Whether in butterfly gardens or appreciated in nature, butterflies are arguably the gardener’s favorite insect. There are many beautiful butterflies you can find throughout Florida at various times of the year. Blue butterflies are particularly striking, and Florida is home to several. From some commonly seen to the critically endangered, here is a sampling of blue butterflies found in our state.
The pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor) is found in North and Central Florida. These large butterflies have a 2 to 5 inch wingspan. When open, their upper wings are mostly black, with the hindwings showcasing iridescent blue or blue-green scaling and a noticeable tail. Male butterflies are more blue in color than females. When their wings are closed, the hindwings are black and blue with numerous bold orange spots. The caterpillars are also quite interesting to look at; they can be black, brown, or red and have rows or bright orange tubercles.
Pipevine swallowtail larvae feed on plants in the Aristolochia genus. These flowering vines are also known as pipevine or Dutchman’s pipe because the flowers of some species resemble a pipe (imagine the deeply curved pipe of Sherlock Holmes). All plants in the Aristolochia family produce a toxic chemical; it's believed that the pipevine swallowtail caterpillars ingest the toxin to ward off hungry predators.
The red-spotted purple (Limenitis arthemis astyanax) is a forest butterfly commonly seen in suburban wooded areas.
These butterflies are large, with a wing span of 3 to 3.5 inches in mature adults. The wings are a striking blue-black color. On the outer edges of their wings you can see rows of white and red-orange spots; these spots give the butterfly its name.
The preferred host plants for these butterflies are black cherry and deerberry. The red-spotted purple butterfly is a mimic of the poisonous pipevine swallowtail butterfly.
The cassius blue (Leptotes cassius) is a tiny butterfly found most commonly in Central and South Florida, particularly along the coasts. These butterflies are sometimes called tropical striped blue butterflies. While cassius blues have been seen in northern counties, they are cold sensitive and unable to survive a North Florida winter.
These butterflies have an average wingspan of just under an inch wide. Their wings are white with grey stripes and two eyespots are visible when closed. When open, the wings are bluish white at the top.
Host plants for the cassius blue caterpillar include a variety of vines, shrubs, and trees in the pea family (Fabaceae). This includes milkpeas, blackbeads, hairy cowpea, false tamarind, and Jamaican dogwood. While not a member of the pea family, plumbago is also a caterpillar host plant for the cassius blue.
White M Hairstreak
The white M hairstreak (Parrhasius m-album) has only a glimpse of metallic blue on their wings when folded together, but when open they are almost completely blue, with black edges. When closed, you can see the characteristic M-shaped white line towards the edge of their wings. Each hindwing of the white M hairstreak also has a tail—this is the "hairstreak" from their name—and a red spot. These markings resemble antennae and eyes to confuse predators.
Host plants for the caterpillars include white oaks, live oaks, blackjack oaks, and Shumard’s oaks. The adult butterflies consume nectar from a variety of flowers including viburnum, sumac, sourwood, wild plum, poinsettia, sweet pepperbush, common milkweed, lantana, dogwood, and goldenrod.
Great Purple Hairstreak
The great purple hairstreak (Atlides halesus) is one of the largest and most beautiful southern butterflies. Despite the name, this butterfly has no purple on it at all. Instead, when the wings are open you can see brilliant iridescent blue bordered by black. When closed the wings have three red spots close to the body; overall the wings are brown. Each hindwing has two black tails (hairstreaks). Great purple hairstreak caterpillars feed only on plants in the parasitic mistletoe genus Phoradendron.
The ceranus blue butterfly (Hemiargus ceraunus) is a common but often overlooked butterfly. These small butterflies have beautiful light blue wings visible when they are opened. When closed the wings are gray with white bands and white-rimmed black spots. The back of the wing has a prominent orange-rimmed black spot that can be seen when the wings are folded together. Host plants for these butterflies include a variety of herbaceous legumes.
The Atala butterfly (Eumaeus atala Poey) is a rare butterfly with a limited distribution in South Florida. The outside of the butterflies’ wings (when folded together) are deep black, with curved rows of iridescent blue spots. They have a bright red-orange abdomen. The open wings of the male butterflies feature an iridescent, bright blue, while the females have only small streaks of blue on the wings. Newly hatched caterpillars are very tiny and pale yellow. Over a day or two they develop into bright red caterpillars with yellow spots.
Atala butterflies suffered massive population declines in the early 1900s; early settlers nearly wiped out the Atala's preferred host plant, coontie, for its starch. Today, Atala butterflies are considered rare, but the planting of coontie in butterfly gardens and as an ornamental landscape plant has helped the butterfly populations rebound a bit.
Coontie isn't just the only native host plant for these butterflies, it's the only cycad native to North America. Nectar sources for these butterflies include wild coffee, porterweed, beautyberry, indigoberry, and common weeds like Spanish needles.
The Miami blue (Cyclargus thomasi bethunbakeri) is a small, brightly colored butterfly native only to Florida. Adult Miami blue butterflies have a one-inch wide wingspan. These very rare butterflies have grey wings patterned with brown and black when folded together. The lovely blue is visible on the wings when they are unfolded.
These butterflies were once common in hardwood hammocks, beachside scrub, and tropical pine rocklands. But urbanization and the loss of coastal habitat have eliminated most of the Miami blue's range. There is only one known population remaining on a few uninhabited islands in Key West and Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, making the Miami blue one of the most critically endangered butterflies in North America.
Efforts are being made to save this species. The University of Florida's Museum of Natural History has partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Florida Park Service to re-establish populations of the Miami blue. You may have also seen the "Save Wild Florida" license tag, which features a picture of the Miami Blue butterfly and benefits conservation efforts.
For gardeners thinking of adding butterfly plants to their landscapes, it's important to note that both caterpillar host plants and nectar plants for adults should be planted to maximize butterfly populations. Learn more about planning your own butterfly garden here on Gardening Solutions. And you can always contact your county Extension office for help from agents familar with your community.
With great thanks to Dr. Jaret Daniels, Entomology and Nematology, University of Florida, for both his assistance on this article and for allowing the use of his photographs.