How Tampa Bay Area gardeners innovate to save butterflies, other pollinators in Florida

Throughout much of the 20th century, many embraced the idea of a perfect Florida landscape as one with a few palms standing in the middle of vast, neatly manicured lawns. These days, more Florida homeowners are turning away from sweeping lawns and exotic plants in favor of low-maintenance landscapes filled with native plants. These so-called Florida-friendly landscapes are popping up throughout the Tampa Bay Area and beyond. 

Yes, the lush St. Augustine spreads and resort-ready tropical foliage may be absent, but in their place are environmentally friendly landscapes that are easy to maintain, thrive in the moody Central Florida climate, and help propagate and nourish butterflies and other beneficial insects known as pollinators. Moreover, Florida-friendly landscapes can help sustain butterflies and other pollinator insects – the very kinds that are enduring staggering population declines due to widespread habitat loss, powerful pesticides, and the continued disappearance of milkweed due to the use glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup and other chemicals. 

Those who want an idea of what a Florida-friendly landscape looks like can pay a visit to the University of South Florida Botanical Gardens in Tampa. The 10-acre botanical gardens contain several spots that give homeowners and even apartment dwellers with limited planting space a plethora of ideas for creating beautiful natural environments that will help attract and protect butterflies, honeybees, ladybugs, and other pollinators. And while milkweed is important, the ideal Florida landscape for butterflies goes well beyond planting milkweed alone. 

“You can plant milkweed and other flowers to feed the butterflies, but if you don’t provide the other essentials they need, your garden is basically just a drive-through restaurant,” explains Kai Kai Chang, who has served for 10 years as a horticultural assistant in the USF Botanical Gardens’ butterfly garden.

What’s the goal when planting a Florida landscape for butterflies and other pollinators? To create a habitat where these sensitive insects can feed, and also breed and thrive.

“Bird baths provide water and rocks offer minerals,” Chang notes. She also says large shrubs, trees, and vine-covered pergolas can provide shelter and a safe haven from natural predators.

This comprehensive approach to creating a space where butterflies can live, feed, pollinate, and live a full life cycle is key to helping these insects thrive and, hopefully, spawn. It also requires dedication, which serves well the retiree who worked “too many years” as a computer programmer but now finds joy spending a few hours each week lost in her love for butterflies and native plants at the USF gardens. A decade-plus in the garden has also taught her that a butterfly garden needs many types of plants to attract diverse species and help each at different stages of their life cycles.

“Different kinds of butterflies are drawn to different kinds of flowers,” she says. For example, milkweed lures monarchs, and firebush offers nectar for a variety of butterflies as well as hummingbirds. Firebush (Hamelia patens) can also serve as a nutritious host plant for caterpillars, which eventually transform into chrysalises before emerging as adults in the form of butterflies. Meanwhile, cassia plants draw the yellow-colored sulphur butterflies. 

Chang also says what might grow well in one part of the Tampa Bay Area won’t necessarily perform as well elsewhere in the region.

“There are different climates here,” she says. “What might grow well in Pasco County might not do so well in Sarasota or by the beaches.” She urges Tampa Bay gardeners to do their research, experiment, and see what works best in their yards.

“But most of all you’ve got to be patient.” Many gardeners become disappointed when their plants don’t flourish in the first months after they’ve been planted. “The first year after planting perennials and other plants, they ‘sleep.’ By year three, they ‘leap’!” 

The native plants blooming throughout the USF Botanical Gardens represent the incredible diversity that local gardeners can adapt into their yards. Even apartment dwellers and those with relatively little yard space can grow butterfly gardens.

“Most butterfly gardens can be grown in small places -- even in large pots, for those who have only a porch or patio,” says Chang. The key, she says, is to avoid using chemicals. “If you really want to grow a good butterfly garden, you can’t use pesticides. People sometimes forget that pesticides don’t just kill the ‘bad’ bugs -- they kill the ‘good’ ones, too.”

And what about fertilizer? “If you need fertilizer, use what you can find naturally in your yard, such as leaves. Leaves [and other organic matter] break down and can help improve soil quality.” 

In addition to gathering ideas for a butterfly landscape, the USF Botanical Gardens is also a great place to brush up on beekeeping skills. Florida Master Beekeepers teach a comprehensive, hands-on course for those who are interested in becoming beekeepers. The classes offer practical knowledge not just for aspiring apiarists but also those who wish to help attract the beneficial yellow-and-black pollinators into the home landscape. 

Buying the right plants for a pollinator-friendly yard 

Pulling ideas from Florida gardening books and websites can provide plenty of knowledge on what plants will grow in a specific region, offer some insight on how big certain plants will grow, and wherein the yard they may be best suited. But when it comes to shopping around for reasonable prices, determining the sizes of plants to purchase, and figuring out which plants may suit a specific landscape need? Visiting a local nursery can help transform abstract concepts into tangible realities. 

The folks at Sweet Bay Nursery in Parrish have been serving Tampa Bay Area homeowners since 1995. They focus on selling native butterfly and wildlife plants, shrubs, trees, perennials, and grasses, and have helped homeowners (and business owners) design wildlife-friendly, conservation-friendly landscapes.

“The nursery stock at Sweet Bay is all native with over 300 species,” says Richard Beaupre, who co-owns the northern Manatee County nursery with Tom Heitzman. The native-only inventory differentiates Sweet Bay Nursery from many a typical big-box garden center, which generally stocks only a few natives with many non-native plants. 

But there’s another important way Sweet Bay innovates among the jungle of nurseries in the Tampa Bay Area.

“We do not use strong pesticides,” Beaupre says. “We do use horticultural oil or insecticide soap to control pests when needed, but most nurseries will spray strong chemicals weekly even if not needed.” Indeed, when it comes to the aim of pest control at Sweet Bay, the objective is met with natural solutions. “Ladybugs are usually brought in by aphid infestations. It is very common to get aphids on milkweeds, so you will see lots of ladybugs eating aphids.” 

Ladybugs coexist well with other pollinators, which thrive on many plants available in the Sweet Bay inventory. Among the nectar-rich plants ideal for butterflies are firebush, tropical sage (Salvia coccinea), starry rosinweed (Silphium asteriscus), native blue porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis), and buttonsage lantana (Lantana involucrata). “Any plant that attracts butterflies will also attract bees, including the 300-plus species of native bees in addition to non-native honeybees in Florida,” reminds Beaupre. 

Meanwhile, the best host plants for caterpillars depends primarily on the species that one hopes to attract. For example, corkystem passionflower (Passiflora suberosa) are great for luring orange-and-black Gulf fritillaries and the yellow-and-black-banded zebra longwings; incidentally, the zebra longwing is known as the official Florida state butterfly. Bahama cassia (Cassia chapmanii) draws the yellow-colored sulphur butterflies, and wild lime (Zanthoxylum fagara) attracts the majestic giant swallowtail. As for monarch butterflies, there are a variety of plants that can support their young and help feed adults. These include swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), aquatic milkweed (Asclepias perennis), and whorl-leaf milkweed or whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata).

No matter the plants chosen for a Florida-friendly yard, there are a few basic tips any gardener should remember if they want to ensure pollinators will thrive in their yard.

“Plant larval foods,” recommends Beaupre. “Many caterpillars, which metamorphose into butterflies, require specific host plants for food. By selecting particular species, you can provide the basic habitat requirements for specific species you’d like to see as adults.”

Of course, gardeners must remember that many host plants may not look very appealing in the landscape, and a successful host will lose its foliage as caterpillars devour the plant. “Since highly preferred hosts may be unattractive or eaten until they have few leaves, plan an out-of-the-way place for these hosts,'' Beaupre says. "You might also want to provide host plants for some of the more attractive moths.” 

While planting hosts are key to ensuring the survival of pollinators and their young, the other basic objective of providing nectar for adults can’t be overlooked either.

“Butterflies are attracted by sweet-, pungent-, and acrid-smelling flowers that are orange, yellow, purple, and red,” Beaupre explains. “Plants with deep-throated, drooping, or enclosed flowers are unsuitable for nectar gathering. Some of these, especially white flowers that are fragrant at night, may attract moths.” 

And the bottom line on pest control? Beaupre sums it up in three words: “Avoid pesticide use.” He adds, “especially avoid use of Bacillus thuringiensis, broad-spectrum insecticides, and any insecticide that is broadcast broadly in the environment.” 

Dealing with HOAs

Perhaps in the ideal world, one could simply gather ideas for creating a Florida- friendly butterfly landscape and then set out on buying the right plants for the job. But in the Tampa Bay Area, which boasts many deed-restricted communities, planting the ideal landscape for pollinators isn’t necessarily so easy, or even permitted. One of the most significant barriers for many isn’t necessarily time or even cost, but homeowner association (HOA) rules. While many HOA rules might help keep home values – and appearances -- up, they can also get in the way of transforming your lush, green St. Augustine grass yard into a pollinator paradise. 

“Residents in deed restricted communities need to comply with the deed restrictions,” says Lynn Barber, a Florida-Friendly Landscaping agent at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IAFS) Extension in Hillsborough County. “Landscaping change requests should be submitted to the Landscape Control Committee or Architectural Control Committee for approval prior to changes being implemented. If approval is not obtained before work is performed, the homeowner may well be required to return the landscape to its pre-change state,” she cautions. “Homeowners should decide what they want to change, why, and secure documentation on why their 'plan' is a good one.”

Barber suggests reviewing the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) publication, Questions and Answers: 2009 Florida-Friendly Landscaping Legislation, which serves as an excellent resource for homeowners and HOA committees to review and utilize. 

If homeowners can secure authorization for landscape changes, Barber says they should then consider native – and even non-native -- plants that attract pollinators.

“Residents in the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) may request a free copy of The Florida-Friendly LandscapingTM Guide to Plant Selection and Landscape Design,” she says. “This is a great resource in identifying plants that attract pollinators in north, central and south Florida.” The Tampa area is in Central Florida. Additionally, SWFWMD offers many other free publications that can help homeowners learn more about creating Florida-Friendly landscapes

Still, there is another problem homeowners living in HOA communities may face when creating landscapes suited for pollinators. And it’s not necessarily an issue that can be seen, but it’s one that can often be smelled, and it has deadly impacts on butterflies and many other beneficial insects.

“Deed restricted communities have contracts with landscape and pesticide companies,” Barber says. “Board members may or may not know environmental considerations or impacts.”

The Extension provides water and conservation education to all residents in Hillsborough County on a variety of topics. And while education is crucial to changing hearts and minds, Barber believes more homeowners should engage with their HOAs to spread the word on native landscapes and their benefits.

“Homeowners need to become more involved with their HOAs, attend the monthly meetings when available, volunteer to be part of the landscape or architectural control committees, share their thoughts and opinions, and vote for officers running for positions whose views match theirs.” 

Words of wisdom from a Tampa gardener 

“If you plant it, they will come!” says plant enthusiast Stephen Schwanebeck of Tampa. “Homeowners can add native plants to their yards to attract nearby butterflies and honeybees and other interesting beneficial insects,” he says. “One option is our state wildflower, tickseed (Coreopsis floridana).” Other options he likes include blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), tropical sage (Salvia coccinea), or blazing star (Chamaelirium luteum).

No matter what, Schwanebeck says, going for a Florida-friendly, native landscape is not only great for attracting pollinators, but it’s ultimately easier on the homeowner over the course time. “Native plants are easier to care for as they are adapted to our local climate, not to mention they are plants that birds, butterflies, and bees would more easily recognize as a source of food or shelter, or even as a nursery for their young.”
As with any plant, Schwanebeck says natives must be situated in the appropriate location to fit their needs and help them flourish. “Once they are established they will require little to no care, as they are used to the local environment and volume of typical rainfall.” He admits it can be difficult for homeowners in deed restricted communities to plant native landscapes, but not any that can’t be overcome if those who govern HOAs became more educated on the benefits of Florida-friendly landscapes.

“Challenges with municipalities and HOAs can boil down to a misunderstanding on how nature best operates and the created societal pressures to maintain lawns that fit a certain look. Keeping up with the Jones is not always the best option for keeping nature happy.”
Ultimately, Schwanebeck believes more HOAs would jump on board if, for nothing else, key figures realized the many benefits of planting native landscapes, including the potential costs savings with less irrigation and the virtual elimination of costly herbicides and pesticides.

“[Native landscapes] contribute to needing less fertilizers and using less water, and even possibly a more affordable contract with their landscape company if the property was easier to maintain,” he says. “You save money on watering and inputs, save time with less yard work and labor, and you in turn help save the local bees and butterflies that are struggling to overcome the many challenges we have created for them.”
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Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a freelance writer who was born and raised in Tampa. He earned his BA in English from the University of South Florida and spent more than three years as a full-time copywriter for a local internet marketing firm before striking out on his own to write for various blogs and periodicals, including TheFunTimesGuide, CoinValue and COINage magazine. He has also authored local history books, including Images of America: Tampa's Carrollwood and Images of Modern America: Tampa Bay Landmarks and Destinations, which are two titles produced by Arcadia Publishing.