Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Butterfly Blizzard of 2013

This is our Summer of Butterflies. Never before have we had so many winged wonders flitting around our garden. It's a Butterfly Blizzard.

From sunup to sunset, zebra longwings, Gulf fritillaries, skippers, monarchs, black swallowtails, sulphurs and even giant swallowtails are busy fluttering about. I don't know why we have such a bounty this year.

Black swallowtail 
Maybe it's because our landscape is more mature now, three years after our Extreme Yard Makeover. The flowering plants are bigger and more robust, which means they pack more sweet stuff (as in nectar) than when they were smaller. More food on the buffet = more visitors to the buffet.

Maybe it's because we have deliberately planted a variety of menu choices, to attract a variety of butterflies. And we've planted foods that attract not only the adult butterflies, but their caterpillars as well. Most butterflies will sip nectar from a variety of flowers, but will only lay eggs on a few species,  sometimes only one species. The only larval plant for the monarch plant is the milkweed. The only host for zebra longwing babies is passionvine. Black swallowtails need fennel, parsley, dill or carrot tops. 
Zebra longwing caterpillar
Gulf fritillary caterpillar

Maybe back-to-back warm winters have played a role. After the Great Freeze of January 2010, we saw only a handful of zebra longwings the following two summers. Last year we saw a few more. This summer they are the most abundant species we see. There are 8-12 in our backyard at literally any time of day. They enjoy sipping on the porterweed, pentas and the wild coffee, but it is firebush they absolutely, unabashedly, passionately adore.  They hover like lovely, living Christmas ornaments around our two firebush shrubs. Their presence has been so constant we have come to think of them as part of the landscape, like our bird bath or our "sit-a-spell" bench.

Zebra longwing on porterweed
And maybe my increasing interest in plants native to Florida has something to do with our summer of success. We estimate our overall landscape is at least 60% native now (more than 70% in the backyard) and most of what we have planted attracts pollinators. Among those are Walter's viburnum, marlberry, wild coffee, anise hyssop (the bees love that as fervently as the longwings love the firebush), mistflower, wild coffee, privet cassia, goldenrod, buttonsage, cutleaf coneflower, rosinweed and Tampa vervain.  Oh, and firebush. 

Gulf fritillary on Tampa vervain
These are plants that Florida butterflies have come to recognize and depend on over the eons; they have evolved together. Of course, butterflies use many non-native plants too, such as the pentas and parsley in my garden, but the natives seem to provide a critical support system. Plus, these plants are part of our heritage as Floridians, no matter where we were born or what sort of accent we have.

It's easy to attract butterflies to your yard and there are a wealth of online resources to help you get started. Here are a  few of my favorites:

Attracting Pollinators To Your Garden Using Native Plants (U.S. Forest Service publication with beautiful illustrations)

Pollinator-Friendly Plant Guides For Your EcoRegion (online guides produced by the Pollinator Partnership)

Essentials of Building a Successful Butterfly Garden ( 

Lepcurious (Butterfly Blog from Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry)

What plants are your favorite butterfly magnets? 

Black swallowtail chrysalis


  1. Oh, Nanette, I loved this post and hearing about how many species you have going on there. We have been increasing our population of caterpillars as well by using natives. I have even been posting on Craig's List for folks to come by and get some of our cats. We educate them on the care of the cats and using natives in the garden for attracting butterflies to their own yards. The kids love it! Go native!

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    2. Daisy, what a great idea to share the butterfly love! You are so right that children especially love caring for the butterflies and watching their magical transformation to butterflies.

      My garden was on my neighborhood garden tour a few months ago and I had MANY gulf fritillary caterpillars on my passionvine to show tourgoers. I'll never forget the one lady (thankfully only one) who looked at the caterpillars and said, "That's what has been eating my passionvine. I've been killing them." Horrified, I told her I'd happily take her caterpillars, and she said no "because they are nasty and eat plants." She could not be convinced that the caterpillars would become beneficial butterfly pollinators, AND that her passionvine would bounce back in no time.

  2. We bought our house in Central Florida one year ago and I started my butterfly garden along our back retention wall. I am amazed by the variety and quantity of butterflies I have had this year. I raised them in habitats on the back porch last year but they are so abundant this year, they seem to be doing fine on their own. We made a gutter rain tank out of a plastic cube wrapped with wire my hubby found on craigslist and I planted a passionvine on it last year. It is covered this year with Gulf Fritillaries..dozens and dozens of caterpillars. I get Zebra Longwing butterflies and I see them lay eggs but I have yet to see any caterpillars. Black swallowtails, Polydamas Swallowtails, Sulphurs, sleepy orange, skippers, oleander moths, tussock moths, sphinx moths. My sweet almond bush purchased at Boktoberfest in a gallon planter (or smaller I don't even remember) towers at 10 feet along the back wall and buzzes with bees and Oleander moths all day. Cassia, pentas, agastache, pineapple sage, porterweed, and salvias are just a couple of the plants I have that attract my beauties all day long. I am addicted to planting and trying to remove my lawn little by little. Thanks for sharing about all your butterflies too!

    1. Kelly, your garden sounds blissful! You know, our Gulf fritillary "crop" occurred early this year, in April, May and June. We still have adults, but I only see an occasional caterpillar on my passionvine. Currently, the longwings, skippers and black swallowtails are our most numerous visitors. I noticed that the zebra longwing cats hide on the underside of the passionvine leaves. And the longwings prefer to lay eggs on passionvine planted in shade, so you might try that if the passionvine you now have is in full sun.I planted two passionvines in full sun and one in the shade, which is just for the longwings. Sure enough, that is where I find their caterpillars!

      Thank you for sharing the butterfly abundance in your garden. Aren't we lucky to have these beautiful visitors? I tell my husband that our yard is like a real-life nature documentary!