They may flit and flutter with ease, but butterflies - and the gardens they inhabit - may soon be a thing of the past. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, at least 18 tropical butterfly species in South Florida are considered at risk. Butterfly gardens are just one way to help.
Laurie Walker, the director of the University of South Florida Botanical Gardens, encourages people to choose native plants and avoid using pesticides. She said many types of pollinators, including butterflies and bees, disappear every year.
"We are losing pollinators to chemicals and if you have a good healthy habitat, you don't need the chemicals," Walker said. "When pollinators disappear, the plants can too and so can the other organisms that depend on them."
The Fish and Wildlife Service recently declared that the Zestos and rockland grass skippers have become extinct. Although butterflies are not as effective as bees at pollinating, they are important to the ecosystem, according to Walker.
Walker said nectar plants attract not just butterflies, but different pollinators. "Every square foot of garden makes a difference," Walker said. "And if homeowners can work with their neighbors - a small garden connected to the patch next door makes an even bigger garden."
Victoria Nedley of Seminole Heights, who cares for plants at the Bloom Garden Shop in South Tampa, said backyard gardeners can make a difference to imperiled butterflies. She said the key is to plant both the butterfly host and nectar plants.
"A common misconception is that you just need to plant a nectar plant, but you also have to plant the host plant, which is where they lay their eggs," she said.
Nedley said she has noticed an increase in the number of people inquiring about how they can start a butterfly garden. Many of the customers are concerned about the environment.
"I think people, especially with children, like butterflies so they can be interactive with their gardens," Nedley sad. "When you have a garden that is being pollinated by insects, it's a healthier garden. Where there are butterflies, there are other bugs like bees. A happy garden is full of insects."
Nedley said the most common butterflies she spots in the gardens in July include Monarchs, different swallowtails and Zebra Longwings.
She said the plant nursery, located at the corner of Bay to Bay Boulevard and MacDill Avenue in the Palm Ceia area of South Tampa, sells passionvine, a larval host plant for the Gulf Fritillary and Zebra Longwing.
Some of the butterfly plants sold at Bloom Garden Shop include Salvia Mystic Spires, blue flowering perennials that are heat tolerant. Another heat-tolerant butterfly favorite is Orthosiphon or "Cat's Whiskers," with white and purple flowers. Salvia Leucantha or Mexican Sage also attracts butterflies.
Nedley also recommends butterfly bush and pentas. She said butterfly gardening can be rewarding. "It's fun to watch them grow up," she said. "You see them as caterpillars on parsley, for example, and then you watch the caterpillars eat your whole plant, which is not so fun. You see them around your garden. They flutter around and visit your flowers. They are beautiful."
Kerby's Nursery, 2311 S. Parsons Ave. in Seffner, has a butterfly garden that allows customers to view the butterflies in their habitat.
They provide customers with basic instructions for designing their own butterfly garden, which includes choosing a sunny location, including nectar and host plants, splashes of color and avoiding pesticides in or near the garden.
Kerby's sells nectar plants such as Sapphire Showers, Plumbago, Firecracker Plant, Coral Honeysuckle and Fire Bush.
Butterfly "host plants" range from weeds and herbs to vines, citrus trees and other bushes.
Walker said people who are interested in butterfly gardens should visit the USF Botanical Gardens when they have their plant festival Oct. 12 and 13.
"The nectar plants will bring the butterflies to your garden, but the larval (host) plants will keep them there," Walker said.
Walker said parents can make a family project out of creating a better habitat for pollinators.