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  • Writer's pictureJessica Morgan McAtee

Starting a Florida Butterfly Garden

For over two decades, I raised butterflies in south east Florida. The majority of that time was on a small lot that my little first home was on in Broward county. I purchased that house because it had a place for me to plant an elaborate butterfly garden, and that was a success. During that time, I had the good fortune of working at Butterfly World, where they sold beautiful and rare butterfly plants of many varieties. My landscape was lush and amazing and filled with over 40 species of butterflies by the time I sold it... and then I had to start all over.

Recently, we moved to south west Florida. It is more peaceful here on the sunset coast, traffic is better and your dollar goes farther. We purchased our home here in late 2021, just in time for it to be devastated by hurricane Ian in 2022.

The good news is that we have more land here. Our home has a larger yard in front and in back, and when we purchased it, it had almost no plants whatsoever. It was just lawn, lawn and more lawn.

Establishing a butterfly garden here was initially one of my top priorities, but between the hurricane, a serious sickness, no irrigation system (yet) and limited finances, I had to get creative and resourceful.

How does one plant a new butterfly garden? It had been so long ago that I had done this and I felt overwhelmed. Yet, this time around, I was determined to do it better. My old one was great, but perhaps it was more rough around the edges. I was just learning to garden at that time. Actually, considering I was 23, I was just learning to adult. Much of my 20s were a dumpster fire (don't judge yours likely were too) and that summarizes my approach and results in the landscape as well.

I taught butterfly gardening classes at Butterfly World for 7 years, and have written books about it. I know how to do this, but it was a daunting task to start with a blank slate. You may know the formula for a successful butterfly habitat: host plants for local butterflies and nectar sources too

As a mature 40-something, I wanted to plan a bit better. So here were my initial goals:

  1. Start small and add incrementally

  2. Keep the "butterfly garden" portion of my landscape separate and defined from the other garden areas (entry garden, ornamental garden, fragrant garden, etc.)

  3. Attract the common butterflies first so that I felt some instant gratification before pursuing more rare species

  4. Utilize plants that were most successful in my former garden (which was about the same latitude and zone) so as not to have so much waste with trial and error

  5. Orient the butterfly habitat in the southern-exposed portion of my land so it can receive maximum sunlight for butterflies and flowers

My first "butterfly bed" has the capacity to host eight species. It also provides nectar for many butterflies. Here are the plants I chose:

  1. Two Passionvines: Maypop and Corky Stem can host Julia, Gulf Fritillary and Zebra Longwing caterpillars. I've never seen a Julia or Zebra yet, but I believe our local populations are down due to Ian, so I will be patient. But I do get Gulf Fritillaries daily.

2. Wild Lime: this native but prickly tree hosts Giant Swallowtails. I've yet to host one, but these aren't everyday butterflies. It has horrendous thorns so it is placed in the back corner, hopefully out of the way of passers by.

3. Multiple Cassias: I have Senna alata, Senna surattensis, and a wild one that I dug up from the vacant acreage behind my home (after it blooms I can identify it better but it does already have Sulphur larvae on it). These host multiple species of Sulphur butterflies which I see daily. I tried to go native with three Bahama Cassia. Don't get me started on those, they already died, those plants may be native but they only live briefly and I will not waste money on them again. Just because something is native DOES NOT mean it does well.

Cloudless Sulphur

4. Waterhyssop: this native water weed hosts the white peacock which I see often. I keep the plant in a pot with water in it because they thrive in a few inches of water.

White Peacock

5. Blue Pea Vine: this self-sowing vine hosts long-tailed skippers, which visit often. It also adds a pop of stunning blue when flowering.

For nectar sources, I used native Beauty Berry that I dug up from a wild place nearby. Non-native firebush, yellow bells, dwarf powderpuff and purple firespike are also beautiful and they consistently flower year round, so those are included in this small bed. Some of the host plants also double as nectar when they are in bloom, but that is not what attracts the butterflies that lay eggs on them.

Firebush is a butterfly favorite

It's a small start but it is getting results! I do have a second bed for other types of butterflies that has other host plants, including those for Monarchs. Sadly, Monarchs haven't rebounded in my garden since Ian the way Sulphurs and Fritillaries have.

This small but mighty starter garden brings me great joy and reminds me of the hope in new beginnings.

Start over,


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