Jessica Morgan McAtee
Top 10 Florida Butterfly Attractions!
One of my favorite things to do in Florida is visit a butterfly exhibit. For decades, I have been travelling the state in search of them. In this post, I list ten of my favorites, generally from least to greatest. However, that rating depends on what you are looking for so it's not fixed. I have been to each of these places at least once, if not dozens or hundreds of times (not kidding).
Initially, I was visiting butterfly houses to learn about creating my own backyard habitat. That is a butterfly garden that attracts native species to your landscape. This process involves your local butterflies and their associated host-plants. In those days, it was important to me that the facility sold plants, because it was a bummer to leave empty-handed. Very early on, it was important that the place provide adequate educational services so I knew exactly which plants to get.
Twenty years in, now that I know how to cultivate my own native butterfly garden, it is fun for me to visit exotic butterfly houses too. These facilities are regulated by the USDA and have to follow strict containment regulations. That is because they display exotic butterfly species that could survive in the Sunshine State even though they do not naturally occur here. This means that if one accidentally escaped, it could wreak havoc on our native systems. It is interesting to visit these places and marvel at the beautiful species from other countries and continents.
Here is a brief overview of each of these enchanted places. It includes links to their websites and photos. At the end of this post, there is a table for quick reference so you can find just what you want. Things change, so always call ahead to plan your visit. Many of these places are closed during rainy weather. The prices listed are for adults and children though most of these places have additional discounts for things like military, students, seniors, Florida residents and more. Also, most of them have memberships as well as some reciprocity. This means if you are a member of one, you may get in another at a discounted rate or even free. I have had memberships to many of them and it was worth it.
Number Ten: Gumbo Limbo Nature Center
This park is located on the coast in Boca Raton. It is a research center associated with Florida Atlantic University. The focus is to study, rehabilitate and release sea-turtles. They also have lovely nature boardwalks, aquariums, photovoltaics (solar power) and an impressive outdoor butterfly garden. Butterflies are not their main attraction but I love this place because their native butterfly garden is done so well. It is wild and uncontained and shows what the potential is for a south Florida back-yard habitat. A hand-held and returnable species guide is available for you to explore. There is no official caterpillar lab, but if you look closely, surely you will find one (a caterpillar, that is). Admission is only a small donation, so what's not to love?
Number Nine: Edison Ford Winter Estates
If you love science and industry as well as plants, this place is for you. To be fair, they are not at all a dedicated butterfly exhibit. You may not even see a butterfly. It is a serene estate located on the river. The story of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford is inspiring and their historic homes take you to another place in time. The reason they are included in this list is they have an excellent plant shop with several hard-to-find host plants. You can find butterflies freely flying over the plants for sale. As you may know, not every nursery sells butterfly plants because most of them don't want the hassle of caterpillars eating their stock. If you live near the area and are in the market for some host plants, they won't disappoint.
Number Eight: Calusa Nature Center
This sleepy retreat is right in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Fort Myers. It is not a large facility, and their affordable admission reflects that. They are a general nature center with an old-school planetarium and quiet walking paths. Again, butterflies aren't their main thing, but they do have an adorable little butterfly enclosure where they house native species. Outside of it they have a small butterfly patch. Sometimes they have caterpillars at the front desk in the main building, but if not, and if you know what to look for, you will find larvae and pupae in the enclosure. This can get your creative juices flowing for what a small butterfly-house in one's back yard could be.
Number Seven: Peace River Botanical & Sculpture Gardens
This surprising hideaway is located in a residential neighborhood along the south bank of the Peace River. It has only been around for about five years when the owners converted their land to a beautiful sculpture garden for the community. They have included a fantastic native butterfly structure. It has a small section specifically for caterpillar rearing and a larger area where adults fly. They have dozens of pupa, presumably that they have ordered in, that are strung up for emergence into their flight area. Additionally, they have a wild butterfly garden just outside the enclosure. Plenty of thought and work went into their design and I was impressed by their accomplishment.
Number Six: Epcot Flower and Garden Festival
Going to Disney World was a big part of my Floridian childhood, so nostalgia plays a role here. Tickets are pricey and the butterfly exhibit is only open during their annual Flower and Garden Festival. They erect a small screened tent and fill it to the brim with native Florida butterflies and pupa hatching boxes. No caterpillars are displayed. Often, native butterfly houses have little flight activity but at Disney, they go big. Their exhibit is full of flying wonders. I don't think it's worth your effort to go only for this because there is little information and no host plants for sale. But, if you happen to be at the brilliant Garden Festival anyway, be sure you pay their little butterfly house a visit.
Number Five: The Butterfly Estates
You can experience a variety of native species and their host plants near downtown Fort Myers. The Florida Native Butterfly Society is headquartered here in this tranquil greenhouse stocked with butterflies, flowers and a trickling koi pond. They have a small lab for caterpillar rearing and friendly staff eager to answer your questions. Eggs, pupa and larvae are on display. Several species can be seen that are not so common in the wild. For a donation, you can bring your coontie plant and they will sit it outside for mama Atalas to lay eggs on. Then you take the plant home and rear them. The building next door has art and plants for sale, so you can go home prepared to plant your own Florida butterfly habitat.
Number Four: Butterfly World
This extra-large butterfly enclosure is one of the largest in the world and it predates all others on this list. The Broward county attraction includes ten acres of floral gardens, butterflies and bird aviaries. There is also an insect museum and live bug zoo! Many of their butterflies are raised on site in their laboratory, so the whole process is visible. The variety of exotic butterfly species is not as diverse as others but their fabulous plant shop and helpful staff makes up for it if you wish to cultivate your own native habitat. Additionally, Butterfly World has an extensive Passiflora collection and outdoor butterfly garden, so even outside of the aviary, something is always in flight. Admission is relatively expensive, but you can always visit in the plant shop for free.
Number Three: The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory
What's better than losing a flip-flop in Margaritaville? Seeing butterflies there! Located on a small plot of land on Florida's southernmost island, this little climate controlled exhibit is enchanting. It is brimming with a diverse display of exotic butterflies and a few natives too. They have water features, flamingos and a museum. You can view fresh specimens emerging from their chrysalises behind glass. It doesn't take long to walk through the exhibit, but they allow re-entry so you can do it again (shoes are required so do it before you lose your flop). You can view their live web-cam for a pretend mini-vacay right from your current location.
Number Two: Butterfly Rainforest at the Florida Museum of Natural History
Not only do they have one of the world's best entomology departments, the University of Florida has a superb exotic butterfly exhibit in Gainesville. It is attached to their Natural History Museum. Before you enter, you will be astonished by their immense lepidoptera collections. Inside the flight space you will see many interesting species you can see them live on their canopy cam. Their laboratory is busy with a live chrysalis cam and you can watch experts at work through the glass. Full disclosure, Dr. Jaret C. Daniels is one of my favorite lepidopterists, researchers and authors. When I studied at UF, I was fascinated by his work. You can imagine my excitement as I saw him through the glass on my visit (see photo below). I was that close to a Florida Butterfly GOAT!
Number One: Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
For a perfect taste of floral Miami, visit this massive eighty-acre park in majestic Coral Gables. It is the mother-ship for all zany Florida botany zealots. The gardens are so large, they have a tram to transport you to the back of the property. Once there, you can find their relatively new but large and exquisitely designed butterfly conservatory and lab. Many exotic species are on display and the exit leads to more fantastic greenhouses and unusual exhibits. They have art installations in their gardens to make it even more marvelous. Additionally, they have an excellent wild Florida garden with host plants, nectar and free-flying natives for your landscape inspiration. Wander through the paths or rest on a bench and observe. Give yourself several hours to explore this perfectly magical experience.
You can see more details about each place in the chart below.
No matter what time of year it is, we always have butterfly activity in South Florida. I hope you are able to get out there and enjoy our sensational state and it's fluttery wonders.