur, palamedes swallowtail, ceraunaus blue and long-tailed skipper. On any given day at the butterfly garden, a variety of these showy insects are fluttering by the brightly-colored annuals, perennials, vines and herbs that set the beautiful backdrop. The variety one might see includes a selection of monarchs, queens, white peacocks, orange-barred sulfurs, great southern whites, gulf fritillaries, zebra longwings, cassius blues, painted ladies, red admirals, eastern black swallowtails, giant swallowtails, along with an occasional pipevine swallowtail or viceroy. However, the list is too numerous to name. Over at the Butterfly Rainforest in Gainesville is a 6,400-square-foot screened exhibit where one can enjoy seeing 60 to 80 different butterfly and moth species, such as autumn leaf, tree nymph, banded peacock, blue morpho, golden birdwing, owl butterfly, and African moon moths. At any given time, there are a total of around 1,000 butterflies on display; however, the types vary depending on the season. According to Jaret C. Daniels, assistant director of Exhibits and Public Programs, Florida Museum of Natural History, "A few plants to consider to attract butterflies include: Firebush, Purple Passionflower, Snow Squareste, Ironweed, Partridge Pea, Tampa Vervain, and Climbing Aster." Daniels has also authored several books about butterflies, wildflowers and butterfly gardening and is also an associate curator of lepidoptera and associate professor of entomology, UF. Daniels suggests including a diversity of flower colors and shapes, and to plant in groupings as butterflies and other pollinators are often more attracted to waves or masses of color. "Also, include larval host plants and native plants," said Daniels, who explained that one should start with nectar plants first, then buy a good field guide to help learn the butterflies found in your yard, and, lastly, include larval host plants for the species common in your landscape. The majority of larval host plants are natives, "Also, be sure to pick the right plant for the right place, and avoid or limit pesticides," said Daniels. Planting the right plant in the right place means, for example, that shade plants get planted in shady areas, while plants that can tolerate sun get planted in the sunnier areas. Daniels explained that beyond the butterfly's capacity to pollinate, they help in many other ways. "They are extremely charismatic and can help garner public interest and awareness of conservation and other important environmental issues and other wildlife," said Daniels, who further explained that they are great to use to get children interested in nature and science. Butterflies are also strong environmental indicators. As butterflies feed on plants and go through their life cycles quickly, they can react to changes in the environment quickly and thus have been used by researchers to help evaluate climate change, habitat loss and alteration, and even restoration efforts. So as you behold the beautiful butterfly, remember that they too are busy as a bee. If you go: Butterfly Rainforest Florida Museum of Natural History Florida Museum Exhibits, Powell Hall, Gainesville 352-846-2000 Marie Selby Botanical Gardens 811 S Palm Ave, Sarasota (941) 366-5731