Fruit Trees Take Wing in the Home Garden

Sunday, December 16, 2012

BY RICHARD J. CAMPBELL

FAIRCHILD TROPICAL BOTANIC GARDEN

As published in the Miami Herald

The butterfly garden has taken South Florida gardening by storm. One can scarcely drive by a South Florida elementary or middle school without taking note of the butterfly garden, alive with food plants for caterpillars. But alas, what about the adult butterfly - the object of our fascination. Shouldn’t we provide nectar and shelter for them? It is our quest to help the adult butterfly within the home garden to find nectar and shelter, further enhancing our environment and our viewing pleasure. 

Enter the tropical fruit tree! Not only will tropical fruit provide the home gardener with delicious and nutritious products for their table, they will also provide the butterfly with nectar sources. Within my own garden I find the highest concentration of butterflies when I have both the caterpillar food source and the nectar source for the adult, and just like the caterpillar, the adult butterfly has its favorites. 

One of the most useful fruit trees for the butterfly is the carambola (star fruit). The carambola forms a highly attractive tree in the home garden with arching branches that will touch the ground if not pruned. The tree forms a shaded, protected dome. Beneath this dome is a favorite nighttime resting place for the zebra longwing. This butterfly, one of our most beautiful and graceful, will group together at night beneath the carambola, one atop another in a pendulous mass. They return to the same place every night and over time there may be a hundred or more zebra longwings in the group. 

Granted, it is not quite the same as the thousands and thousands for monarch butterflies clumped together in the highlands of Michoacan, Mexico, but it also does not involve a plane journey. As long as the conditions remain favorable the zebra longwing will return to their roosting place beneath the carambola. Certainly there are other locations that the zebra longwing likes to roost (like on Spanish moss hanging from an oak canopy), but in my garden the carambola has served well for many a year. 

Remaining beneath the canopy of the carambola we will also find a riot of malachite, ruddy daggerwing and Gulf Fritillary butterflies partaking in the sweet juices of the fallen fruit. The malachite in particular is a sight to see, flitting and standing, flitting and standing throughout the late afternoon. Nowhere else in the home garden will you be witness to this behavior. The malachite will go to other fallen fruit, but it is the carambola that it craves. 

Anyone that has grown a mamey sapote, sapodilla, canistel or caimito may have pondered our next question. What does the earthy aroma of the flowers of this plant family attract? The answer is flies, wasps and, oh yes, butterflies. The butterfly is attracted en mass by the mamey sapote flower. On any given afternoon you can find malachites, ruddy daggerwings, various types of sulfurs and skippers visiting the bloom that cling tightly to the large twigs and branches. The canistel and sapodilla will also attract them, but given a choice they do seem partial to the mamey sapote. 

The mango too is a good choice to draw butterflies. Many species will come but they are usually smaller sized butterflies - small yes, but no less beautiful. In the early spring as the bloom spikes sway in the breeze one can enjoy the butterflies’ comings and goings. Of course with this flower visitation there is bound to be some pollination. We do not typically consider butterflies the most important means of pollination for fruit trees, but every little bit helps. 

The fallen fruit of so many of our fruit trees can provide food for adult butterflies. So, for the homeowner that wishes to turn their butterfly gardening up a notch, the combination of caterpillar food plants and fruit trees is indeed potent. Get your planting done now. Sometime soon you can be enjoying a fresh carambola, canistel or sapodilla while the butterflies of your home garden perform their airborne ballet.