How to build your own butterfly garden

Butterflies are nature’s little helpers. They pollinate flowers and keep pests in check. But chemicals, climate change, habitat loss and predators threaten their existence.

Throughout the year, FIU experts conduct research on butterflies and engage the community on how to play an active role in their conservation. In honor of National Learn About Butterflies Day, they offer FIU News their insight on butterflies and how to build a butterfly garden.

An Atala butterfly, once thought extinct in Florida, has found a new home in the gardens of FIU’s Biscayne Bay Campus.

A butterfly garden is made up of plants and trees that attract butterflies. Creating one can be as simple or elaborate as you want it to be.

Different stages of the butterfly life cycle require different plants, says FIU Environmental Coordinator Nick Ogle. Ogle, who works for the School of Environment, Arts and Society, has helped students, staff and volunteers build three butterfly gardens at FIU’s Biscayne Bay Campus.

Host plants act as the host for eggs, provide food for caterpillars and are home to pupae before they go through metamorphosis. Nectar plants are a source of food for butterflies. If you are looking to attract specific species of butterfly, planting both the host plant and nectar plant ideal for that particular species is key, Ogle says.

Biology Ph.D. student Jaeson Clayborn has helped create butterfly gardens at three schools in Miami-Dade County as part of his doctoral work. He is dedicating his research to understanding predator-prey relationships between the invasive twig ant and the endangered Schaus swallowtail caterpillars.

Clayborn recommends planting corkystem passionflower, wild lime, coontie, Senna mexicana and limber caper as ideal native host plants. He also suggests planting Spanish needles, scarlet sage or blood sage, scorpion-tail, goldenrods and buttonsage to provide nectar to native butterflies.

If building a butterfly garden seems overwhelming, don’t be discouraged. Below are some quick tips to get started.

  1. Assess your space. Determine where you want to build your butterfly garden. This can be done in a small patio or a spacious backyard.
  2. Be diverse. To attract diverse populations of butterflies, plant a diverse variety of host plants and nectar sources for adults, according to Ogle.
  3. Go native. Native plants are the ideal choice since they’re more attractive to local butterflies and pollinators, Ogle says. They are adapted to local temperature, light, soil and water conditions. And they are more resistant than nonnative plants to diseases, harsh weather and pests.
  4. Do your research. It is important to have a well-planned butterfly garden. Resources on butterfly gardening are available online. FIU biologist Suzanne Koptur, an expert on animal and plant interactions, recommends the North American Butterfly Association and the Florida Native Plant Society.
  5. Be patient! It will take time for plants to grow and attract butterflies. Make the time to learn what species are most successful in the garden.