Create your own Butterfly Garden
By Tom Hewitt, Master Gardener
Creating a Butterfly Garden of your own is a wonderful way to help Butterflies who have had their natural habitat destroyed by the spread of development. Many people believe any combination of flowers constitutes a butterfly garden, but it takes more than pretty blooms to attract butterflies to a garden and keep them there.
Butterflies, as everyone knows, begin life as caterpillars (larva). To make a successful butterfly garden you must provide both a food source for caterpillars and a nectar source for the butterflies they become. Providing both makes it possible for butterflies to go through their entire cycle without straying far from home.
Florida has about 150 species of butterflies, many of which are rarely seen. Here, in south Florida, swallowtails are our showiest. Majestic black swallowtails are easily enticed into our gardens by growing parsley, dill and fennel as larval food sources. People are sometimes alarmed by the number of young caterpillars munching on one plant, but predators soon cut down on their numbers. Caterpillars are at the bottom of the food chain, and only one out of a hundred Butterfly eggs makes it through the larval stage and into Adulthood.
Another attractive member of the swallowtail family (although it lacks the “tails” that characterize the others), is the gold rim swallowtail (polydamas). This one uses pipevine as a larval food source. Growing passionvine will attract Zebra Long Wings, our official state butterfly, as well as Gulf Fritillaries and Julias. Most butterflies live two weeks or so, but Zebras can live six months or more here in South Florida.
Scarlet milkweed is a must for any South Florida butterfly garden. This plant is a larval food source for both monarch and queen butterflies. Scarlett milkweed is plagued by aphids most of the time, but this is usually kept in check by ladybugs and other beneficial insects. It is important to remember never to use pesticides in a butterfly garden. Pesticides destroy not only butterfly larvae, but beneficial insects as well.
Bahama cassia is an attractive small tree for a butterfly garden, and blooms most of the year. It plays host to sulphur butterflies. Wild lime is a small evergreen tree that feeds the larvae of giant swallowtails, among the largest butterflies in North America.
Unlike host plants, nectar plants serve all species of butterflies. Why butterflies prefer one flower over another is not fully understood. Although they see more colors than we do, they seem strongly attracted to red, yellow and blue. They have an acute sense of smell and are drawn to flowers with sweet, pungent aromas. Butterflies prefer relatively shallow, simple flowers, since deep-throated varieties are often unsuitable for nectar gathering.
Some of the best nectar plants for our gardens are very easy to grow and include blue porterweed, lantana, pentas, beach sunflowers, gaillardia and tropical sage. Good annuals include ageratum, verbena, impatiens, dianthus and calendula. Excellent butterfly-attracting shrubs include firebush, Florida blue sage, buddleia and golden dewdrop.
Lastly, be sure to place a shallow basin of water in your butterfly garden to facilitate a practice called “puddling”. Butterflies need a place to sip water. A few stones in the basin are a good idea, since butterflies need a place to bask in the sun. Butterflies are cold- blooded creatures, and must warm their body temperatures to fly efficiently.