Planting a butterfly garden is a great way to beautify your yard and help attract many of the different butterflies found in Florida. Most butterfly gardens are also a magnet for hummingbirds and beneficial insects. A productive butterfly garden does not require a large land area—even a few key plants can make a huge impact.
Whether confined to a patio container or sprawled over several acres, a butterfly garden can be as simple or as complex as you wish to make it. The same basic concepts apply, regardless of the size. The most important thing to understand is that different butterfly species have different requirements, and these requirements change throughout their life cycles. A well-planned butterfly garden should appeal to many different butterflies and also cater to both the adults and their larvae (caterpillars). Proper garden design and choice of plants are essential. Such decisions will help influence which butterflies are attracted, remain in the area, and reproduce there.
The total butterfly garden takes into account the food preferences of both adult butterflies and their larvae (caterpillars). Most adult butterflies feed on flower nectar and will be attracted to a wide variety of different flowers. Their larvae (caterpillars), though, rely on specific plants called host plants for food and are often greatly limited in the number of plants on which they can feed. Host plants may also provide shelter, camouflage, chemicals used for protection, courtship, and reproduction. It is not necessary to include larval host plants to attract butterflies, but adults tend to stay fairly close to the areas where their larval food plants can be found.
All of this requires planning. There are a few basic rules to follow. You can be as creative as you wish, but you must start with a plan that considers the requirements of the butterflies you wish to attract and the plants you will use to lure them.
Butterfly gardening is an exacting (not difficult) pursuit and must be based on butterfly preferences—not human ones. Luckily, butterfly and human favorites are mostly compatible.
Butterfly Facts and Biology
There are more than 765 species of butterflies found in North America north of Mexico. Florida boasts over 180 verified butterfly species representing some 170 native or newly established species and 17 tropical vagrants. Within that mix, around 40 are considered either unique to the state or occur mostly within its boundaries. This diverse butterfly fauna is the highest of any state east of the Mississippi River and helps make Florida a premier location for butterfly gardeners.
All butterflies have a life cycle consisting of four distinct stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult. Female butterflies lay their eggs on or near an appropriate larval host plant. The eggs typically hatch within a few days and the small larvae begin to feed. Butterfly larvae have enormous appetites and grow rapidly. To accommodate the change in proportions, each larva will molt or shed its skin several times. The appearance of the larva may change after each molt. When fully grown, the larva seeks a sheltered place. It typically attaches itself with silk to a leaf or twig and it molts for the last time into the pupa. During this stage, the once worm-like caterpillar transforms into a winged adult.
Adult Butterfly Resources
Most adult butterflies found in Florida rely on flower nectar for food. While many tend to be attracted to a variety of available brightly colored blossoms, different butterfly species have distinct color preferences, feeding behaviors, and proboscis lengths. (The butterfly's proboscis is like a long coiled straw used to sip liquid nectar from flowers.) These factors help determine which flowers a butterfly visits. As a rule, small butterflies nectar from small flowers and large butterflies nectar from larger ones. Some butterflies flutter like a hummingbird while feeding, pausing only briefly at each flower. They can often gain access to nectar in long tubular blossoms. Others rest for some time on each blossom. A wide mix of flower colors, shapes, and sizes provides appealing and accessible food to a greater number of butterfly species. It also makes your garden more eye-catching.
Adults of some butterfly species rarely or never visit flowers. They feed instead on tree sap, or the fermenting juices from rotting fruit or plant material, animal dung (droppings), and dead animal remains.
Larval (caterpillar) host plants are also key ingredients to any well-designed butterfly garden. They are often not as showy as nectar plants, nor are they even necessary to attract adult butterflies. But a garden without larval host plants ignores the requirements of the butterfly's life cycle. While nectar plants invite butterflies into your garden, host plants offer them a reason to stay and reproduce.
Unlike nectar plants though, larval host plants must be tailored to individual butterfly species. So, unless you have acres of land at your disposal, you will need to be selective in your plant choice. Remember also that larval host plants are meant to be eaten. You will see damaged leaves or even some plants that are completely defoliated. Keep in mind that this is a good thing. It means that your butterfly garden is being productive. Within no time, most plants will recover and soon be able to support new larvae. Lastly, don't forget that butterfly larvae feed exclusively on their host plants. They will not cause damage to other landscape plants or become horrible garden pests.
Be careful when buying larval host plants as many nurseries use pesticides. These chemicals can be deadly to butterfly larvae. When in doubt, always ask if the plants you wish to purchase have been treated with pesticides. Similarly, be very careful when using pesticides in your garden. If you must use chemicals to control pest insects, use them sparingly and only treat the infected plant.
Planning Your Garden
Planting a productive butterfly garden is not hard, but it does require proper planning and a little basic research. Although Florida boasts over 180 different butterflies, you can't attract species that do not naturally occur in your region, nor can you grow plants that aren't adapted to the soils and climate in your region. To help get started, follow these easy steps to plan your garden.
Your Butterfly Region Map
Look at the map provided (Figure 1) and determine the region in which you live.
Your Butterfly Region Table(s)
Then, look for your region in the Florida butterflies tables (Tables 1–6), highlight the species that occur in your area, and use habitats that can be found within 1/4 mile of the site you are considering for your butterfly garden.
Butterfly nectar plants by region. Table 7 lists butterfly nectar plants for North and Central Florida (regions 1–4). Table 8 lists butterfly nectar plants for South Florida (regions 5–7).
Keys to Using the Tables
Determine the larval and adult foods for each species from the tables. Butterflies tend to stay fairly close to the areas where their natural larval food plants can be found.
The "flight season" indicates the months when the adults are active.
Note: If you are not interested in trying to attract the greatest variety of butterflies, you can select plants from the butterfly nectar sources listed at the end of this publication. This approach will help you to create a beautiful garden that also is appealing to some butterfly species.
Keys to the Tables
Table 1. Swallowtails (Family Papilionidae)
Table 2. Whites and Sulphurs (Family Pieridae)
Table 3. Gossamer-wing Butterflies (Family Lycaenidae)
Table 4. Metalmark Butterflies (Family Riodinidae)
Table 5. Brush-footed Butterflies (Family Nymphalidae)
Table 6. Skippers (Family Hesperiidae)
Table 7. Butterfly Nectar Plants. North and Central Florida: Regions 1–4.
Table 8. Butterfly Nectar Plants. South Florida: Regions 5–7.
Allen, T. J., Brock, J. P. and J. Glassberg. 2005. Caterpillars in the Field and Garden: A Field Guide to Butterfly Caterpillars of North America. Oxford University Press, 240 pp.
Cech, R. and G. Tudor. 2007. Butterflies of the East Coast: An Observer's Guide. Princeton University Press. 360 pp.
Daniels, J.C. 2000. Your Florida Guide to Butterfly Gardening: A Guide for the Deep South. University Press of Florida, Gainesville. 104 pp.
Daniels, J. C. 2003. Butterflies of Florida Field Guide. Adventure Publications, Cambridge, Minnesota. 250 pp.
Gerberg, E. J., and R. H. Arnett, Jr. 1989. Florida Butterflies. Natural Science Publications, Inc., Baltimore. 90 pp.
Glassberg, J., Minno, M. C. and J. V. Calhoun. 2000. Butterflies through Binoculars: A Field, Finding, and Gardening Guide to Butterflies in Florida. Oxford University Press. 256 pp.
Minno, M. C., Butler, J. F. and D. W. Hall. 2005. Florida Butterfly Caterpillars and Their Host Plants. University Press of Florida, Gainesville. 341 pp.
Minno, M. C. and M. Minno. 1999. Florida Butterfly Gardening: A Complete Guide to Attracting, Identifying, and Enjoying Butterflies. University Press of Florida, Gainesville. 224 pp.
Swallowtails (Family Papilionidae)
Whites and Sulphurs (Family Pieridae)
Gossamer-wing Butterflies (Family Lycaenidae)
Metalmark Butterflies (Family Riodinidae)
Brush-footed Butterflies (Family Nymphalidae)
Skippers (Family Hesperiidae)
Native Butterfly Nectar Plants. North and Central Florida: Regions 1-4.
Native Butterfly Nectar Plants. South Florida: Regions 5-7.