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  • Jessica Morgan McAtee

Best Kept Secret (Statira Sulphur)

Updated: Jun 28, 2020

Some people collect plates, shot glasses, baseball cards or tchotchkes. I collect butterflies. I prefer the living kind (no judgement here, but I don't pin mine). My live collection is maintained by planting specific plants in my garden that specific butterflies need to survive. Since they require the plants that are in my habitat, they are always in my garden. It's simple survival science.

If you have a butterfly garden in Florida you probably attract Monarchs, Queens, Zebra Longwings and Gulf Fritillaries. They are the usual suspects. The Sunshine State is a great place to take up this exhilarating hobby, and it's also easy to get hooked. Quick results make it seem effortless, once you know the correct plants. Our year-round warm weather and humidity are conducive to thriving habitats. My back yard, in urban Broward county, hosts over 40 butterfly species. My books, classes and website have all sorts of help on this topic, but today one of my best kept secrets is out.

It's all about the Statira Sulphur (Aphrissa statira).

Not every yellow butterfly is a Statira. To be clear, there are many yellowish butterflies in our sunny skies. They are all relatives and are part of what is called the Sulphur family. There are Clouded Sulphurs, Orange-Barred Sulphurs, Pink Spot Sulphurs, Statira Sulphurs and more. Chances are, if it's a sunny day and you are looking, you will see some type of sulphur. They are hard to tell apart, even for trained experts because they act and look alike. They are all shades of yellow, fly high and keep their wings together when at rest. They move quickly, fly erratically and can be difficult to approach for a closer look.

So, how do I know when I have the Statira Sulphur? The secret (like with all butterflies) is in the plants the caterpillars eat. I have a native plant called a Dalbergia ecastaphyllum or Coin Vine that they lay their eggs on. They lay lots of eggs on the edges of the new growth on my Coin Vine.

Dalbergia ecastaphyllum, Coin Vine

Of course, not all of the eggs make it to adulthood (that's why they lay so many). In a few days, tiny yellow caterpillars (or larvae) emerge from those eggs. They camouflage well with the plant and can often be found in on the center vein of the leaf like the tiny one below.

Statira sulphur larva on Coin Vine

Those caterpillars only eat the Coin Vine leaves and they continue to grow and munch, leaving the plant looking chewed up and ragged. The plant grows quickly to make up for the damage.

Statira Sulphur caterpillars on Coin Vine

My plant can have these larvae on it during any month of the year. They come in cycles and sometimes they are so plentiful that I can brush by the plant in passing and find them stuck to my elbow. They are harmless and I simply place them back on the Coin Vine to go about their business.

Singing Red Cardinals and other birds like to visit my Coin Vine for a snack. They eat the caterpillars and life goes on. A beautiful ecosystem is created when we allow nature to run its course in our backyards. This fascinates me.

It connects us to something bigger.

Caterpillars that don't get eaten eventually create a bright green chrysalis (or pupa). The chrysalis is where they undergo their final metamorphosis into an adult butterfly. The chrysalis looks like a leaf and blends in well with the vine.

When I am feeling extra geeky, I hunt for the chrysalids and put them in containers so I can watch them emerge.

Chrysalids for Statira Sulphur butterflies

The transformation is complete and I get a rush of excitement as I step into the sunlight to release them. Males are brighter and females duller. This is because males are somewhat expendable (I am not suggesting human parallels, just being scientific).

They have pink faces and such delicate wings.

Butterflies are not just for children, they are for anyone who could use a reminder that change is always possible and life is beautiful. We can create a place of serenity and natural wonder by strategically planting Coin Vines and other plants for butterflies.

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