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Brandon News

Larval plants increase your garden's butterfly population

Published:   |   Updated: May 15, 2013 at 08:31 AM

Planting nectar flowers will bring butterflies to your yard, but larval or host plants will entice them to stay and lay their eggs.

Butterflies take nectar from many kinds of flowers, but each one has very specific needs for its eggs and larvae, or caterpillars. And for these the flowers are not as important as the leaves and even the stems.

Last week's pick was the milkweed plant, because it's both a nectar plant for many butterflies and a larva plant for monarchs. Ten monarch caterpillars will eat all the leaves off two or three plants a day. Most nurseries in Brandon keep a good supply.

Monarch caterpillars will eat any kind of milkweed, including the kind that grows in ditches in Iowa and the giant milkweed that grows around here. But you can't always find these.

Milkweed also feeds the caterpillar of the queen butterfly, which is also orange with black edging. Its caterpillars, eggs and chrysalises are very similar to monarchs'.

A friend told me a man was standing in line to pay for his plants recently when he noticed a plant the woman in front of him was clutching. He tapped her on the shoulder and said, “That plant has worms on it.” She told him that was why she was buying it, since those “worms” were monarch caterpillars.

People with butterfly gardens are delighted to find their plants eaten away. In almost every case, the caterpillars move on and the plants come back quickly.

The exception is pipevine. I've had two where Pandamus or gold rim swallowtail caterpillars ate the whole thing. Last summer I had one where all the leaves were eaten down to the woody stems, and its leaves are just now coming back. I need to buy two or three more and keep them in a screened enclosure until they are big enough to survive.

Pipevines come in several different species: the Dutchman's pipe, the woolly pipevine and the pelican flower. Mine has never bloomed because the caterpillars eat it down, but that's OK.

Pipevines also feed the smoky black and blue pipevine swallowtail, but I haven't seen any of those yet.

Some caterpillars will eat more than one kind of larval plant. I found several black swallowtails on my rue plant, but they will also eat parsley, dill, Queen Anne's lace and fennel.

Get some of the good books on butterflies and caterpillars. There is much to learn. Keep your eyes open and get your youngest friends to look, too. They may find more than you do. It's a fascinating adventure.

? ? ? Today's pick is the passionvine. Its flowers are gorgeous and will feed gulf fritillary caterpillars, which are orange with black spots and spines. The zebra longwing, our state butterfly, also eats passionvine. It is black with yellow stripes and has white caterpillars with black dots and spines.

According to Pam Traas, the author of my favorite book, “Gardening for Florida Butterflies,” the red passionvine has very showy flowers but isn't native, doesn't like the cold and isn't used as larval food by caterpillars. It also has striking flowers. But beware: Almost all passionvines can be invasive.

? ? ? Now's the time to thank God for the unusual late April and early May rain, even if the soil has dried up again.

We received 3 inches the early morning of April 30 and all the rain barrels are full. Two days later we got another 3 inches and a neighbor called to tell me to stop praying. One more month and the summer rains will be back. In the meantime, enjoy the last of low-sweat weather.

? Monica Brandies is an experienced gardener, author and freelance writer who can be reached at monicabrandies@yahoo.com. Her website is www.gardensflorida.com.

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