- Jessica Morgan McAtee
Updated: Jan 6, 2020
My first 40 years on earth did not exemplify serenity.
I intend to change that for the next 40.
My personality is assertive. Many people are withdrawn or at least obliging. Not me. If things didn't go my way, I developed a habit of trying to force them to.
When it comes to butterfly gardening, or nature, I have had to learn that this doesn't work. There is a season for everything and wisdom say some things are out of my hands.
In the first few years of my butterfly garden, I saw incredible results. Fifteen or so species showed up daily and this delighted me. Yet, upon learning that there were many MORE species that lived in my area, I wanted to attain them as well. It was a compulsive urge that I figured I could solve by simply planting their host plants.
The Atala (Eumaeus atala) butterfly was one that I had not found in my garden, but had seen around the area. I planted its host plants and expected them to show up quickly and as readily as the other species I had.
Only they didn't.
Years went by without them.
This little black butterfly with an orange-red abdomen is is gorgeous and though they don't open their wings often, when they do it's dazzling blue/green. Males have more blue/green than females and are typically smaller. I just had to have them.
They are a Florida butterfly and typically a south Florida one at that. They are naturally found in Palm Beach, Broward and Dade counties, though colonies have popped up in other southern locations.
Atalas were thought to be extinct from the 1930s to the 1950s. This happened because their only known host plant (at the time), native Coontie (Zamia integrifolia) was over harvested. As we know, if a host plant disappears, so do the butterflies that require it for survival. Today, we know they can also use some exotic species of cycads.
Happily, extinction was not the case and Atala colonies can still be found. Yet, the butterflies aren't very easy to predict and just because you live in Broward and have a grouping of Coontie plants, doesn't mean you will see them regularly.
I waited for 14 years and never had a colony of Atalas on my healthy and vibrant, Broward Coontie plants. Gardeners in my city had them. I would see them in parking lots nearby (Coontie are often used in landscaping projects). I saw them at my work close-by, but I didn't have them at home.
Recently, the University of Florida has reared and released many Atalas into the wild. I'm not sure if that was a factor, but last September, I finally got a colony in my garden! They were everywhere. Hundreds of them were flying in my habitat. When these babies move in, they bring their friends and family and a colony is born!
There were caterpillars.
There were mating pairs.
There were pupae
There were new adults emerging every day.
They imbibed my Sweet Almond for nectar.
Since they are toxic to most predators, they are somewhat lazy and don't fly away when you approach them. They are easy to photograph and sometimes even to hold like this female.
I had always heard that the more Coontie you have, the better. This is true because as long as your garden has nectar sources and Coontie plants, they won't leave....(until they eat all of the host plants, then they will).
By December, my Coontie plants had no more leaves to eat, so the colony vanished.
This year, the plants have all come back to life with fresh new growth and plenty of leaves. This normally happens within a growing season.
But, no Atalas are in my yard this October.
There are some things that I can change and some I cannot. Wisdom says I provide a wonderful habitat for them...
Then I wait patiently with gratitude for the time they were here, grace that I am doing all that is in my power to attract them and hope that one day I will experience the joy of an Atala colony again.
I intend to keep this serenity as a way of life and I am thankful for the lessons from the Atalas.
If you would like to learn more about butterfly gardening, check out my free class here and like www.happybutterfly.net.