Attracting the wings of desire

Butterflies, those silent, soaring works of art, have long touched the poet's heart, even as generations of children chased them with nets, and collectors stilled their wings with glass-jar euthanasia and pinned-down displays.

Happily there is a sea change in attitude among lepidoptera aficionados: As butterflying becomes a hot hobby, binoculars and cameras are replacing nets and pinboards. Membership in the North American Butterfly Association has soared to 3,500 from 500 at its inception just six years ago; five Florida NABA chapters are committed to the 160 species struggling to survive in the Sunshine State.

Of those species, most likely we know the Sulphurs best -- those bits of bright yellow we see flitting in yards or over the salt marshes along beach roads. Maybe we've noticed the Great Southern Whites during a trip to the Keys. Both are Pieridae, and like a lot of Florida femmes, Pieridae females have a favorite brush-off: Since she usually mates soon after peeking from her pupa, she rejects subsequent courting males by flattening her wings and hoisting her abdomen, which makes mating impossible. This, no doubt, irks the male, who has been hanging out in his singles' garden, watching the lovely young thing in her food-plant search.

Florida butterflies need all the procreation they can muster, according to Jeff Glassberg, president of NABA and author of "Butterflies Through Binoculars." "Florida's in very bad shape because of mosquito spraying and vanishing habitat. The Keys are one of the most endangered places in the U.S.," says Glassberg. Researchers at the University of Florida have an intensive lab-breeding and release program for the Keys' endangered Schaus' Swallowtail.

While such heroic efforts are critical to threatened-species survival, it is as important to nurture a general butterfly population in the nooks and crannies of populated areas -- like your backyard.

"If you just want butterfly visitors, put in nectar plants for adults -- the sweeter-smelling and brighter, the better," says entomologist Lorenzo B. Zayas, the "butterfly man" at the Winter Park Farmers Market. "There are about 15 species here that are easy to lure with the right combination of plants, including Florida's state butterfly, the Zebra Long Wing."

Butterflies prefer simple flowers -- penta, porterweed, asters and yellow jasmine, for example, and clustering flowers, like milkweed and viburnum. True, myriad varieties of flowers attract myriad varieties of butterflies, but even a couple of patio bloomers should attract butterfly buddies. Basking rocks are a thoughtful touch for cold-blooded butterflies, and a small sipping puddle will allow them to extract water and minerals.

Says Zayas, "If you want to establish a butterfly population, then put in plants for egg-laying so caterpillars can eat when they emerge. Butterfly weed is food for the Monarch caterpillar. Fennel, parsley, dill -- all food plants. People must not destroy caterpillars if they want butterflies; they must let them eat the plant leaves, and they must never spray pesticides in their yard."

Butterflies are more than just aesthetic pleasures. "They are wonderful pollinators," says Zayas. "They may look lazy, but they are very useful as pollinators." Another reason to befriend butterflies: Over three-quarters of the world's food crops and plant-derived medicines depend on pollinators, which have declined 25 percent since 1990, creating, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an "impeding pollination crisis."

Above all, unlike many other beautiful creatures, butterflies do no harm, don't carry disease, don't bite and don't talk back.

Langford Park has a butterfly gardening pamphlet and will offer butterfly classes this July. Call 299-1472.


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