Tampa butterfly whisperer shares secrets on attracting monarchs, pollinators to neighborhoods

Want to bring monarch butterflies to your Tampa Bay Area yard? Ask Anita Camacho how to do it, and she’ll show you how easy it can be to turn your landscape into a pollinator’s paradise. 

Camacho has been a self-avowed nature lover since she was a kid. After spending three successful decades in the world of finance, she’s trading in the calculator and ledger book for a gardening spade and pair of gloves.

“I’ve been going through my own metamorphosis,” she says of her career, which has blossomed into a full-time vocation as the president of Tampa Bay Butterfly Foundation and owner of Little Red Wagon Native Nursery in South Tampa.
 
She opened her nursery during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, a time when many people were laid off from work and spending their newfound free time establishing backyard butterfly gardens.
 
“A lot of people were awoken to gardening,” recounts Camacho, in the process herself of opening the Butterfly Conservatory of Tampa Bay in late 2021. “When they started seeing Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterflies, many wanted to know what else [they] could attract.”
 
She says the state of Florida boasts major butterfly populations, with the Monarch counted among the many that make their home in the Sunshine State. But there are so many others, including a distinctive native with yellow and black stripes known as the Zebra Longwing -- Florida’s official state butterfly. There are also Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae), Great Southern Whites (Ascia monuste), and Cloudless Sulphurs (Phoebis sennae), along with birds, bees, and other native creatures.
 
Many of the butterflies, including the monarchs, can be seen almost year-round in Central Florida, where daily high temperatures stay above 75 degrees Fahrenheit for most months of the year.

“With monarchs flying down from Canada to Mexico, we get some migration through Florida in the fall and sometimes in the spring.” Attracting these migratory butterflies into the yard requires plants that provide nectar, such as passionflower vine (Passiflora incarnata), firebush (Hamelia patens), and lantana (Lantana). 

But what if you want to help raise butterflies?
 
“You need host plants,” she says. Among the most popular plants for hosting caterpillars, which will eventually transform into butterflies, is milkweed, which is a family of flowering perennial plants. Many are native to Florida and can easily thrive in Tampa Bay’s humid, subtropical climate. It’s a plant that Camacho feels often gets a bad rap.
 
“It has ‘weed’ in the name,” she laughs. “We should rename the ‘weed’ plants maybe something like ‘Monarch’s Delight’.” 

She says many potential butterfly gardeners shy away from planting milkweed and other native plants because they have had negative experiences planting the offerings from a home improvement store.
 
“Big-box stores mostly carry exotic plants that aren’t native to Florida and aren’t easily grown here. People think they don’t have a green thumb when they can’t grow them, so many of which are invasive plants anyway.” Camacho urges locals to put “real Florida back into Florida” by sticking to native plants, which not only support local pollinators but also offer a lower-maintenance landscape and don’t require harmful pesticides, herbicides, and other toxins to keep looking nice.
 
“Even if all you have is a patio, you need only a host plant and a nectar plant to get a butterfly garden started,” says Camacho, who offers enriching gardening camps for children and educational opportunities to people of all ages. Ultimately, she says, saving monarchs and other native pollinators comes down to each one of us doing our part.

“We’re no longer focusing on conservation, as much of what we needed to conserve is gone. We’re now at a point of restoration.”
 
Can we bring our environment back to what it once was?
 
“Maybe not,” she laments. “But we can still restore nature to a level where wildlife can survive.”
 

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.
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