Eastern black swallowtail caterpillar on fennel. Photo: J_McConnell, UFIFAS
Working from home has given me the opportunity to take more notice of my landscape and allow more time for insect scouting. While looking for turfgrass pests a few weeks ago, I noticed a caterpillar I didn’t recognize feeding on a broadleaf weed in my lawn. Since it didn’t appear to be a typical turfgrass pest, I decided to collect a few and try to figure out what they were. I’m glad I did because it turned out they were Buckeye Butterfly larvae! This random find has led me to some experimentation with raising butterflies and I thought I’d share some tips in case others might like to try it.
**Before collecting be sure to consult the U.S. Fish and Wildlife list of endangered and threatened species in Florida and never collect from Florida State Parks or other dedicated conservation areas. Never release species not native to our ecosystem. **
Lining the bottom of your enclosure with paper makes cleanup easier. Photo: J_McConnell, UFIFAS
You will need an adequate enclosure to keep caterpillars, chrysalises, and newly emerged butterflies/moths. I am fortunate to have a beautiful handmade cage constructed by a Master Gardener Volunteer at my disposal. It has a wooden frame and floor, screened walls, and the door latches. There are many options available for online purchase, but I would recommend getting one listed as “tall” or having a minimum height of 24 inches. Also, be sure you will be able to clean it easily – growing caterpillars create a lot of frass (excrement) that needs to be cleaned daily. I line the bottom of my enclosure with paper for quick cleanup.
Be sure you can offer fresh food for caterpillars and butterflies. Caterpillars usually have a limited menu of what they can eat depending on species. If you find them actively feeding on a plant, that is a pretty good sign that it is a good larval food source. Once you identify the caterpillar you can look up alternate larval host plants that the species eats.
Provide a variety of fresh flowers when butterfly emerge
Collecting foliage and keeping it hydrated can be a challenge. I use small floral water tubes. They have rubber lids that pop on and off with slits where I can insert small stems, but the insects do not get in and drown. I usually set these in another container to keep them upright. I can easily add fresh flowers when I expect a butterfly to emerge so that nectar is available. If your enclosure is large enough you may be able to keep small potted plants inside, just remember to keep them watered.
Where do the caterpillars come from? I intentionally plant several plants that are larval butterfly (caterpillar) hosts such as parsley, fennel, and passionflower vine. I check these plants for caterpillars that I can collect along with foliage. After the butterflies emerge, I release them into my yard so they can find a mate and keep the cycle going.
For more information on attracting butterflies to your landscape see Butterfly Gardening in Florida.
The spring is traditionally a busy time in the life of a Horticulture Extension Agent. As plants start to awaken from winter and people get the urge to get outdoors, lots of questions pour into the office about growing everything from flowers to trees. There is also an uptick in diagnostic questions at this time of year as insects emerge and plant disease organisms thrive in the warm, humid weather. Usually, most of us are running from one event to another and don’t have much time to focus on our own yards, but this year is different.
Many of us are working from home; my own makeshift office is on my back patio. The more time I spend out here, the more I notice the plants, insects, birds, and other wildlife I am usually moving too quickly to appreciate. We know that while you are following the #stayhomesavelives protocol you are paying even more attention to your landscapes than usual, too. We hope you will use this time to either enhance your gardening expertise or just learn the basics and we are here to help!
Although the doors to our offices may be locked, your UF/IFAS Extension Agents are still available to help answer your gardening questions. We are also working hard to develop more online content every day. Here are some online social media resources already available:
As an avid gardener and plant collector you might think I’m hyper-aware of everything growing in my yard. Sadly, I’m just as busy and forgetful as the next person and don’t always remember what’s out there. The silver lining to the distracted auto-pilot life we find ourselves in is that occasionally you get brought back into the moment by a show stopping surprise in the garden.
Bleeding Heart Vine is one of those garden gems. Planted in the bright shade of a pair of oak trees in my Northwest Florida yard, the dark green foliage blends into the background most of the year, but when it flowers look out! Panicles of 5-20 white and red flowers brighten up the shady garden. As the flowers fade, they turn a deep mauve that is just as attractive as the fresh flowers.
Some vines can be aggressive growers, but in the Florida Panhandle Bleeding Heart Vine is a relatively slow grower reaching about 15 feet at maturity. It is classified as a twining vine, but may need a little help supporting itself on a trellis. This vine lacks tendrils or suckers that some vines use to attach to structures, which makes it a little easier to redirect if it starts to grow in an undesirable direction. Don’t want it to climb? Prune to stimulate branching and it gets more of a sprawling, bushy shape.
Bleeding Heart Vine prefers moist, well-drained soil and high humidity. It is hardy to 45°F and may need protection in the winter. Personal observations of this plant have shown stem dieback in the winter, but it has grown back for multiple years without protection in Northern Bay County.
Reference and further information at Floridata Plant Profile #1053 Clerodendrum thomsoniae
My obsession with plants started with the purchase of my first house in Waverly, Alabama in the late 90s. I bought a house with seven acres and of that about 1.5 acres was a fenced yard. The landscape was not very appealing, so I was on a mission to make it beautiful yet functional for my dogs. The only problem was, as a new homeowner, I had very little expendable income for my burgeoning plant habit. This dilemma forced me to be a resourceful gardener.
Shop the discount rack at garden centers
- Many retail garden centers (especially mixed use stores with limited plant space) will discount plants simply because they are no longer flowering. Plants look perfectly healthy but are just not considered “retail ready” anymore, so rather than hold them over until they bloom again and appeal to most shoppers the stores tend to mark them down.
- Plants are either growing or they are dead, so it is common to find some outgrowing their container and are getting “potbound” which means the root system is outgrowing the pot. Potbound plants are hard to keep watered without wilting and the solutions are to transition to a larger pot or plant in the ground. Most garden centers are not equipped to pot up overgrown plants to larger containers, so the easier solution is to sell them quickly. If you purchase a plant with circling roots be sure to trim the bottom and score (slice) the root ball to encourage roots to spread laterally.
- Avoid plants that appear diseased (leaf spots, brown stems, mushy parts, rotting odor) or have active feeding insect activity.
Compliment other gardeners’ plants
- When you get gardeners together, they inevitably start swapping plants. I really don’t have an explanation for this other that good old southern hospitality, but I’ve noticed over the years that when you express appreciation of plants to other people they tend to end up in your own yard. Ask if you can take a pinch (for cuttings) or offer to divide a clump of crowded perennials and you are on your way to a trunk full of plant babies.
- I can’t recommend this for multiple safety reasons, but I have been known to photographs plants in my travels then strike up a conversation with a homeowner who insisted I take one home.
Experiment with basic propagation techniques
- Grow flowers from seed. Either purchase seeds (usually under $2/pack) or collect seed heads from spent flowers in your own garden. After flowers fade, allow them to set seed then either crush and distribute in other parts of your garden or store in a cool, dry place until you can swap with friends.
- Division – clumping perennials such as daylilies, cast iron plant, iris or liriope can be dug up and cut into smaller pieces with a shovel or machete. You only need to be sure to have buds on top and roots on the bottom to make a new plant. Other plants create offshoots that can be removed from the parent plant. Examples of these are agave, cycads, and yucca.
- Cuttings – the list of plants that can be propagated from stem cuttings is endless but a few that are very easy are crape myrtle, hydrangea, and coleus.
- Patented plants can not be propagated.
For more information read Plant Propagation Techniques for the Florida Gardener or contact your local UF/IFAS Extension Office.