Plant passion vines to attract Florida's state butterfly

By GINNY GRUPE MASTER GARDENERMy Nassau Sun

Many Floridians know that the sabal palmetto, also known as sabal or cabbage palm, is the state tree, and that the orange blossom is our state flower.
But did you know we have a state butterfly?
In April 1996, the Legislature voted to name the zebra longwing, heliconius charithonia, as the official state butterfly.

Zebra Longwing on passion vine
Zebra longwings are black butterflies with yellow stripes that run horizontally. Their forewings are much longer than they are wide. From this description, you can understand how they got their name.
They are found all year in Central and South Florida, but not in winter in North Florida, where they would be killed by freezing winter temperatures. They can be found in moist woods and along the edges of pine forests and gardens.
To attract them to your yard, plant passion vines, which are food for the larval stage of these butterflies. The larvae are white with black spiny protrusions all over. They look menacing but are not the stinging-type of caterpillar. The larvae may eat large portions of the passion vine leaves, but don't worry, the vine can handle it. I have read that they prefer passion vines planted in the shade, but area gardeners have told me they are also attracted to vines in the sun in their yards. Be careful to avoid using pesticides around these plants to ensure you don't kill future butterflies.
Zebra longwings have three unusual characteristics. The first is pupal mating. A scent attracts the males to the chrysalis of females about to emerge. A male will fight for the chance to mate with a female as soon as she breaks the pupal skin.
Another unusual behavior is pollen feeding. They gather pollen at the tip of their proboscis, or feeding tubes. Enzymes secreted on the pollen turn proteins in the pollen into amino acids. The amino acids are used to produce sperm or eggs, and for body maintenance. This source of nutrition allows zebra longwings to live for five to six months as adults, while other butterflies may live only a few weeks.
The third unusual characteristic is communal roosting. In late afternoon, they look for a place to spend the night. Often, many will gather at the same place to roost night after night for many weeks, or perhaps even months.
I hope you will be fortunate enough to observe this interesting butterfly as it slowly flutters through your yard in search of passion vines or places to roost.
Ginny Grupe lives on Amelia Island and is an active Master Gardener with the Nassau County Extension Service. For information on the Master Gardener program, contact Becky Jordi at 548-1116 or rljordi@ufl.edu.
Sources: "Florida Butterfly Gardening" by Marc and Maria Minno; "Florida's Fabulous Butterflies" by Thomas Emmel; and "Gardening for Florida's Butterflies" by Pamela Traas.

Master Gardeners

Master Gardener volunteers are trained by County Horticultural Extension agents and are required to serve 75 volunteer hours in the first year of their accreditation and 50 volunteer hours annually in all subsequent years, to maintain their certification.

Nassau County Master Gardeners serve under the direction of Rebecca L. Jordi, UF/IFAS Nassau County Horticultural Extension Agent. For information on the Master Gardener program and application requirements, contact Jordi at 548-1116 or rljordi@ufl.edu.

 

May 16, 2009

 

Ginny Grupe lives on Amelia Island and is an active Master Gardener volunteer.