The Butterfly Place
By Tom Allen, Contributing Editor
You never know what retirement might bring. When I retired as a wildlife biologist 4 years ago, I knew my life with nature was far from over. I moved from Bridgeport, West Virginia to Cape Coral, Florida, where I bought a house, along with the two adjoining lots.
I've always loved animals and insects, and I couldn't wait to turn my new space into a butterfly garden and wildlife habitat. I had also been learning about native plants in South Florida and wanted to use natives in my garden as well.
Today, my neighbors call my backyard the butterfly place, and they're amazed. In fact, some of them have even asked me what they should plant so they can lure some of my regular visitors, like the male orange-barred sulphur, to their yards.
I'm always happy to help. After all, it's really not that difficult to get started. I remember what it's like to start from scratch. You just begin planting, adding one thing at a time.
Southern Florida is unique in many ways. We have a monsoon climate with a dry season extending from November through May, and a wet season that runs from June to November.
Many people move here for the semitropical environment. It's common to see bold and beautiful tropical plants throughout the area. However, when it comes to butterfly gardening, going native is usually the best bet.
As I became acquainted with the area's butterflies, I began to design my habitat using plants that would attract the species I wanted. The native plants were my best choice because the local butterflies would recognize them and they require less care.
Relief from the Heat
Since Florida is hot in summer, I knew I needed some large trees to encourage shade-loving butterflies. I planted a live oak, two laurel oaks, a gumbo limbo and a sugar hackberry. The oaks serve as host plants for skippers and hairstreaks, while the gumbo-limbo and hackberry are good host trees for southern butterflies like the widespread hackberry butterfly.
Beneath these trees, I planted shade-loving plants I knew butterflies would love. Gulf fritillaries, zebra long-wings (above) and Julia heliconians are frequent visitors to my passionvines.
In the open areas of my yard, I chose smaller host trees to attract even more butterflies. For example, wild limes attract giant swallowtails, and sweet acacias bring in small blues and many others. These beautiful blooming flowers also serve as a nectar source for flying flowers, and no butterfly garden-or any garden, for that matter-is complete without them.
Many non-native plants are also strong attractors of butterflies, and for these colorful blooms, I sometimes make exceptions to my native plants rule. While I practice native gardening as much as I can, a little variance is sometimes necessary to get what you want in your yard.
The secret to any successful butterfly garden is to provide host plants and other blooms for daily food. Since monarchs are year-round inhabitants in South Florida, I have tropical milkweed in all the beds. This is their host plant, and as a bonus, it usually seeds itself, too.
Climbing my trees and fences are milkweed vines, which also attract queens and soldiers. Both of these butterflies are close relatives to the monarch and are welcome additions to my garden.
To keep my flying flowers happy, I also have mist flower (a type of Ageratum) scattered throughout my yard. Queens and soldiers love this plant. On any given day, I can go out in my yard and see upwards of 20 or more monarchs, queens and soldiers.
Small trees and shrubs for my butterflies dot the flower beds as well. Leadwort (below), or blue plumbago, has beautiful blue flowers on which the cassius blue caterpillar feeds. This is another non-native plant, though I also have the white-flowered native species in my yard. I've noticed that the butterflies seem to prefer the blue flowers to the white ones.
Bahama cassia and privet cassia offer nice clusters of yellow flowers and attract the cloudless sulphur, a species that will invade northern states in favorable years.
One of my favorite butterflies is the orange-barred sulphur, which comes to my dwarf species of tree senna. I also love swallowtails, and for these beauties, I have three different pipevine species along my fence to attract the polydamus or gold-rim swallowtails.
In my small vegetable garden, I grow fennel, dill, parsley and carrots for the black swallowtails that come through twice a year. As for weeds, I let them grow along the edges, especially the mustards and peppergrass, because they bring in the great southern whites.
Another good weed for butterflies is frogfruit (Phyla nodiflora). It's a spreading weed that has small, pretty pink flowers that serve as a nectar source. In addition, it's also a host plant for the phaon crescent and white peacock, both common in my area.
My yard is on the National Wildlife Registry for wildlife habitats, and I do enjoy lots of other visitors in my garden. Among the critters, I have two gopher tortoises and three box turtles that are regulars.
I also enjoy watching the gray squirrels chase each other among the oaks, and my screech-owl family as they sun themselves in the entrance of their box. And, of course, there are plenty of birds around, feeding their young, singing and visiting the feeders.
My next project is to build a small pond for all my tenants, but for now, I'll just enjoy my nature retreat. To me, it's the perfect place to relax and forget the rush of everyday life. On a typical day, I can walk out to the garden, take in the sun and watch nature at its best.