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Plant a butterfly sanctuary

Butterfly gardens provide rest stops for migrating butterflies, and new homesteads for those wanting to settle.

By Yvonne Swanson, Special to the Times
Published May 26, 2007


If you plant them, they will come.

That's what butterfly experts are urging home gardeners, farmers, community groups, schools, parks, zoos, nature centers and golf courses - basically, anyone with land - to do to help the imperiled butterfly population. Plant butterfly-attracting plants, and the winged beauties will return.

More than 100 species of butterflies are found in Florida and more than half of the species are considered at risk, said butterfly expert Thomas C. Emmel, director of the University of Florida's McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Environmental Research in Gainesville.

Two species, the Miami Blue and the Schaus Swallowtail, are protected under federal and state endangered species lists. According to the North American Butterfly Association, the most endangered species are found in extreme South Florida and the Keys.

Overdevelopment of the natural habitat into urban and suburban sprawl, as well as agricultural and residential pesticide use, are blamed for the fluttering insect's plight. In Florida, widespread spraying for mosquitoes, hurricane damage, wildfires and even drought are contributing to the decline in butterfly habitats.

But you can help restore the butterfly population by growing just two plants in your yard: a nectar plant that attracts adult butterflies to feed and a host plant where they can lay eggs and feed even more, said Grace Boender, who with her husband, Ronald, own and operate Butterfly World, considered the largest butterfly house in the United States (

In Coconut Creek, the 10-acre sanctuary for thousands of butterflies is popular with school groups and tourists. It also serves a more altruistic purpose: to breed butterflies, educate the public and rally people to save what Grace Boender calls the "flying flowers." The Boenders have also funded the University of Florida's endangered species laboratory in Gainesville.

"One (plant) is better than none, and two are better than one . . . but the more, the merrier, " Emmel said. "It would be nice to put in 10 to 20 plants to create a mass of flowers to attract the butterflies' attention." (See the list of suggested plants.)

Other groups are also promoting butterfly conservation, including the University of Kansas, which hopes to recruit 10, 000 supporters to start migratory way stations along the monarch butterfly's breeding route, which runs from Mexico (where they winter) up through North America. A way station - a plot of land planted with butterfly-friendly plants - helps the monarchs survive and reproduce during their annual fall and spring migrations. The group's Web site,, provides details on registering as an official way station, signage and optional starter-seed kits.

"The biggest problem facing butterflies everywhere in the world is the destruction of the habitat. No matter how hungry a caterpillar gets, it will not eat concrete or steel, " said Rick Mikula, who operates a butterfly farm in Pennsylvania and is president of the International Butterfly Breeders Association ( "Everyone thinks the problem is just in Mexico (where butterflies breed in the winter), but it's in your own back yard."

Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg and a master gardener for Pinellas County.



Attracting butterflies

You can bring back the butterflies by planting just two of these plants. Select one host plant and one nectar plant. Plant even more and you're likely to attract larger numbers and more varieties of butterflies throughout the year.

"If you just plant nectar plants, butterflies will stop, take a drink and move on. But put in a host plant, and they will reproduce and stay, " expert Rick Mikula said. He recommends choosing native varieties of plants because some cultivars are lethal to butterflies, such as some passion vines native to South America. The Florida Native Plant Society, or FNPS, recommends Passiflora incarnata, lutea, multiflora and suberosa varieties of passion flower.

Milkweed is a terrific host plant, but many garden centers sell varieties that are native to the tropics and aren't beneficial to Florida butterflies. The FNPS recommends several varieties of milkweed, including Asclepias curassavica, humistrata, incarnata, longiflora and tuberosa. Shop at garden centers that specialize in native plants or have knowledgeable staff who will help you choose the right varieties.

You don't need to place the host and nectar plants next to each other in your yard, although that makes life easier for fluttering visitors, but try to locate them in a common area. Butterflies prefer a sunny spot protected from the wind. A nice touch is a water source, such as a dish or birdbath filled with sand or rocks to provide safe footing for butterflies. Keep it filled with fresh water, especially during these times of drought.

Nectar plants

These are a few plants that will attract and feed adult butterflies:

- Butterfly bush

- Lantana

- Hibiscus (especially red Turk's Cap)

- Penta (red is best; don't use dwarf because it doesn't produce nectar)

- Plumbago

- Porter weed

- Railroad vine

- Shrimp plant

- Zinnia

Host plants

Butterflies will lay eggs and feed on these plants:

- Cassia

- Coral bean

- Gaillardia

- Milkweed

- Necklace pod

- Oleander

- Passion vine (red is best)

- Pipe vine

- Verbena

Visit the Florida Native Plant Society's Web site at for more advice.

Growing your own

Here's what happens when you provide nectar and host plants in your yard for attracting and producing butterflies:

- Adult butterflies feed on nectar plants.

- They lay eggs on host plants, and caterpillars emerge in just a few days.

- The caterpillars feed on host plants (and other plants). They grow quickly and their skin is stretched so tight that it sheds, or molts. They grow and molt several times.

- Fat caterpillars attach themselves to branches or twigs, molt one last time and their skin is replaced by a stiff chrysalis or pupa.

- Inside the pupa, the caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, breaks out of the pupa and flies away.



[Last modified May 25, 2007, 13:05:42]

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