Even though butterfly season is year round in Southwest Florida, June starts the full blown season of butterflies. Butterflies are cold blooded insects and need at least 60 degree weather to warm their bodies to become active and fly. As temperatures begin to rise, so does their population and activity. When we have cool and cloudy weather I’ve seen butterflies remain motionless for days, hiding on the underside of leaves. So bring on the warm summer weather. Butterfly numbers and species this early in the season seem to be unusually high and I have noticed and also have been told by many others, that the Zebra Longwing (Florida’s State Butterfly) counts are especially high already. Zebra Longwings are my favorite local butterfly.
Much of the butterfly’s natural habitat has been destroyed by urbanization. We all need to help replace what has been lost. Butterfly gardening is not only a great way to observe the beauty of these creatures; it will also contribute to their conservation.
As for a location for your garden, there should be at least four hours of sunlight a day, not necessarily direct sun. I have found full sun in Florida is almost too much for most plants. There are also butterflies that prefer shaded areas, so having varying light situations will attract a larger variety of winged flying flowers making ideal conditions. A good irrigation system is important for both healthy plant growth and caterpillar protection. Pop up sprinkler heads used for lawn irrigation are too forceful, and can blow larvae off their host plants in addition to shredding flowers. Drip systems, soaker hoses and micro irrigation are best, putting water where it belongs, at the root system of the plant and not wasting water (Florida’s precious natural resource) through evaporation. These are all low pressure systems.
Be sure to include a viewing area (a place with a bench where you can sit) in your garden to watch the butterflies unique and various habits. For example, the Monarch is a very territorial butterfly, and will chase off any unwanted intruders in his territory. I have actually seen Monarchs chase birds out of ‘their’ self-designated areas. Another example is the male and female sulfur butterflies that will spiral skyward in their unusual mating ritual.
A big bonus to butterfly gardening is attracting hummingbirds to your yard. Many of the plants adult butterflies use to nectar on are also hummingbird attractors. Two of the most popular are Fire Bush (Hamelia patens) and Firespike (Odontonema strictum), this is the red one. It also comes in pink and purple. Red is the favorite color of both butterflies and hummingbirds.
To attract butterflies to your yard, first you need host plants. These are the plants female butterflies deposit their eggs on and that feed the new larvae (caterpillars). Some butterflies have one single host plant, while others have several plants they will use to rear their caterpillars. Some of the most common and most abundant butterflies and their host plants are:
• Monarch – Milkweeds (many different varieties.)
• Queen – Milkweeds.
• Orange Barred Sulfur – Sennas (Cassias.)
• Cloudless Sulfur – Sennas (Cassias.)
• Black Swallowtail – Parsley, Dill and Fennel.
• Polydamas (Gold Rim) – Dutchman’s pipe.
• Zebra Longwing – Passion Vines.
• Gulf Fritillary – Passion Vines.
• Julia – Passion Vines.
• Giant Swallowtail – Citrus or Wild Lime.
The second group of plants you need in your garden are nectar plants (Plants adult butterflies feed on). Some of the most popular are:
• Ruby Red Penta – (Penta spp.)
• Beach Sunflower – (Helianthus debilis.)
• Golden Dewdrop – ( Duranta repens.)
• Fire Bush – (Hamelia patens.)
• Salvias – (Salvia spp.)
• Blanket Flower – (Gaillardia pulchella.)
• Porter Weed – (Stachytarphaeta urticifolia.)
• Lantana – ( Lantana spp.)
• Tropical Sage – (Salvia coccinea.)
• Shrimp Plants – (Justicia spp.)
• African Bush Daisy – (Euryops spp.)
These are only a few of the many nectar and host plants that are out there.
Remember, butterfly gardening is guaranteed! Plant the right host plant for the right butterfly and they will come into your garden. Plant nectar plants and they will stay in your garden. Always make sure you have enough host plants to sustain your caterpillars because most will not eat any other plant other than their specific host plant. One more thing to remember that’s very important….NO PESTICIDES!!!
Mike Malloy, local author and artist known as “The Butterfly Man” has been a Naples resident since 1991, moving from the New York, New Jersey area. At that time he started a landscaping and lawn service business and after almost forty years totally in that line of work, he decided to sell his business and concentrate on his passion: “bringing butterflies back to Naples.” He has since written two books entitled “Butterfly Gardening Made Easy for Southwest Florida,” and “Tropical Color – A Guide to Colorful Plants for the Southwest Florida Garden”, and currently writes articles on various gardening topics for several local publications. Mike has planted, designed and maintained numerous butterfly gardens around Naples including many Collier County schools, the City of Naples, Rookery Bay, the Conservancy and Big Cypress National Preserve and is a familiar face at the Third Street Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings and on Thursdays at the Naples Botanical Garden where he does a Plant Clinic. Mike also does butterfly art and has a website, naplesbutterfly.com