Symbols of freedom, nature and even our very souls, butterflies capture our attention with their effortless flight and perfect beauty. Butterfly gardens, however, may not be the picture-perfect garden oasis you envision, but that unkempt look is exactly what these exquisite creatures want.
The milkweed leaves are chewed around the edges… the once-lush parsley has been reduced to bald stalks… the lantana grows out of control… this describes my butterfly garden perfectly. But the unruly garden space outside my lanai attracts a profusion of butterflies, so I must be doing something right.
“People who have butterfly gardens can’t expect them to be beautiful all the time. The purpose of the host plants is to be eaten,” explains Anna Williams, a Marion County Master Gardener whose specialty is butterfly gardening. “Butterflies don’t care what the garden looks like; in fact, they prefer it not to be picture perfect.”
First-time butterfly gardeners should start with the easiest plants to grow. Williams recommends milkweed as a host plant where Monarch butterflies can lay eggs that will eventually become ravenous caterpillars. She says herbs, such as parsley and fennel, also make good host plants where Swallowtails and other butterflies will lay eggs. Just as important are the nectar-producing plants, like Zinnias, which feed the butterflies once they emerge from the chrysalis.
“The plant list provided by the county extension services is excellent,” says Williams. “We’re lucky because everything grows in Florida.”
Two types of plants are needed for successful butterfly gardening. Eggs and larva need host plants; once butterflies emerge, they need nectar-producing annuals for food. And keep it simple. Williams says butterflies like plants that are uncomplicated and make it easy to get to the nectar. Many of the newer hybrid plants do not have scents to attract butterflies or have overlapping blooms, which make it harder for the butterflies to remove the nectar. She’s personally had good luck planting Zinnias, nectar-producing plants that offer lots of color.
“A variety of plants offers you more chances to attract butterflies,” she says. “And remember, not every kind of butterfly comes every year.”
She tells of her own personal experience with her Dutchman’s Pipeline Plant that Swallowtails would eat right off the trellis in past years.
“This year, we’ve not seen one Swallowtail,” she says. “Butterflies come in cycles. Monarchs may be plentiful one year, then not so much the next.”
Most beginners, Williams believes, make the mistake of trimming the plants too often or pulling up milkweed that is missing its leaves. She tells people who want butterflies to let their gardens grow naturally. She also says be very careful about pesticides and insecticides—and not just the kind lawn services use but also common varieties that many gardeners spray around flower beds every day.
“Chemicals will destroy plants and caterpillar eggs,” she says. “If the wind is blowing when chemicals are being applied, it can ruin a plant for the butterflies.”
Williams became a certified Master Gardener with the University of Florida IFAS/Marion County Extension Service after moving to Summerfield eight years ago. She had been a Master Gardener in Virginia for five years before retiring and loved the program so much that she decided to pursue it after her arrival in Florida to learn about the plants that grow here. She began specializing in butterfly gardening six years ago and now chairs the butterfly component for the Master Gardener series.
Norma Samuel, who handles Urban Horticulture for the IFAS/Marion County Extension Service, says the Master Gardener courseis a vital part of the extension service. After completing a 13-week course, Master Gardeners commit to at least 85 hours annually of volunteer service their first year. The primary purpose is educating the public about gardening in an environmentally responsible manner.
“Our plant clinics are manned every weekday by Master Gardener volunteers,” says Samuel. “They also offer free workshops and youth programs.”
The Master Gardener orientation class is held in May, but applicants are interviewed and approved before beginning the $160 course, which runs from mid-August until mid-November.
“We want people willing to learn and then who will volunteer to give back to the community,” explains Samuel.
Successful butterfly gardening begins with education and research, according to Williams. It’s important to know which plants require sunshine and which ones grow in the shade. And it’s also fun to see which plants attract a certain species of butterflies. For example, the Anise Swallowtail likes citrus, while the Black Swallowtail prefers parsley or fennel. Monarch caterpillars eat only Milkweed.
Decide if you want to attract a specific type of butterfly, and consider the plants you need to lure them into your yard. Caterpillars—or larva—are limited to the kinds of plants they can eat. A female butterfly must lay her eggs on a particular kind of plant, because caterpillars cannot travel far, and they cannot survive if they hatch on the wrong kind of plant.
It’s also important to know which species are common to your area. Marion, Lake, Sumter and Citrus Counties are part of Region 3, according to the IFAS/Marion County Extension Service. Although 100 species of butterflies can be found throughout Florida, not all of them will visit North Central Florida, no matter how many host plants are available. Among those species common to this area are Swallowtails, Monarchs, Checkered Whites, Orange Sulfurs, Cloudless Sulfurs, American Painted Ladies, Viceroys and Gulf Fritillaries. The Extension Service provides a complete list of species and their regions.
If you need inspiration, a trip to one of Florida’s world-class butterfly houses is all it takes to catch butterfly-gardening fever. The Florida Museum of Natural History’s Butterfly Rainforest in Gainesville is a 6,400-square-foot screened exhibit containing a continuous population of more than 1,000 butterflies. The 60 to 80 species and the flowering plants change regularly, so every visit offers something new to see. When weather permits, live butterfly releases happen Monday through Friday at 2pm and on weekends at 2pm, 3pm and 4pm.
For sheer numbers, Butterfly World in Coconut Creek is a magical paradise filled with more than 10,000 swirling butterflies and exotic plants. Established in 1988, Butterfly World was the first such butterfly house in the Western Hemisphere, and it remains the largest one in the world.
“When we opened, we knew it was a huge risk,” said Founder and Owner Ron Boender. “We didn’t know if people would pay to see butterflies or not.”
Throughout its history, Butterfly World has been more than an attraction. Boender’s on-going research and butterfly farming have been instrumental in saving America’s threatened and endangered butterflies, including the Schaus Swallowtail native to the Florida Keys. In addition, Butterfly World’s “Bring Back the Butterflies” campaign has encouraged private citizens, schools and businesses to establish butterfly gardens.
In Marion County alone, Master Gardener Williams estimates there are thousands of home butterfly gardens.
“Everyone who putters in a yard likes to see butterflies,” she says. “Almost every other yard in my neighborhood has plants to attract butterflies.”
Butterflies are important pollinators, so gardens are not only beneficial to the environment but also to people who love watching them.
“Gardening is good exercise and gaining knowledge about different plants stimulates your mind,” says Williams, “but the biggest benefit is the joy and relaxation that comes as you watch these beautiful creatures flutter across your yard.”