Winter Butterfly Magic

  There have been amazing numbers of butterflies in our yard lately.  Yet winter in Florida can be highly variable weather wise.  There can be stretches of very warm temperatures and blue skies interrupted by periodic cold fronts that punish the beach goers and green vegetation with cold, even freezing temperatures, and strong northerly winds. Thus one would hardly think that seemingly fragile creatures such as butterflies could thrive under such conditions.  Yet they do so and brighten our gardens with their flamboyant colors and active behavior.  Here are a few winter examples of these "flying flowers" that bring so much joy into our lives, with minimal effort on our part in providing sources of nectar and larval food.



The zebra butterfly is one of the passionvine specialists that requires this vine for its caterpillars.  I provide this with the native corky stemmed passionvine which grows in abundance from seeds dropped by birds which eat the fruit.  One only has to let the vines grow up into trees to provide protection for the caterpillars from ants.  This zebra is sipping nectar from a native privet which has tiny but numerous flowers that are highly attractive to butterflies and other insects.


The native great southern white butterfly can be confused with the exotic cabbage white, but lacks the dark spots and has distinctive light blue tips on the antennae.  A common local food for caterpillars is salt wort and they obtain nectar from many plants, in this case an exotic Jamaican porterweed.  Since native flowers to supply nectar are rare in winter, provision of non-invasive exotics is critical in attracting winter butterflies.  The penta is another exotic that is very attractive to winter butterflies.  It is interesting to observe the behavior of butterflies when weather is cooler since they are dependent on maintaining a warm body temperature for flight.  Great southern whites bask by holding their white wings at an angle, reflecting the warm sun onto their dark body.  


The well named sulphur butterflies are spectacular but fly quite fast and are difficult to observe closely.  I caught this cloudless sulphur in a brief moment of repose.  It is interesting that their larval food plant, the cassia or senna, has bright yellow flowers similar in color to the butterfly and the caterpillar.  


One of my special favorites are the buckeyes, since there are two similar species in Florida that are challenging to identify.  Since I am often close to salt water I encounter the mangrove buckeye which is the much rarer species.  Compare it with the far more abundant and widely spread common buckeye.  Can you see any differences?  Look at the relative sizes of the two eye-spots in the hindwings- notice that in the mangrove that the relative difference in size is much less than in the common species.  You may also notice that there is less white around the main eye-spot in the forewing of the mangrove buckeye.  These two sibling species have only relatively recently separated in evolutionary terms and give a nice example of a speciation event based on utilization of a specialized coastal habitat.


Finally I always enjoy seeing the common white peacock butterfly in areas where there is some damp ground which supports growth of the larval food which is a low growing plant named Bacopa.  These butterflies often alight and spread their wings, likely raising their body temperatures, but also showing off their subtle but beautiful coloration.


Who can fail to enjoy butterflies despite the fact that their caterpillars may eat a prized plant.  Actually a sign of the changing views on gardening is that many people brag about how many caterpillars they have on plants that were specifically grown to attract butterfly reproduction.  It is wise to manage your "herd" of caterpillars by transferring some of them elsewhere so that they do not eat up all the plant's leaves before the caterpillars pupate.  


Bill Dunson 
Englewood, FL, and Galax, VA