July is here. What does that mean? It’s summer in Florida? Yes, but it is also the start of the full blown butterfly season. In Southwest Florida, we have a year round butterfly season. While numbers of butterflies like Monarchs and Yellow Sulfurs will migrate, many of the same and others stay in South Florida and prosper year round, much to the delight of all those crazed butterfly enthusiasts living here.
In spring, summer and fall, the numbers of these little flying flowers rise dramatically because the temperatures are warm just like they like it and all their host plants (plants that female butterflies lay their eggs on) and nectar plants (plants they feed on sipping nectar) are in full bloom. They are cold-blooded insects that use the sun to warm their bodies which in turn enables them to fly. Around 60 degrees is the temperature they say usually is their taking off point; this is their most vulnerable time because their movement is restricted. When the weather is cool and cloudy, I’ve seen butterflies remain motionless for days not moving a muscle, hiding on the underside of leaves going almost undetected. On the other hand, butterflies do not like extreme heat which will also make them hide in shaded areas. Basically as a Floridian, when you’re too hot or too cold so are the butterflies. To me, the numbers of butterflies are already quite numerous maybe because this past winter was not as cold as it had been in the two previous winters making them more active — if you know what I mean!
Much of the butterfly’s natural habitat here in Southwest Florida has been destroyed by what some call progress. To me, building more strip malls that just lay empty is plain crazy. We all need to help replace what has been lost. Butterfly gardening is not only a great way to observe these beautiful creatures; it will also contribute to their conservation and increase their numbers.
Finding a location for your garden, there should be at least four hours of sunlight a day, not necessarily direct sun but bright light. I think that can be found almost anywhere here in Southwest Florida. I have found full sun is almost too much for most plants especially in the summer. There are some butterflies that prefer shady areas, so providing varying light situations will attract a larger variety of winged flying flowers making ideal conditions for maximum numbers.
A good irrigation system is important to any garden but particular in a butterfly garden. Pop up irrigation sprinkler heads used for watering lawns are too forceful, and can blow larvae off their host plants possibly killing them, nevermind shredding the plants and flowers. Drip irrigation systems, soaker and micro irrigation are the best, putting water where it belongs at the root systems of the plants. We don’t want to waste water particularly because of the cost, but also it is Florida’s precious natural resource. All the systems mentioned above are low pressure with none or little waste through evaporation.
Remember to include a viewing area (a place with a bench where you can sit) in your garden to watch the butterflies unique and various unusually habits. For example, the monarch butterfly is very territorial, and will chase off any unwanted intruders, usually other males looking for mates. I have actually seen a monarch chase birds out of “their” self-designated areas. Another example is that male and female sulfur butterflies will spiral skyward in their unusual mating ritual. These viewing areas are also a great place to relax and have your evening cocktails.
A big bonus in butterfly gardening is attracting hummingbirds to your yard. Many of the plants adult butterflies use to nectar on are also some of hummingbird’s favorite plants. Two of the most popular with hummingbirds are Fire bush (Hamelia patens) and Fire spike (Odontonema strictum). This is the red one, but it also comes in pink and purple. Red is the favorite color of both butterflies and hummingbirds.
To attract butterflies to your garden, first you need host plants. These are the plants female butterflies deposit their eggs on, and they also 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 Southwest Florida’s most common and 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, fennel and dill
• Polydamas (Gold Rim) – Dutchman’s pipe
• Zebra Longwing – passion vine
• Gulf Fritillary – passion vine
• Julia – passion vine
• Giant Swallowtail – any citrus or wild lime
The second group of plants you’ll need in your butterfly garden are nectar plants, which are plants adult butterflies feed on. Some of the best are:
• Ruby Red Penta (Penta spp)
• Beach Sunflower (Helianthus debilis)
• Golden Dewdrop Duranta( repens)
• Fire Bush (Hamelia Patens)
• Salvias (Salvias spp)
• Blanket Flower (Gaillardia puchella)
• Porter Weed (Stachytarphaeta urticifolia)
• Lantana (Latana ssp)
• Tropical Sage (Salvia coccinea)
• Shrimp Plants (Justicia spp)
• African Bush Daisy (Euryops spp.)
These are only a few of the many nectar plants 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 to your garden. Plant nectar plants, and they will stay in your garden. You have everything they need, why would they leave?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 that’s very important ……NO PESTICIDES! Remember to follow our videos on YouTube under the South Florida Plant Pickers and on Facebook under Mike Malloy.