Kim Frisbie column on the best native plants for attracting butterflies.
Spring is around the corner and it’s time to start looking for butterflies in your gardens.
If you haven’t seen any lately, maybe you need to rethink what you have planted. Butterflies need host plants on which to lay their eggs and feed their larvae (caterpillars), and the adults need nectar plants.
Without the host plants, no matter how many nectar-producing ornamentals you have, you won’t be able to produce butterflies. So, you need to know what host plants you need for the butterflies you are trying to attract.
Most of you know to plant Asclepias species (milkweed) to attract monarchs — and you are basically guaranteed to have butterflies within a few weeks if you buy plants with caterpillars already feeding. But there are so many other fantastic butterflies out there!
Here are some native host plants that will bring a myriad of butterflies to your gardens.
Limber caper (Cynophalla flexuosa) is a great small shrub or high-climbing woody vine with fragrant pink to white starburst flowers followed by green capsular fruit that splits open to expose white seeds in a bright scarlet pulp. Salt- and drought-tolerant, this likes full sun and is not particular as to soil. Birds love the seeds and this is the larval host for the lovely Florida white and great Southern white butterflies.
Gumbo limbo (Bursera simaruba) is a fabulous medium-sized tree and the host plant to the beautiful dingy purplewing. Its fruits are eaten by numerous birds, especially kingbirds and flycatchers. The shiny coppery peeling bark is stunning year-round and the small white flowers in winter attract a wide assortment of pollinators.
Locustberry (Byrsonima lucida) is a large shrub or small tree to 16 feet that is host to the Florida duskywing. The flowers open white, changing to yellow or rose after several days and are magnets for a wide variety of insect pollinators. The dense foliage provides good coverage for birds, who also love the fruit. Salt- and drought-tolerant and not particular as to soil, this is great in a mixed landscape planting.
Pineland croton (Croton linearis) is a terrific native shrub growing to 4 feet, and is the larval host of two of Florida’s most unique butterflies: Florida leafwing and Bartram’s scrub hairstreak. This latter butterfly is a fabulous gray with white dots and streaks and orange blotches; the caterpillar is a golden yellow.
Pineland croton is a lovely airy plant with narrow silvery green foliage. Highly drought-tolerant, this thrives in sun or part shade; its numerous white flowers provide nectar for the baracoa skipper, cassius blue, and Florida duskywing. This is a must for any butterfly garden!
Florida firebush (Hamelia patens) is one of the best plants you can find for attracting butterflies, birds, hummingbirds and a variety of pollinators; it is the larval host of the Pluto sphinx and tersa sphinx moths. This can be kept as a shrub or allowed to grow to a small tree of 16 feet. The stunning reddish orange tubular flowers provide a constant source of nectar for visiting hummingbirds and insects, attracting warblers, vireos, flycatchers and gnatcatchers, while songbirds arrive to feast on the fleshy purple fruits.
Buttonsage (Lantana involucrata) is the only Florida native lantana that should be cultivated; the other species you often find at Home Depot are considered invasives. The yellow-centered white flowers are tinged with rose, and are arranged in tight clusters, providing a lovely ornamental display. These are a favorite and important nectar source for hummingbirds and butterflies. Plant them with saw palmettos (host for the palmetto skipper and monk skipper) and coonties (host for the rare and stunning Atela butterfly).
Wild tamarind (Lysiloma latisiliquum) is an impressive spreading tree to 40 feet, and the larval host of the large orange sulphur, the mimosa yellow and cassius blue butterflies, as well as to several species of small moths, which attract warblers and other insect-eating birds.
Bahama senna (Senna Mexicana var Chapmanii), is one of my favorite shrubs. This is truly drought- and salt-tolerant, living happily on my bulkhead where it is repeatedly buffeted by salt air and seaspray, and is never watered. And it’s always covered with sparkling yellow flowers, which bring in a never-ending stream of butterflies and skippers.
It is the host plant for the cloudless sulphur, the orange barred sulphur, and sleepy orange butterflies. One of the all-time great butterfly plants.
Bay cedar (Suriana maritima) is another often-overlooked plant that makes a stunning addition to any garden, and is the larval host to the martial hairstreak, a beautiful gray-blue butterfly with orange blotches. This is salt- and drought-tolerant, inhabiting beach dunes in the wild. It rows to 6 feet but can be pruned to a lower height, and its beautiful yellow flowers attract numerous butterflies and pollinators.
There are also great vines for attracting and growing butterflies: spurred butterfly pea (Centrosema virginianum) is rarely used but should be sought out for its year-round pale violet to rich pink flowers and adaptable nature. It loosely twines or simply rests on whatever is available, adding color to any green hedge or screen. It is the larval host to the longtail skipper and the Durantes longtail butterfly, both with stunning iridescent blue markings.
Maypop (Passiflora incarnata) is another wonderful vine that is host to the delightful zebra longwing, Julia, and Gulf fritillary and variegated fritillary butterflies. This is Florida’s showiest native passionflower; not only is it elaborately ornate, it is wonderfully fragrant as well. Plant it along with corkystem passionflower (Passiflora suberosa), and you will have so many zebra heliconium butterflies you won’t be able to count them all! You also need nectar plants so I’ll just list several to give you some ideas: Coreopsis, blanketflower, beach verbena, dune sunflower, black-eyed Susan), climbing aster, and golden aster will provide glorious color and plenty of nectar for your visiting butterflies.
These are just a few ideas of native plants to get you started. None of them needs pesticides or chemicals of any kind — so don’t spray anything near them or you’ll kill the larvae and won’t have any butterflies at all. I was biking to a lecture at the Four Arts last week in a 20-knot breeze when I rounded the corner and was blasted by a technician from Island Environmental spraying for whitefly.
The wind was behind him and he was outfitted in full hazmat gear — gas masks, gloves, the works. He didn’t bother to turn off his spray when he saw me, so I got the full benefit of the treatment, which was missing the hedge entirely, and instead coating all the cars on the other side of the street due to the wind. He was not apologetic when I stopped to ask him WHAT he was thinking by spraying under those conditions.
The bottom line is that there is no recourse for regular citizens when these “environmental” outfits are out blanketing our island with chemicals. It is up to us to assess our own landscapes and determine whether we actually need these treatments on a regular basis, if at all. If we cut out half the chemicals, we’d have cleaner air, water, and soil — and a whole lot more birds and butterflies!
Powered by WPeMatico