One late summer day as I worked in the fall vegetable garden I paused and leaned on the shovel to grab a short breather. While in this pose I noticed the constant activity of several gulf fritillary and zebra longwing butterflies (the official state butterfly of Florida). Their population seems to peak in late September or early October, the result of a summer of heavy grazing on the passion vine. The orange wings of the gulf fritillary and the black and yellow coloration of the zebra longwing stood out against the dark green backdrop of the passion vines. Their light motion added a peaceful component to the beauty of a late summer afternoon in the backyard.
The secret to attracting butterflies
Anyone can have butterflies in Florida, but not many do. The secret to having a large butterfly population centers around having an abundant food source to support the voracious appetite of the larval life stage. Adults lay eggs on the preferred food source and soon young larva are busily munching away. When a newly hatched larva comes alongside one that is almost ready to pupate, the size difference is incredible. It is hard to believe how much these grow in just a few days.
Passion vine is a preferred larval food and once established, requires minimal care. For the first year however, you should protect young passion vines or the butterfly larva will consume everything resulting in death of the vine. Use of netting, to prevent the adult butterfly from laying eggs on the leaves of the passion vine is recommended. This will allow light and moisture to reach the vine, but will protect leaves from being eaten until the roots become established. By the second year the vine should be able to outgrow the appetite of the caterpillar larva.
Passion vine will die back in winters that have extended periods of cold, but will re-sprout in the spring. After March 15, when the danger of extended cold has passed, trim away the growth from the previous season. After passion vine is established for a few years it will grow rapidly. It may be necessary to prune it a few times during the growing season to keep it in check. Note also that it will sprout in the lawn several feet from the parent vine, but these can be used as transplants if desired or can simply be mowed off.
The herb fennel is another host for butterfly larva, in this case the black swallowtail butterfly. Fennel is easy to grow in Florida gardens and will almost certainly attract the egg-laying adult. The resultant caterpillars are an interesting striped color and fun to watch, especially if you have children or grandchildren. Their chrysalises are easy to find and, if your timing is right, present an opportunity to see the adult emerge from pupation. If you elect to grow fennel understand that like the passion vine, young caterpillars will probably completely defoliate your plant.
Candlestick plant is a host of the cloudless sulfur, a yellow butterfly that is very common in Florida. Candlestick grows to become a fairly large shrub, as high as 15 feet. Allow plenty of room should you elect to add this to your assortment of host plants.
Don’t forget the adults
Butterflies benefit from flowering plants and these should be added to your collection to keep the adults close. Firebush, Sweet Almond bush, bottlebrush and chaste tree are all large shrubs that are attractive to butterflies. Firecracker plant, bush daisy and lantana are small shrubs that provide food for butterflies. Perennials include milkweed, tickseed, purple coneflower, blanket flower, beach sunflower, firespike and pentas among others.
Butterflies add life to your back yard and provide great entertainment. Choose a combination of larval host plants and adult attracting flowering plants and enjoy the show butterflies provide.