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  • Writer's pictureJessica Morgan McAtee

Big Trees Little Space

Updated: Apr 18, 2021

Once a gardener gets deeply entrenched in attracting butterflies, she may notice some spacial challenges. The plants her local butterflies require may not fit into her landscape.

Every butterfly has its own nature-assigned host plant. There is no kind of plant that is off limits. Some use vines, others shrubs, cycads, palms, herbs, weeds, ornamentals, grasses and trees.

The challenge comes when the butterfly you want hosts on a large tree.

Across the U.S. trees like Red Bay, Sweet Bay, Tulip Poplar, Elm, Willow, Cottonwood, Aspen and Oaks host a multitude of species. This is great if you have a large yard, but what if you don't?

I have run into this dilemma several times when planning which butterflies to attract to my space. In south Florida, Ruddy Daggerwings, Pink-spot sulphurs and Giant Swallowtails and others use medium to large trees.

Sometimes, like in the case of the Giant Swallowtails, there are alternative host plants that can be used. In Florida, they will host on our native wild lime, but that tree isn't small. These butterflies also use citrus trees (varieties of lemon, lime, orange and more). However, they will also host on rue. I don't mind having a small lime tree planted in my landscape, so this one was a no-brainer. I have never tried rue but it would be an option if I opted out of tree-planting.

But for the other two butterflies I was in a pickle. The only host plants known and available to me were large trees.

Ruddy Daggerwings host on a Strangler Fig. It gets really large with a height of up to 60 feet and a spread of up to 70 feet. This plant is not only very large, it is not very kind to other plants, thus the name Strangler. It will readily entangle itself with another tree and envelop it over the years with its branches and trunk. It will eventually kill the other tree.

The great news is the solution is fairly easy. Rather than plant an intrusive Strangler Fig in my tiny landscape, I grew a small one in a pot. In time, of course, it will out grow the pot and need a larger one, but I have time.

In some ways, this makes more sense anyway when trying to spot caterpillars. I keep the small tree at eye level or just above, so when they lay their eggs, I have the whole process right in front of me.

People have asked me if mama will still lay eggs on a small tree. That is a great question but so far, in my experience, she will. I would guess that as long as the leaves are healthy, she won't know the difference.

Pink spot sulphurs have faithfully returned to my habitat for years now to lay eggs on my exotic Lysiloma sabicu tree. As far as I know, this is their only host plant in our area.

I have raised them inside on several occasions and I enjoy the novelty of this species that even the most avid local gardeners don't typically host.

That's my two cents. Plant small sized trees (that would naturally be huge) in pots and see if you can lure your desired species. Pruning each year in dormant season, usually January, will help keep the upper portion of the tree in check and at eye-level, and also encourage lots of new growth (mamas favorite part to lay on) in the spring. In time, the tree will likely out grow the pot, even with continuous pruning. So, you can be proactive and start cuttings. In my experience, the trees have lasted for almost a decade and I have not yet had to start new ones.

Plant trees,

Jessica Morgan McAtee

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