Butterfly gardening is a popular hobby. Florida has about 200 butterfly species. About 167 species breed in Florida. Ten are large swallowtail butterflies. Thirteen species are migratory during winter and 13 are called Sulphur butterflies.
The five most frequent butterflies in my Central Florida, cold zone 8b–9a garden and nursery include:
1. Giant Swallowtail, Papilio cresphontes, is the largest butterfly in Florida with a wingspan of 4.5 to 5.5 inches. Below (ventral side) is creamy-yellow with a blue hindwing band. The hindwing tail has a yellow center. A strong flier, Giant Swallowtails constantly flutter their wings when sipping flower nectar with a long proboscis (tongue).
Giants lay eggs singly on the top sides of leaves of citrus family plants. The deciduous native tree Hercules Club, Zanthoxylum herculis-clava, is the best native host plant locally. The native smaller Wild Lime, Z. fagra, is an excellent host plant but is frost-tender and may die in a long hard freeze. Giants have several generations a year, but not between November and February. Caterpillars are brown, with creamy white or yellowish patches and two red defensive horns called osmeterium
2. Zebra Longwing, Heliconius charitonius — Florida’s state butterfly — has a 2.9 to 3.5 inch wingspan. Being a member of a tropical genus, Zebra Longwings migrate south; they cannot survive long freezing temperatures. In my garden, this shade-loving butterfly roosts communally at night in groves of sand live oaks. Adult longwings gather pollen and can live for several months. Zebra Longwings prefer to visit flowers in or close to shade. They have multiple generations a year, but not in winter in Central Florida. Its white caterpillars feed on passionvines, Passiflora species.
3. Gulf Fritillary, Agraulis vanilla, is a migratory species that heads south when cooler temperatures arrive and there are fewer flowers to provide nectar. Its bright orange, elongated wings are 2.5 to 3 inches. Below, the brown wings are splashed with orange and have bright silver spots. It has multiple generations a year, but not in winter in Central Florida. The yellow eggs are laid singly on deciduous passionvines. In Jane’s Garden, the most reliable passiflora that returns after winter from underground roots and stems is the sterile hybrid named ‘Incense’. This hybrid has beautiful deep purple flowers and re-emerges about April when the Gulf Fritillary butterflies return to breed.
4. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio glaucus, is a large butterfly with a wingspan of 3.5 to 5.5 inches. It is yellow above with wide black wing trailing edges, black forewing stripes and one row of yellow spots along the outer wing edge. Underneath, wings are yellow with black stripes and wing edges have crescent-shaped yellow spots. Sexes may not look similar, but some females are black with blue hindwing markings. Males often gather at puddles or on moist soil to get minerals. Plant its host plants: Wild Cherry, Prunus serotina; Ash, Fraxinus species; and Sweet Bay, Magnolia virginiana. Adult females lay their green eggs singly on the topsides of young host plant leaves.
5. Six Sulphur butterflies breed in my Central Florida garden where there are host plants for each species’ caterpillars. According to Marc Minno’s comprehensive book, “Florida Butterfly Caterpillars and their Host Plants,” 13 sulphur species breed in Florida. Cloudless Sulphur is the largest, with a wingspan of 2.2 to 2.8 inches. Females lay eggs singly on leaves and flower buds of Partridge and Sensitive Pea plants as well as native and introduced senna and cassia species. Masses of northern-born Cloudless Sulphurs migrate south to Florida in fall.
Homeowners who cultivate host and nectar plants will be rewarded with beautiful butterflies in their gardens. Marc Minno’s excellent book has pictures of 167 caterpillars, 185 host plants, 18 lifecycles and 19 habitats.
Jane Weber is a professional gardener and consultant. Semi-retired, she grows thousands of native plants. Contact her at email@example.com or phone 352-249-6899.