Create Your Own Nature Channel with a Flock of Roosting Zebras in Your Garden

Greetings South Floridians!  Imagine having a flock of Zebra butterflies in your garden.  Or maybe it’s a flutter?  A flurry?  Whatever it is called it is one of the most calming and mesmerizing sights you can see in a garden in these parts.  Zebra heliconian or longwing butterflies typically fly with a gentle flutter, unlike Monarchs who zoom around on strong wings, tiny Cassius blues with their chaotic and rapid flight style, or the Giant swallowtails with their stately swooping.  And Zebras flutter gently in groups unlike any of the other butterflies you might encounter in your garden, which really amplifies that calm and mesmerizing feeling.  Happily, if you have all the right ingredients, Zebras will hang around in your garden, allowing you to observe all aspects of their very interesting and highly unusual behavior.  If you’re really lucky, you might even get them to roost together in your garden at night.  Read on to see how to ensure your garden is filled with the beauty of our state butterfly.

reat A flock of roosters? Whatever you call them, you know your garden is a sanctuary when Zebra butterflies feel safe enough to sleep there, and that is a really good feeling. Providing a windbreak is important, but native nectar and host plants are key.

So what are the right ingredients that will not only attract Zebras, but will make them never want to leave your garden?  Native nectar plants attract the Zebra butterflies, along with a whole host of other butterflies.  And some attract birds as well.

The flowers of a Firebush will light up your garden even on the dreariest of days.

 

Zebra butterflies are drawn to the elongated flowers of the Firebush. Other pollinators and Hummingbirds love them as well.

 

Scarlet, or Tropical, sage is a Zebra butterfly fave. Hummingbirds will thank you too.

 

The flowers of the native Lantana involucrata aka Wild lantana or Wild sage attract Zebra butterflies and other pollinators. The berries delight birds.

 

Bees and butterflies love the sweet nectar of Wild coffee flowers. When they are in bloom, the garden smells like honey.  The flowers will turn into berries that delight birds.  

While nectar plants are necessary to attract the butterfly to your garden, making sure you have enough of their host plant — where they lay their eggs so their caterpillars can eat the leaves — is key.  In the case of the Zebra, the host plant is passion vine, which is fitting as Zebras are standouts in terms of butterfly mating behavior.

The teeny tiny flower of the Corkystem passion vine attracts pollinators.

 

If you have a hedge in South Florida and see Zebras fluttering around it, no doubt a bird or lizard dropped the remnants of a nice berry, from which the passion vine grew.  The Corkystem can grow in sun or shade, but female Zebras prefer a nice shady spot to lay their eggs, perhaps because their coloration is light and shadow so they are better camouflaged.

 

Another Florida native passion vine is the Maypop, with its surreal purple flowers. The Monarch pictured here was newly emerged from a nearby chrysalis and is still waiting for its wings to lengthen and harden.  

But back to Zebra reproduction: remember the mesmerizing “flock” or “flurry” of Zebras mentioned at the top?  That is all about sex.  Male Zebras travel in groups (gangs?) looking, or rather smelling their way around the garden, searching for female Zebras ripening in the chrysalis. The sense of smell is very important to a butterfly, as the female needs to be able to smell a host plant to be sure she is depositing her eggs where her babies will survive, so this method of mating ensures that the males with the best sense of smell are the ones to pass down their genes.  The male Zebra’s sense of species isn’t always as keen, however; their urge to reproduce is so strong that they sometimes try to mate with Monarchs, Julias, and other butterflies. 

What in the world, you might reasonably ask? This is a closeup of a female Zebra chrysalis in the center of the photo. On either side of her is a male Zebra, hanging upside down, his abdomen locked and loaded and ready to mate with the female as soon as she descends from the chrysalis. If another male were to try to horn in, and chances are they will, the males spread their wings to guard their prize.  Sometimes, they don’t even wait until the female emerges, engaging in pupal mating.  Each male has a 50/50 chance of passing on his genes.  A little creepy from the human perspective, you say?  Perhaps so, but read on to see why it makes so much sense from nature’s point of view. 

 

The newly emerged female is on the left, her wings still small and furled. Mating takes time, as does allowing the wings to lengthen and harden enough to fly.  Mating with a newly emerged butterfly is a perfect way to use that down time.  Nature is amazing like that.

 

On her maiden flight, the female is already pregnant. Since a butterfly’s only job in life is to reproduce, that is an excellent thing from nature’s perspective.  The male’s final act as a suitor is to endow her with a chemical that repels other males so she can go about the business of laying his eggs without being pestered by other amorous males.

 

It doesn’t take long for the pregnant female to start unloading her eggs. In this wonderful photo taken by Jane Atchison-Nevel, you can also see the yellow pollen on the proboscis. Zebra butterflies are capable of digesting pollen, which enables them to live longer than your average butterfly species, whose diet is limited to nectar.

 

Female Zebras lay their eggs on the freshest, newest fronds in clusters. It looks like several females laid their eggs on this frond. A number of the eggs will be eaten by ants or lizards before the caterpillars have a chance to hatch.

 

Enough eggs survive for lots and lots of caterpillars to hatch.  The white bits you see are empty egg casings.

 

So Zebras roost together, flutter around looking for females together, are laid together in clutches and, interestingly, the caterpillars tend to stay together to eat, wandering away from each other only when necessary to find sufficient passion vine leaves.

When you stop using pesticides and plant the right plants, you will have your very own Nature Channel right outside your door, a world of magic and beauty that elicits wonder and calms and soothes the soul.  As an added bonus, the passion vine is also the host plant for other Florida butterflies, including: 

Gulf fritillary butterflies, shown here mating, with the future butterfly munching away nearby.

 

And the Julia butterfly. While Gulf fritillaries and Julias don’t travel in groups, and don’t tend to hang around the garden like the Zebras, they are always a sight to behold.

The Slippery Slope of Container Butterfly Gardening Leads to Magic by Lisa Diaz

Couple of years ago my dearest friend, Susan Howell, installed a butterfly garden in her front yard. While the idea was sound, I have to admit I also thought it was a bit peculiar. Then Susan walked me across the street to our friend Mary Benton’s house to show me what an established butterfly garden looks like and from that moment, I was enchanted.

Mary’s garden, filled with plants that attract butterflies, bees, and birds.

Fast-forward about 9 months when Susan and I were exploring her garden, standing among dozens of winged butterflies, as we discussed my upcoming birthday when I casually mentioned that I would not mind having a few butterfly plants of my own. They would need to be in pots, however, because I live in a rented town house with a very small patio. Susan enthusiastically agreed.

 

Then on my birthday as we met for breakfast and dined on chicken n’ waffles and eggs benedict, Susan presented me with a gift of seed money, a coordinated contribution from 10 of our closest friends, to build my very own backyard butterfly garden. I was overwhelmed by the love and generosity of my friends and very excited as we hastened from the restaurant and made our way to Susan’s favorite nursery, an oasis of beautiful plant life that I had never seen before. She expertly hand selected every plant, astonishing me with her knowledge of plants and butterflies, host plants and nectar plants, caterpillars and chrysalis.  I did not know if I would ever be able to grasp an understanding of it all.

Lisa and Susan at the nursery.

We spent the day at my house, digging, planting, repotting and arranging. It was completely and utterly the most enjoyable and satisfying day I had spent in a long time.

Getting ready to repot the plants.

Fast forward two years and I can tell you that my garden, still growing, has brought me unending joy. I can speak butterfly now!  My small space seems much larger than it actually is, and I find some new wonder to marvel at almost every day.

The magic of a newly-emerged Monarch butterfly.

Now I am rooting plants, repotting plants, introducing new plants… the garden has a life cycle all its own.  I have seen hummingbirds and at least 4 species of butterflies including a brand-new visitor, the Giant Swallowtail butterfly!  I cannot begin to describe how exciting that was, other than to say I Immediately purchased a wild lime tree to ensure that they will always return.

A beautiful Giant swallowtail laying eggs on Wild lime.

I could not have dreamed that I would create such a captivating garden in such a small space, but I did and you can and I am now and forevermore bound by its beauty.

My plant-filled patio is magical day and night.

 

Bound by Beauty note:  We believe in the importance of planting as many native plants for wildlife as possible.  However, that is often easier said than done.  Few box stores and commercial nurseries offer native plants.  It is nearly impossible to find native milkweed even in native nurseries in South Florida.  However, we find that, as people educate themselves as they move through their butterfly journey, they gain an understanding of the importance of native plants.  Since that wonderful butterfly birthday present, Lisa has gone on to plant a Wild lime (which grows into a tree but can be kept pruned), one of Florida’s few native citrus plants, and Tropical sage, a native wildflower that attracts butterflies, bees, and birds. 

Other native plants that attract butterflies and other wildlife that do well in containers include: Corkystem passionvine; Pineland lantana; Tickseed; Fogfruit; Gaillardia; Wild sage; Lignum vitae; Little strongback; Scorpiontail; and Pineland heliotrope.  Please note that some of these grow into small trees which would require root pruning over time, and we recommend you look these plants up either on the the Florida Native Plant Society website or the Institute for Regional Conservation before buying them for your container garden to ensure they fit your site requirements.  Once you do, and you’ve installed your own container garden, let the magic begin!

Lisa’s Wild lime will attract such beauties as these mating Giant swallowtail butterflies.

 

A Picture that’s Worth a Thousand Words….

Sometimes we come across a photo that brings joy to our hearts and resolve to our souls. This young girl attended our recent Seeds2Share workshop at our wonderful local Brockway Library. She has just finished planting her Tropical sage seeds in the moist peat pellets that she prepared for them. She clearly feels the magic of the moment, and takes pride in her accomplishment. We believe that growing plants from seed is part of our DNA, and teaching young people to germinate seeds turns them into nurturers of nature. Many thanks to Children’s Librarian Brenda Holsing and the staff at Brockway for making this workshop possible and understanding the importance of teaching children about nature! Thank you to the Miami Shores Community Alliance for their grant, and many thanks to Marcia P MacPhail for capturing this wonderful image.

Tropical or scarlet sage is very easy to germinate, and it comes in pink and white as well. It is a wonderful pollinator and hummingbird plant.
You can read more about our Seeds2Share program in the summer edition of the North American Butterfly Association’s Butterfly Gardener quarterly magazine, or on our website. http://boundbybeauty.org/seeds2share/