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Diggin' Florida Dirt

Butterfly-friendly plantings can add flutter to home garden

Home-grown vegetables may be all the rage but, to me, a garden without butterfly plants is like a porch without a rocking chair. When I see yellow sulphurs loop-de-looping overhead and big black swallowtails draped over the plumbagos, I forget my long to-do list and remember to enjoy the right now.

And they're so easy! I can't think of one plant in my super sunny garden that doesn't attract butterflies.

Some of us are content to leave it at that. But, as my husband likes to remind me, I'm never satisfied with just a little bit of a good thing. So I've planted cassia trees for the little sulphur caterpillars to munch and milkweed for the monarchs.

I have not, however, scoured the state for paw-paw trees to attract giant zebra swallowtails or hunted down just the right passionflower for the Gulf fritillary. I leave that to Laura Barber, my obsessed South Tampa friend, and her enthusiastic enabler, husband Steve.

It all started so innocently, Laura says.

"You see them flit in, and then they flit out. They're beautiful. I just wanted them to stay."

She'd also never witnessed the "birth" of a butterfly, that miraculous moment when it emerges, transformed, from its chrysalis. She just had to see that for herself.

So along with the bright nectar plants that invite flitters, last year she started looking for host plants — often a singular plant variety that a butterfly species chooses for laying its eggs and feeding its young. She put in fennel and parsley for the Eastern black swallowtails and wooly Dutchman's pipe for pipevine swallowtails. In some cases, that was a sacrifice; the Barbers' back yard is a symphony of photogenic blooms surrounding a centerpiece of hybrid tea roses. Some of the butterfly host plants, well, they're not much to look at.

"A lot of them look like weeds," Laura says. "Some of them are kind of ugly."

But they did their work, and soon she was seeing tiny eggs and hungry little caterpillars, which elated her.

And then, poof! The caterpillars would disappear. Which was almost worse than never having seen them at all.

She didn't get one chrysalis.

So she did some research and, to her horror, discovered her sweet garden is a Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom of vicious brutality. It harbors all kinds of catty predators, from those cute anole lizards to wasps.

She was already invested. It was time for more research.

Laura and Steve visited Shady Oak Butterfly Farm in Brooker, about 45 minutes from Gainesville (farther if you get lost, like they did). Laura was impressed with owners Edith and Stephen Smith's website, butterflyfunfacts.com. They seemed to know everything about Florida butterflies.

She learned a lot on that trip and from the book the Smiths recommended, Florida Butterfly Gardening by Marc C. and Maria Minno (University Press of Florida).

Most important, she learned how to keep little eggs and caterpillars safe from hungry predators.

The Smiths transfer both to "safe nests," containers stocked with the caterpillars' plant food. Laura found some good-sized disposable food-storage containers in her kitchen. She cut a large hole in each lid, leaving the rim to snap down over screening left over from a rain barrel project. She lines the bottom with paper towels, which she changes once or twice a day — voracious little caterpillars have busy little digestive systems.

She has four safe nests now, all on her screened patio out of direct sunlight, which the caterpillars don't like.

She has finally gotten to witness the butterfly miracle — "It's not the same to see it in photographs; it's an amazing metamorphosis" — and she's learning a lot about the different species. Monarchs, for instance, are not gentle lovers. Go figure. Plants treated with fertilizers and pesticides seem, sadly, to produce deformed butterflies. And some caterpillars, gold rim swallowtails for instance, are their own worst enemies. They have to be separated or they'll kill one another.

Call her obsessed, or call her a person who sees the value of time spent in a rocking chair on the porch. When Laura's stressed, as so many of us are these days, watching an egg become a caterpillar that curls itself into a chrysalis and then emerges, shaky and wet-winged, is tonic.

"The butterflies, they're beautiful and magical," she says. "To see butterflies emerge, it almost brings tears to my eyes.

"This busy world we're in, with networking and cell phones, sometimes I need to just stop and appreciate nature. I don't want to get religious, but a big part of it is spirituality. You see nature and it's so beyond us. You just have to surrender."

Amen, Laura.

Reach Penny Carnthan at pcarnathan@sptimes.com.

Butterfly-friendly plantings can add flutter to home garden 09/14/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:56pm]
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