May 19, 2008

Butterfly Gardening

By Cindy Peacock, Horticulturist, Pinellas County Extension

This is the time of year butterflies are looking for fun, food and love. To attract butterflies all you need is a little space and the right plants. The space that you have can be window boxes, containers or an area in your yard. The butterfly garden should be in full sun or get at least 6 hours of sun. Most of the butterfly plants that are required need the same type of soil and amount of water.

Actually butterfly gardens are very sustainable. The plants are Florida friendly plants which don’t required large amounts of fertilizer or water and they don’t need pesticides. Butterfly gardens are conservation gardens.

red admiral butterflyIt’s important to use the right plants to attract the butterflies. In Pinellas County we have several species of butterflies that we can attract; sulfurs and whites, swallowtails, monarchs, fritillaries and longwings, buckeyes, skippers, blues, hairstreaks and many others.
Watercolor illustration of butterfly lifecycle by Lynda Chandler
Learning the life cycle of a butterfly helps you to know what kind of plants to put in your butterfly garden. The butterfly lays eggs and then the eggs hatch out into caterpillars. After the caterpillar eats for about 2 weeks it will form a pupa (chrysalis). The pupa stage is the resting and changing stage. The last stage of its life is the adult (butterfly).

For more info on the life cycle of a butterfly go to:

Adult butterflies look for a mate, and then lay eggs on a specific plant that they know their young caterpillars will feed on by chewing the leaves. This is called a larval plant. For instance, Monarch butterflies look for milkweed plants. There are many different varieties of milkweed plants. The most popular is the Asclepias curassavica species. The monarch butterfly lays her eggs on the underside of the leaves. Another example, the gulf fritillary butterfly lays eggs on passion vine. The passion vines preferred are the Passiflora incarnate and Passiflora suberosa. If the passion vine is in the shade the zebra longwing butterfly will lay eggs on the vine.

For a list of larval food plants go to:

It is important to use the information on the above mentioned web site to choose your plants so that you are attracting the butterflies native to our area.

When the caterpillars finish feeding, usually in several weeks depending on the species of butterfly, the caterpillar will form a chrysalis. The chrysalis may be formed on the plant or off the plant in a protected area away from predators. A chrysalis can be different shapes, sizes and colors. Most camouflage very well in the garden and you may not see them. You can learn to identify all the different species and the stages of their life. In the pupa stage the caterpillar is making the seemingly magical change into an adult butterfly

When the butterfly is ready to come out of the chrysalis, it will split the covering and hang upside down so that the wings will unfold and fluid pumps through the veins in the wings. They will hang for several hours before they fly off.
The newly formed butterfly looks for a nectar plant. The Butterfly has a coiled proboscis or tongue that un-coils to sip nectar from flowers. Nectar plants can be most flowering plants. There are several nectar plants that are favorites of butterflies; red pentas, tropical salvia, trailing lantana and fire bush. For a list of nectar plants go to:

If you are planting these plants in containers, remember they may need more water than in the ground because containers dry out faster.

Butterfly garden at Florida Botanical Gardens/Pinellas County ExtensionCome out to see our beautiful butterfly garden at the Pinellas County Extension / Florida Botanical Gardens. I promise this will inspire you to plant one of your own.

More information about butterfly gardening

My favorite books for butterfly identification:
Florida Butterfly Gardening by Marc C. Minno and Maria Minno
Butterfly Book by Donald and Lillian Stokes and Ernest Williams
The Life Cycles of Butterflies by Judy Burris and Wayne Richards
Peterson First Guides- Caterpillars
Peterson First Guides- Butterflies and Moths by Marc C. Minno, Jerry F. Butler and Donald W. Hall

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