Natural Attraction

By staff March 1, 2005

Monarch, gulf fritillary, swallowtail, cloudless yellow and sleepy orange are a few of the delicate butterflies that dance, pirouette, twirl, whirl and delight the youngsters who attend Earth Angels, a holistic preschool on Siesta Key run by Karen Leonetti.

A nature lover, Leonetti grows a variety of butterfly plants ranging from herbs to flowers and vines to give her students a small window into the wonders of the environment. "The butterflies gravitate towards dill and parsley to lay their eggs," says Leonetti, "and they visit both fragrant and scentless flowers of all colors, including white."

The next time you see a female butterfly, chances are she is looking for more than a little nectar. Butterflies, members of the scientific order Lepidoptera, lay their eggs directly on the annuals, perennials and trees that will nourish future larvae. While some butterflies do not feed at all (they simply mate, lay their eggs and die), others feast on a wide variety of flowers and shrubs.

Butterfly gardens are an easy way to see more of the winged wonders and to contribute towards their conservation, since so many natural butterfly habitats have been lost to urbanization. About 100 of the 760 butterfly species that occur in North America can be found in Florida, and it's easy to coax them with the right flowers. Like proud parents, butterfly gardeners raise plants for food as well as reproduction by learning about the species that favor their area, says Barbara Feinberg, who 12 years ago created the lush, colorful butterfly garden at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens and volunteers hours every week to its upkeep.

"Butterfly gardens are known not only for their beauty but for their therapeutic qualities as well," says Feinberg. "The beautiful one at Hospice was established to provide the family of patients with a soothing moment and solace."

As Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, "Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you."


Like most insects, butterflies are nearsighted, and so are more attracted to large stands of a particular flower than those planted singly. They favor simple, brightly colored flowers that are wide enough for good perching platforms.

Because different species of butterflies have different nectar preferences, planting a wide assortment of flowers is preferable. Butterflies burn a lot of energy; staggering wild and cultivated plants, as well as blooming times of the day and year, promotes a greater diversity of visitor.

Butterflies' tiny tongues are not usually long enough to reach the nectar at the base of long or large flowers. They favor small flowers or florets in flat, round or elongated clusters like penta and lantana, which bear hundreds of lavender, red, pink or white flowers; or blazing stars with dense spikes of purple, magenta, or white flowers that open from the top down. Milkweed and firebush are also among the favorites.

As a rule, the size of the butterfly dictates its feeding preferences; small butterflies feed on small flowers and larger ones on nectar from more sizeable blooms. Flowers that produce the most scent generally furnish the most nectar. The scent needn't be sweet; adults of some butterfly species rarely visit flowers but instead are attracted to aphids, manure, rotting fruit, mud or tree sap.

Butterflies will readily bask in the warm sun, but few are seen on cloudy days. Allow for some open areas where they can sun themselves, as well as partly shady areas like trees or shrubs for them to hide when it's cloudy or cool off if it is very hot.

Butterflies also like puddles, and males of several species can often be seen congregating at small rain pools where they form what are called puddle clubs. Permanent puddles are very easy to make by burying a bucket to the rim, filling it with gravel or sand, and then pouring in liquids such as stale beer, sweet drinks or water.

"If you must use insecticides," Feinberg cautions, "use them sparingly, as they are just as deadly to butterflies as they are to other insects."

BUTTERFLY MAGNETS: To lure butterflies to your garden, try planting black-eyed Susan, milkweed, coreopsis, day lily, goldenrod, hibiscus, marigold, purple coneflower, rosemary, dill, verbena, phlox, zinnias, marigolds, daisies, thistles, butterfly bush, Mexican sunflower, yellow cosmos and candle bush. Flowers in the composite family, such as daisies and asters, and flowers that grow in clusters, such as milkweed and viburnum, are also recommended.

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