Did you know Florida has 69 identified ecosystems with over 4000 flowering plants, 700 land vertebrates, 1000 fish and 30,000 land invertebrates? With 7 USDA hardiness zones, it is no surprise that Florida ranks third in plant diversity of any state. Unfortunately, much of Florida’s biodiversity is being lost to development, invasive species and other effects of urbanization, but by following some simple steps to create habitat for wildlife in our yards, we can help to restore vital elements for native fauna.
By providing food, shelter, water and space, native wildlife such as butterflies, birds, bats, turtles, and frogs will flock to your garden. When planting for birds, butterflies, and other pollinators, it is important to research which types of plants will provide for the specific pollinators you wish to attract. Information is readily available, and this EDIS publication is a great place to start: Native Plants that Benefit Native Wildlife in the Florida Panhandle, http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw384.
Selecting native plants to provide food and shelter in your garden is a natural choice. Native flora has coevolved with native fauna, creating a symbiotic relationship that has helped both to survive over time. Native plants get pollinated while pollinators are nourished by food sources that provide the highest level of nutrition. Many require specific host plants to survive, hence the importance of keeping these native food sources in the landscape. For example, while adult monarchs will drink nectar from many flowers, the monarch caterpillar will only feed on milkweed or plants of the genus Asclepias. While 21 species of Asclepias are native to Florida, only about 3 are commercially available: butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), aquatic milkweed (Asclepias perennis), and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).
Scarlett milkweed, Asclepias curassivica, is also commonly available, but note that it is not a native species, and can actually contribute to monarch decline by halting migration. Migration is essential for keeping monarchs healthy and parasite free. Scarlett milkweed does not go dormant in the fall or during mild winters as the native species do, encouraging monarchs to stay. If you do have this in your garden, consider replacing it with a native species.
Other tips to keep in mind when designing a wildlife habitat in your yard are to plant masses of each type of plant (rather than just one of each), and multiple types of plants that offer blooms and berries throughout the seasons. When designing for butterflies, be sure to include both host plants for their larval stage and nectar plants for the adults.