Butterfly Gardening

Butterfly gardening has become one of the hottest gardening topics in recent years - there is a great deal of interest in nurturing these colorful, airborne insects and attracting them to the garden.

Few outdoor activities are more rewarding and easily available than attracting butterflies to a well-designed garden.

Attracting butterflies adds a whole new dimension to gardening - by enticing butterflies into your yard you will not only be able to interact with these living jewels of nature in a way that may not be possible with larger wildlife, in the process you will also learn more about plants and our natural environment.

SW Florida is a great place for butterfly gardening - our mild climate and diversity of ecosystems ensures that butterfly gardening can be enjoyed nearly year round.  The possibilities for butterfly gardens are dizzying - they can be simple or complex.

Florida is home to around one hundred species of butterflies, not including the skippers of which there are nearly seventy more.

In addition to the dazzling kaleidoscope of colors and patterns that may observed, one of the most fascinating things about these gentle creatures is the amazing transformation or metamorphoses is that all butterflies undergo during the amazing butterfly life cycle.

Butterfly Lifecycle

There's something magical about the way that ugly little caterpillars can transform themselves into free-spirited butterflies.  There are four stages in the butterfly life cycle: egg, larva, chrysalis, and adult.

  • Butterfly eggs are laid on the larval food plant and caterpillars emerge within a few days.
  • The larva have enormous appetites and do nothing else but eat. When their skin is stretched as far as possible, they molt or shed the old skin.
  • After a few molts, they seek a sheltered place. Some spin a safety belt that holds them upside down on a twig or similar object, while others hang on with special hooks on their abdomen. At this time, the final molt takes place and the larva skin is replaced with a stiff butterfly chrysalis (pupa).
  • During this stage, the once worm-like caterpillar transforms into the familiar beautiful, flying adult butterfly.
  • 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.
  • You won't be able to attract butterfly species that are not present naturally in your region, nor can you grow plants that aren't adapted to the your particular soil and climate.  The key to success is an understanding of the life cycle and food preferences of these amazing insects.

Butterfly Adults

Adult butterflies have very short life span, from only a few days to a few weeks long in most cases.  Most adults feed solely on nectar produced by flowers.  They sip the nectar through a long hollow tube called a proboscis.

Adult 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, Mexican sunflower, milkweeds, pentas, thistles, verbena,  butterfly bush, and shrimp plant.  Try to plant a variety of flowers that will bloom over a period of many months to provide a stable nectar source.  A number of weeds and wildflowers are also attractive to butterflies.

Note: 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, 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.  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.

Adults are also attracted to the vicinity of larval food plants in order to lay their eggs.  Some plants are hosts to several different butterflies (e.g. passion vine), but often each species requires its own plant.  Unless you have a lot of  land at your disposal, you may have to be selective in your plantings for specific butterflies.   Remember that these plants will be chewed on if you are successful, so mix larval food plants in with and behind nectar sources so the damage will not be too noticeable and the garden will remain attractive.

There are a few other things to consider when planning a butterfly garden.   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.

Remember not to use any insecticides in and around your 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.

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