Creating a Butterfly Garden


There are many joys living in “paradise” and watching butterflies is one of those pleasures. More than a 160 species of butterflies are seen in Florida with about 80 species in Palm Beach County, and more than 20 species have been counted at the Mount Botanical Garden. No matter what size or type of garden, you can enjoy the pleasures of watching butterflies by following simple gardening principles. You can attract butterflies galore and keep them there all year long, while enhancing and protecting Florida’s fragile environment.

Butterfly gardening creates a habitat and provides for the entire life cycle of the butterfly, from egg to adult. Although butterflies are cuter than most bugs, they are insects that belong to the Lepidoptera order. They have four distinct stages with different needs during each stage. Their complete life cycle takes one month to one year, depending on the butterfly species and geographic location. The Monarch, Gulf Fritillary and Zebra Heliconian, for example, take about a month to complete their life cycles in South Florida. Other local butterflies have broods just once or twice a year.

The first step to creating a butterfly garden is to plant the host plants for the adult female to lay her eggs. Butterflies only lay their eggs on the host plant that the butterfly species has evolved with over the millenia. Passion vines, particularly Passiflora suberosa or corksystem passion vine, are the host plants for Zebra Heliconian, Gulf Fritillary and Julia. Milkweeds are a must since they are used by Monarchs, Queens and Soldiers. The caterpillars will devour the milkweed; plant a lot and plant it in the middle of the garden bed where it will not look so unsightly. Sulphurs lay their eggs on Cassias. Senna ligustrina is a small native that is a favorite for Cloudless Sulphur and Orange-Barred Sulphur. Plant extra parsley, fennel and dill in your herb garden for the Black Swallowtail. Giant Swallowtail butterflies are probably already laying their eggs on your citrus trees. The small but showy Atala Hairstreak lays her eggs on coontie, Florida’s native cyad. If you have a a dog that likes to nibble in the garden, do not plant coontie because its red seeds are poisonous.

To know what host plants to include in your garden, look around your neighborhood and nearby natural areas to see what butterflies are flying. It will do no good to plant host plants for butterflies that do not live in your area. Review South Florida lists of hosts plants and their butterfly species to decide what to plant. Use native plants whenever possible.

Once you decide what butterflies you want to attract, plan the garden with both shady and sunny areas. A sunny area in the garden is important since butterflies need warmth, and most nectar flowers need sun. But, shade and shelter from sun, wind, rain and cold is also important. Create a garden with an understory, layering trees and shrubs with flowers at the borders. If you have an established garden, buy butterfly host plants and tuck them among other plants. Just make sure you follow the golden rule of gardening: right plant in the right place. Most importantly, plant the garden where you can view the butterflies from your house and patio. Include a bench where you can spend lots of time being in nature.

A colorful array of flowers is what most people think of as a butterfly garden. When planting flowers, make sure they have nectar, just because they are colorful does not mean they have nectar and will attract adult butterflies. Notice if there are bees and butterflies on the flowers at the nursery. Also, buy your plants from a nursery that verifies that it does not spray its butterfly plants with insecticides. Plant annuals and perennials and make sure there are nectar plants for the winter. Firebush (Hamelia pattens) is a favorite and pentas (Pentas lanceolata) add a lot of color. Natives such as scorpion tail (Heliotropium angiospermum) and butterfly sage (Corida globosa) are easy to grow and attract smaller butterflies like Cassius Blues.

Once you have created your garden, maintain it by following “Florida-friendly” practices. Pesticides, “natural” and chemical, kill all insects, including butterfly eggs, caterpillars and adults. Let beneficial insects do their work. Deadheading increases flower blooms and pruning encourages new growth that serves the caterpillars. Leave some “weeds” for the butterflies. Learn which ones are host plants, such as creeping Charlie (Phyla nodiflora) and beggar tick Desmodium species.

Remember, your garden makes a difference to our environment! Plant the right plants and you will have butterflies galore! And, beware, watching butterflies can be addicting – in a good way.