Help making a butterfly garden, um, take flight


By LINDA BRANDT,Correspondent

What weighs a third of a gram yet can quiet and enchant an unruly child or bring construction to a halt as workers watch, enthralled by shimmering wings like jewels in flight.

By now you have guessed it's a butterfly. They go about their lives, sipping sweet nectar and seeking host plants for their offspring, unaware of the delight they bring to all who see them. (There is a reason butterflies are released en masse at weddings, funerals and other events that are important to us.)

Of the more than 765 species of butterflies found in North America, more than 180 of them are in Florida. So plentiful are they, that it is possible to see a half-dozen or more different species within an afternoon or morning in your back yard. And while we marvel at the beauty of a common buckeye or painted lady, the blue iridescence of a pipevine swallowtail, a bright orange Julia or fritillary or the majestic black and yellow ornamentation of a tiger swallowtail, this is only a fraction of the attraction. Each of the four phases of the butterfly's metamorphosis is magical.

Tiny pearl-like eggs attached to the undersides of leaves enclose tiny larvae (caterpillars) that will soon hatch and begin to exhibit colors and markings every bit as fascinating as those of adult butterflies. Some will become fuzzy; others will grow threatening spikes and still others' markings will look like huge eyes to keep predators at bay.

If you can get over the "yuck" factor — and you should — you are in for a treat as you watch the caterpillars devour their weight in plant material every two days, growing so fast they will have to shed their skin several times during this larval stage until they are transformed into the pupa or chrysalis.

This happens fairly fast, says Bradenton butterfly gardener Sue Melanson, describing how the caterpillar attaches itself to a twig or leaf and molts for the last time. As the larval skin is shed, a shell forms on the outside of the pupa. This all happens within a span of 20 to 30 minutes.

Depending upon the butterfly variety, the chrysalis may be as exquisite as a little jeweled jade case or as distinctly unimpressive as bird droppings. It may take on the color and shape of its surroundings, like that of the polydamus swallowtail looking for all the world like a leaf.

But the chrysalis doesn't just hang there motionless. You can see a little thing wiggling, says Melanson of the new chrysalis, and the next day that little bird dropping may have acquired a white saddle-like band. In another couple of days, you have something totally identifiable as a butterfly, she adds. At this point, the chrysalis has become transparent, revealing the colors and markings of the adult butterfly's wings and signaling the imminent emergence of the adult butterfly.

You can see a time lapse video of a butterfly's life cycle at It is well worth watching with children and grandchildren.

There could hardly be a better science lesson for students than harvesting a butterfly larva or chrysalis, keeping it in a protected, well-ventilated space and watching the butterfly emerge. You can also collect caterpillars and watch them become chrysalises, but be sure to provide these voracious eaters with plenty of foliage from their host plant.

Beginning a butterfly garden

Sometimes, butterfly gardens begin without a plan. Master Gardener Betty Cuthbert found herself with a yard in need of color. By chance, she noticed a bush with red and orange blooms growing nearby and transplanted it to her yard. It turned out to be a milkweed, the host plant for monarchs and queen butterflies.

Linda Lestock's senior Master Gardener project was a Power Point presentation on butterflies. Her time at the Help Desk led to time spent in the Extension Service butterfly garden, which led to more research, which led to her own butterfly garden and the designation by other Master Gardeners as the chairman of the butterfly committee.

Butterflies in search of nectar are attracted to a wide variety of flowers. Larger butterflies with longer proboscises tend to go for larger flowers, while smaller butterflies find the nectar of smaller flowers more accessible. You will want nectar plants that bloom through the summer and into fall to attract the largest number and variety of butterflies. Common nectar plants are pentas, gaillardia, indigo spire salvia, Florida blue mist, scarlet sage, tropical sage, butterfly bush and compact cultivars of weeping lantana. Any group of colorful flowers will attract butterflies, but if you want to invite them to stay around and reproduce, you will need to provide host plants.

When it comes to feeding caterpillars, they "are like picky little children," says Norma Kisida, who has had a butterfly garden at her East Bradenton home for five years, and before that in North Carolina. Each butterfly variety will eat only certain kinds of plants, and some varieties will eat only one kind of plant. And it is these plants the adult butterflies seek out to lay their eggs and ultimately feed their larvae.

For example, the monarch butterfly eats only milkweed. So once the monarch caterpillars have eaten all the foliage from one milkweed plant, they will set off in search of another. Sadly, if they don't find it, they will die of starvation.

Some plants support more than one kind of butterfly larvae. Lestock has observed zebra longwing caterpillars on passionvine (passiflora incarnate or incense) near the ground where it is relatively cool while the larvae of the Gulf fritillary feast near the top in the sun.

A list of butterfly varieties common to our area and their preferred host plants accompanies this article.

Even before choosing your plants, you will need to choose a location for your garden. Butterflies and plants will thrive in a site that gets sun most of the day. That said, Florida's summer afternoons can get too hot even for butterflies, so they will appreciate the shade of some nearby shrubbery, which can also provide a windbreak and a place to roost at night.

Once you have decided which butterflies you are most interested in attracting, you will want to buy plants that have not been treated with insecticide.

Once you have your plants, grouping them by species will ensure a thriving butterfly population. A mass of flowers is more apt to attract adult butterflies and a grouping of larval food plants will enable caterpillars to move easily to the next food source.

You may go out one morning and find that your beautiful full milkweed plant has been stripped of its leaves or your parsley has been eaten to oblivion. This is a good thing. It means your monarch, queen and giant swallowtail caterpillars are well-fed and on their way to becoming chrysalises.


Butterflies cannot drink from a river or creek or even a birdbath. You can create a watering station for them in a terra cotta saucer or other flat container. Choose a spot that gets full sun and then sink the saucer so the rim is flush with the ground. Fill it with stones or large pieces of pine bark and add water to overflowing.

Using the stones or bark chunks as landing pads, the butterflies can drink from between them but mosquito larvae will have a difficult time becoming established.

Occasionally, suggests Sprenkel, adding a small piece of over-ripe fruit, some stale beer, or a tablespoon of composted cow manure or leaf compost to the puddle will provide salts and amino acids that butterflies need.


Butterfly houses make cheerful garden accessories, but are not used by butterflies, although according to Cuthbert, wasps and bees love them.

More practical accessories include a bench, chair or stone where you can sit and enjoy your winged visitors. If your butterfly garden is large, a path would be nice as well. And whether you have planned your garden to attract one or 10 butterfly varieties, your efforts are sure to be rewarded with a front-row seat to one of nature's grandest shows.


Last modified: April 4, 2013
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