Attracting wildlife by providing food, water and shelter is one of the nine principles of Florida-Friendly Landscaping. Wildlife includes frogs, lizards, snakes, bees, birds, butterflies, squirrels and more. Perhaps there are several on the list that make you a little squeamish, but who could say no to attracting butterflies?

 

Butterflies are enjoyable to watch, plus they are signs of a healthy environment. Because of their short lifespan, they are considered to be an important indicator species when things go amiss. They’re also fun and educational to watch as they magically transform from caterpillar to chrysalis (pupa) to adult butterfly. And don’t we all want more flowers and color in our landscape?

And attracting butterflies to the landscape doesn’t take a lot of effort. A butterfly garden can be as big or as small as you want to make it. Even a container of carefully chosen plants can attract butterflies by including nectar and food plants.

Here’s how to get started attracting butterflies to your landscape.

Site selection

Select a sunny site for the garden because many nectar plants need at least four to six hours of sun. Also, butterflies are cold-blooded and like to bask in the sun to warm their bodies. There are exceptions, like zebra longwing, that prefer protected, shady landscapes, so increase the diversity of butterflies in the landscape by placing the flower garden adjacent to a natural area with trees. Select a planting area where you can enjoy the garden during the day when they are active. A perfect area might be near a shady patio or a sitting area inside the home by a window.

Plant Selection

To be successful at attracting butterflies, include both adult and caterpillar food sources. If there are specific butterflies you want to attract, find out what food the caterpillars eat. Just like some children, caterpillars are picky eaters. For example, monarch and queen caterpillars feed only on milkweeds, while black swallowtail caterpillars feed on dill, fennel and parsley. Passion flower (Passiflora incarnata) is a food source for the zebra longwing when grown in the shade and the gulf fritillary in sun. American lady caterpillars feed on cudweed (Gnaphalium obtusifolium), a common weed. Fogfruit (Lippia nodiflora), a popular native groundcover, is the host plant for the Phaon crescent and buckeye caterpillars.

Trees can provide both shelter and food if you plant citrus for the giant swallowtail, tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) for the eastern tiger swallowtail, red bay for the Palamedes/laurel swallowtail, sugarberry (Celtis laevigata) for the question mark, and willow (Salix caroliniana) for the viceroy. The laurel wilt fungus has eliminated many of the red bays (Persia borbonia) in the area and will have an impact on the Palamedes swallowtail.

If caterpillars are not developing on your host plants as they have in the past, check the plants for predators, especially ants. For example, passion flower vines have extrafloral nectaries at the leaf base that produce a sweet nectar that is a favorite food source for ants. The ants feed on both the eggs and caterpillars to protect the leaves from the munching caterpillars.

When purchasing milkweed, select native species if you can find them. Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is the one most frequently sold at area nurseries. It thrives in dry sites once it’s established. The native milkweeds die back in the fall and come back from the root system in spring, sending the monarch butterflies off on their journey to Mexico. They are easy to grow from seed if you can’t find plants locally. Mexican milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) is an introduced species and is the most common milkweed available at area nurseries. This plant doesn’t die back during mild winters, so just remember to cut it back in November so the monarchs will migrate.

Most adult butterflies feed on flower nectar, and their favorite flower colors are red, orange, pink, white and yellow. Group similar colors together and select flowers of different sizes that will bloom at various times throughout the year. Butterflies like cluster flowers or large solitary flowers that provide a sturdy perch.

Some examples of good nectar plants include milkweed (Asclepias spp.), buckwheat (Eriogonum tomentosum), coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Coreopsis spp., dotted horsemint (Monarda punctata), firebush (Hamalia patens), blanket flower (Garlardia pulchella), beach sunflower (Helianthus debilis), goldenrod, impatiens, lantana (sterile or native varieties), Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium fistulosum), firespike (Odontonema strictum), penta, rudbeckia, salvia, Mexican sunflower (Tithonia canadensis), Phlox spp., plumbago (Plumbago auriculata), snow squarestem (Melanthera nivea), stoke’s aster (Stokesia laevis), ironweed (Veronica spp.), and zinnia.

Not all adult butterflies feed solely on flower nectar. Some feed on tree sap, rotting fruit like bananas, dung and rotting meat. Place rotting fruit in shallow containers, then clean containers and replace fruit weekly. To keep ants away from the fruit, place the container inside a larger container filled with water. This will create a moat to deter the ants, but the fruit is still accessible for butterflies.

Provide Shelter

Butterflies need refuge during bad weather, so provide shelter by selecting plants that have different heights and growth habits to create horizontal and vertical diversity. Planting the butterfly garden adjacent to a wooded area would serve the same purpose. This will also serve as a refuge during the winter because many butterflies spend the cooler months in various life stages tucked away in sheltered areas.

Provide Moisture

Provide puddling areas, especially during dry weather. Male butterflies form “puddle-clubs” to extract salts and amino acids from soil necessary for mating. There are several ways to create a puddling area and still conserve water. One way is to bury a shallow, plastic storage container, cover the edges with soil, fill the container with sand, and wet thoroughly. Mix in a small amount of table salt and a capful of fish emulsion fertilizer to make the area more enticing.

And finally

Last but not least, keep pesticides away from the butterfly garden. Butterflies are very sensitive to pesticides and caterpillars may die from eating plants purchased at nurseries because of past pesticide use. Ask about pesticide applications before purchasing.

For more information on butterfly gardening in Florida, go to this great resource: edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw057.