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Flying Zebras: Florida’s State Butterfly

With Florida’s abundant all-year blooms, flurried butterfly activity is a welcome sight on hikes. The most common encounter is the Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charitonius), designated as the official state butterfly of Florida in 1996. No wonder it’s the state butterfly; it’s found throughout Florida in hardwood hammocks, swamps, wetlands, meadows, and in the Everglades. And if you’re keen to plant native, butterfly-friendly plants in your garden, you’ll quickly be visited by these lovelies.

While Longwings can be seen throughout Florida, they’re most abundant in the southern half of the state.

Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charitonius)

Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charitonius) in Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge: Cypress swamp habitat

Despite its common presence, it’s always a wonderful sight — bright and bold in our swamps and marshes. As the name suggests, Zebra Longwings sport long, narrow wings, with light yellow and black stripes.

Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charitonius)

Zebra Longwing in Fern Forest Nature Center: Oak hammock environment

Adults can mate immediately upon emerging from the chrysalis — I once witnessed a few Zebra Longwings crowding a poor lone Longwing, and feared they were attacking him/her. I now understand what was happening — the female was emerging from her chrysalis, as the males had been attracted to her scent through the chrysalis wall. They battle their way to mate with her, as she emerges. Hello, world?!

Another unusual sight I’ve witnessed (but haven’t been able to capture well) is their roosting behavior — Longwings will group together as dusk approaches, to keep warm through the night. They return to the same roost night after night….

Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charitonius)

Zebra Longwing in Riverbend Park: Open meadow habitat

A tropical and subtropical species, the Zebra Longwing is unlike other butterfly species that live for only a few weeks: these guys can live for up to six months (6 months!), since they eat the pollen AND the nectar from flowers. They are the only butterfly to do this, and the energy from the pollen extends their lives. The caterpillar feeds on various varieties of the Passion Flower (Passiflora), which is another great reason to have this beautiful vine in the yard, if you live in the Southern parts of the U.S. (and South and Central America). They’re easy to grow, and oh-so-lovely — and their widespread health benefits have been respected for centuries.

Outside of passiflora tea, it’s been used  for more than two centuries by Native Americans as a sedative and relaxant — and traditional medical practitioners accept its help in alleviating pain and lowering blood pressure, among other things. Even WebMD acknowledges its use for seizures, withdrawal symptoms, asthma, fibromyalgia, burns, swelling, muscle spasms, and more. Passiflora was approved as an over-the-counter sedative and sleep aid in the U.S., only to be taken off the market in the ’70s, like so many other natural remedies.

Yet another example of the many gentle and beautiful ways in which Nature provides!

Passion Flower (Passiflora), "Lavender Lady"

Passion Flower (Passiflora): “Lavender Lady” example at Butterfly World

Passion Flower (Passiflora), "Inspiration"

Passion Flower (Passiflora): “Inspiration” example at Butterfly World

For more information on introducing butterfly-friendly plants to the garden, visit Butterfly World and its wealth of information. Butterfly World’s conservation efforts include the establishment of The Passiflora Society International, which was established at the site to encourage research on Passion Flowers, the source of food for many butterflies. A North American “Bring Back the Butterflies” campaign is also active here, with thousands of people across the country receiving free literature on butterfly gardening for their region. Check it out! Butterfly World also helped establish the Boender Endangered Species Laboratory at the University of Florida — instrumental in saving the endangered Schaus Swallowtail, and reintroducing the species to South Florida.

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