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Diggin' Florida Dirt: Got butterflies? Retiree finds passion in gardening for butterflies

This Eastern tiger swallowtail caterpillar’s fake eyes help deter predators.
This Eastern tiger swallowtail caterpillar’s fake eyes help deter predators.
Published Aug. 14, 2015

Have you noticed new visitors to your garden recently? I've had so many strangers swooping in, I have to take pictures and Google them to figure out who they are. I've identified Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies and zebra longwings, to name just a couple. I thought maybe their sudden appearance had something to do with all the rain.

I thought wrong.

We're at the peak of the April-through-October butterfly season, says Cynthia Harrington, a Largo resident who has written two books on her favorite topic: The Butterfly Lovers Primer and Butterfly Gardens and Raising Butterflies.

If you have any of the most common flowering perennials — hibiscus, plumbago, pentas — even weeds like Spanish needles (Bidens alba), you're likely experiencing butterfly flurries.

But you're missing the show if you're looking, or planting, only for the fourth and final act of a butterfly's life, Cynthia says. You're also short-changing yourself if you think you don't have enough room to garden for butterflies.

Cynthia and her favorite butterfly photographer, Vince DeMattia, live in a community of manufactured homes, Paradise Island. Their front yard is a small bed mulched with stones and their back yard is a narrow strip of grass about 15 by 50 feet long.

It's a certified National Wildlife Habitat.

Cynthia started gardening just five years ago, when she finally retired for good. A longtime AT&T middle-level manager, she worked day and night for decades, traveling the country to scale the corporate ladder. When a close friend died at his desk, she realized, "I'd like to live a little bit."

She brings to butterfly gardening the same tenacity, intellectual curiosity and attention to detail that helped her crack the glass ceilings at AT&T.

"Can you guess how many butterflies you've released?" I ask her.

"Let me get my calendar," she says. "Hmmm, 1,727. In March, I had 47. In April, 78."

You get the picture.

Cynthia has developed a beautifully simple technique. She has about a hundred potted plants stacked in a big pyramid in her back yard. They include the nectar plants that attract hungry butterflies, and the host plants on which different butterfly caterpillars feed.

Butterflies lay eggs on the host plants, and when the eggs hatch, Cynthia moves the caterpillars into one of seven Caterpillar Castles (from in her carport. That protects them from wasps, lizards and other predators but, more important to her, it allows her to watch them.

"The caterpillars really do have different personalities. The polydamas look like furry little bears. They're very social. When they hatch, they stay together and follow each other around," Cynthia says. "But when they become butterflies, they're itching to take off and be on their own."

Sulphur butterflies, by contrast, fly around in cheerful pairs, performing aerobatic tandem stunts like the best of friends. You'd never guess that if you saw them as caterpillars.

"They butt heads! They have a hard time even passing each other without nipping."

Most caterpillars move away from their host plants to form the chrysalises that cloak their transformation. That can become a challenging hide-and-seek game because nature does some of its best art when it comes to camouflage. Polydamas swallowtail chrysalises look just like dead leaves. Giant swallowtail cats become stubby little twigs.

When her fledgling butterflies emerge, Cynthia gently removes them from their "castle" and settles them on her chest, head or arms to rest awhile before they fly off. That forms an indelible attachment.

"When I'm in the garden, if they come back, they recognize me."

Contact Penny Carnathan at; visit her blog,; and join in the chat on Facebook, Diggin Florida Dirt.