Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Horticulture News
Butterfly Gardening - A Peaceful Natural Experience
Butterfly gardening has become one of the hottest gardening topics in recent years. While the appearance of many bugs can send cold chills up the back of an avid gardener and may send them running in search of a sprayer, there has been great interest in nurturing these colorful, airborne insects and attracting them to the garden. Florida is home to nearly one hundred of these spectacular, dazzling, aerial acrobats and luring them to the garden can provide a rewarding and peaceful natural experience.
Butterfly gardens can vary in size from a few plants in a window box to large areas containing a complex variety of species. They can be designed to attract one or two species of butterfly or more than a dozen. The key to success in any case is an understanding of the life cycle and food preferences of these amazing insects. The well designed butterfly garden will include both the food preferences of the adult butterfly and their caterpillars.
There are four stages in the butterfly life cycle: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Butterflies lay their eggs on larval food plants and the larva or caterpillars emerge in a few days. The larva feed continuously and grow rapidly molting several times. After several molts and greatly increasing in size, the caterpillar seeks a sheltered place and undergoes a final molt in which the caterpillar skin hardens into a stiff butterfly chrysalis or pupa. During the chrysalis stage, the worm-like caterpillar is transformed into an adult butterfly. After a short period of a time, usually a week or two, the final molt occurs and the butterfly emerges. After a short rest period, during which the wings expand and harden, the butterflies fly off to mate and begin the cycle again.
Adult butterflies have very short life span, from only a few days to a few weeks long in most cases. Most adult feed solely on nectar produced by flowers. They sip the nectar through a long hollow tube called a proboscis. Most butterflies will visit a variety of nectar sources. They are generally attracted to brightly colored, simple flowers that are not to deep and that are large enough to permit easy landings. Some universal nectar plants include: zinnias, marigolds, bush lantana, salvia, daisies, coneflower, blue porterweed, black-eyed Susan, milkweeds, thistles, verbena, and butterfly weed. Try to plant a variety of flowers that will bloom over a period of many months to provide a stable nectar source. Note that some adult butterflies are not attracted to flowers but feed on such things as rotting fruit, manure or mud.
In order to provide a total environment for these lovely aerialists, it is important to provide larval foods as well. Unlike adults, the larva or caterpillars are very selective in their diet and will often eat only very specific plants. Adults also tend to remain in the vicinity of larval food plants in order to lay their eggs. By planting the correct larval food plants, you will be able to attract and keep butterflies in your garden. Some examples of butterflies and preferred larval food plants include: milkweeds - monarchs and queens, citrus - giant swallowtail, passion vine - gulf fritillary, zebra, and Julia, dill and parsley - black swallowtail, thistle - buckeye and painted lady, and purslane - mimic.
There are many more host plants, both wild and cultivated that can be used to attract butterflies. Contact the Hendry County Extension Office for more complete listings. There are a few other things to consider when planning a butterfly garden. You must know the butterflies and plants that live in your area. You will not be able to attract butterflies that are not found in your area nor will you be successful in growing plants that are not adapted to your site. Chose a sunny sheltered location. Butterflies are solar powered and use the heat of the sun to warm their bodies. Butterflies are very fragile and do not tolerate a lot of wind.
A water source will provide an additional attractant. Butterflies do not like to drink from open water. A saucer or tray filled with moist sand works well, a small amount of salt added to the water may provide an additional draw. Butterflies are attracted by weediness, so don't be overly fastidious in grooming your butterfly garden. If possible let a few weeds grow or leave a patch of lawn unmown. Realize that the caterpillars will eat some of the plants provided, mix larval food plants in with and behind nectar sources so that the garden will remain attractive. Remember not to use any insecticides in and around the garden as butterflies are quite susceptible to these poisons.
After designing and planting your butterfly garden be patient as it may take some time for these crown jewels of the insect world to find your offering and delight you with their aerial displays and kaleidoscope of colors and patterns. Good luck and good gardening.
Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service. Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975, e-mail - firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 863-674-4092 or 863-983-1598. You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle. Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.
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