5 Essential Host Plants for the Florida Butterfly Garden
Starting a Butterfly Garden in Florida
Gardening is a simple joy held in high regard to many people. If you are looking to start a garden or expand your garden, why not start a butterfly garden? They are easy to maintain, bring color and joy to your life, and help the environment. It's a win-win-win, right?
If you live in Florida, starting your own butterfly garden is easy and will bring life to your yard in no time! When I first started my butterfly garden, I planted a few host plants and within a week's time butterflies were racing through my yard and all around my house. If you have kids, having a butterfly garden will entertain them in the spring and summer months, but it will also be educational. They can see a butterfly from all stages of life - they will see the eggs laid, the larva stage where the egg turns into a caterpillar, the caterpillar cocoon itself into its pupa stage, and then the adult butterfly emerge. You can't get this kind of a lesson in such detail and personal experience in a normal classroom.
What is a host plant? A host plant is any plant on which a butterfly will lay its eggs and of which the caterpillars will feed from until the pupa stage (cocoon). Butterflies can smell a host plant from a mile away. Once you put these host plants in your garden, you will see a large amount of butterflies. To keep the butterflies returning to your garden, keep one or more of these host plants around.
1. Milkweed for Monarchs
If you go to any nursery, at least any knowledgeable nursery, and ask what plants will attract butterflies, you'll almost always here milkweed mentioned at the top of the list. Milkweed is a native weed to the state of Florida, which means that it is easy to grow in full sun to some shade. Watering once or twice a week (if it doesn't rain) is about all it really needs. But the most wonderful thing about milkweed? It is a host plant for the iconic, beautiful monarch butterfly.
Within a week of adding milkweed to my Florida butterfly garden, we saw an influx of monarchs. You might notice little orange specks on the leaves or stem of the milkweed - these are the eggs. Pretty soon, you'll see yellow, black, and white striped caterpillars crawling on your milkweed and munching away! Sometimes your milkweed may look torn up and pathetic, don't worry! Once you notice the caterpillars are gone, you can cut back the plant and it will re-grow to a healthy state for another batch of monarch caterpillars to come into the world.
A Tip on Milkweed:
Yellow/orange specks (eggs) with legs are not monarch caterpillars, though they look similar, they are aphids. You can pick them off of your milkweed to prevent this pest from taking over.
2. Pipe Vine for Pipevine Swallowtails
Looking to see large, beautiful swallowtail butterflies in your garden? Grow pipe vine to attract the pipe vine swallowtail. Pipe vine, also known as Dutchman's pipe and birthwort, grows easily in the Floridian climate and is a native. It needs lots of sunshine and regular amounts of water. It is a climbing vine, so you'll need a place where the vine can climb such as a fence or trellis. The flowers are odd-looking, almost alien-like, and can usually be seen hiding behind the large green leaves.
The pipevine swallowtail, also known as the blue swallowtail, is a large, native butterfly but also can be found as far north as New England. They are beautiful black butterflies that have a blue shade to their wings. The caterpillars are just as big as the butterflies! They are usually orange or red in color and get to be quite large. You'll notice them right away once the eggs hatch! These caterpillars are voracious eaters, so be prepared to see your pipe vine get torn apart. It is wisest to provide more than one pipe vine for these little guys to feast on. Don't worry, your pipe vine will re-grow.
3. Passion Vine for Passion Butterflies & More!
Perhaps my most favorite host plant, and favorite plant in general, is the passion vine. Other names for the passion vine include - passion flower, passiflora, and maypop (which is a specific purple species of the plant). The passion vine's blooms are beautiful and unique to this plant (see the photo below). The colors range from red to purple and more, except you'll want a specific kind of passion vine to attract butterflies. The maypop, a purple version, is a host plant for gulf fritillary butterflies, and other purple species. Keep in mind the red passion flower is not a host plant and will not attract the gulf fritillary butterfly to your garden. The passion vine also produces passion fruit, though the taste varies from one species to the next.
The gulf fritillary butterfly, also known as the passion butterfly, will lay its eggs on the maypop passion vine. The passion caterpillars are small and dark orange with black spikes. You will notice them eating on the passion vine; however, the passion vine has special defense mechanisms against being devoured and so you'll never notice your passion vine being "eaten to the ground". Keep the passion vine in a sunny to mostly sunny place in your yard and give it something to climb (a fence or trellis). In addition to the gulf fritillary butterfly hosting on maypop, the zebra longwing and julia butterflies do, too! The maypop blooms also attract fat, happy bumblebees in the summer!
On Passion Vines:
NOTE: you may also notice fat, happy bumblebees buzzing around your maypop passion vine!
4. Cassia for Sulphur Butterflies
If you'd like to attract pretty yellow and orange butterflies, cassia is one host plant you'll want to add to your garden. It is considered a bush or shrub and can grow to be between 3 and 5 feet tall. The yellow blooms are a beautiful accent to your yard or garden and open in the fall when other flowers might not be blooming. The two most popular forms in Florida are the candlestick bush and butterfly bush. These plants are also called senna. They need lots of sun and well drained soil, and if there's a heavy frost should be covered or brought inside (if in container).
This beautiful bush attracts and is the host plant to three native Florida butterflies - the cloudless sulphur butterfly, sleepy orange butterfly, and the orange-barred sulphur butterfly. These butterflies sometimes blend right into the yellow blooms!
5. False Nettle
If you're looking to be adventurous, try growing false nettle in your yard or garden. This plant is a cousin of the stinging nettle, but the good thing is...it won't sting! It is a perennial and will attract and host the red admiral butterfly (a black, orange, and white butterfly). It can reach a height of 2 to 3 feet and it's flowers aren't as attractive as the other plants mentioned above, but when you notice red admiral butterflies congregating around it, you won't mind! The red admiral caterpillars are usually black with spikes and are about one inch in length. This butterfly can be seen usually between March and August, then it over-winters in Texas.
This plant needs a good amount of sun, but it is a wetland plant which means it needs moist soil. Keep it somewhere where your sprinklers will hit it, and during the drought season you'll want to water it regularly.
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