Pollinators and their Favorite Plants

By Nan Mattingly

Clouded skipper

In Florida, 80 per cent of our food crops depend on pollination by insects, birds and bats to produce seeds and fruits as well as to promote the growth of plants and trees. In natural settings, pollinators are essential to produce the superstars of our forests and wetlands – our many eye-catching wildflowers.

Over thousands of years, plants have cleverly evolved to attract pollinators, developing bigger, showier, more colorful flowers to reel them in. The flower-to-flower visits of pollinators became the most efficient way to spread pollen, which results in seeds or fruits that enable plants and trees to reproduce. 

In Florida, wildflower plants have adapted their size, shape and color to attract certain pollinators – and for that reason we have many unique wildflowers that depend on particular pollinators. Some plants have “generalist” flowers to attract any and all pollinators – opting for survival at all costs.    

In the forests of the CREW Project, you can observe significant pollinator/plant relationships. To help you get started, we’ve provided some examples of common wildflowers and pollinators that are often associated with them. 

Milkweed and monarchs

The magnificent monarch relies on native Florida milkweed as it goes through its annual migratory cycle. Milkweed provides returning monarchs with essential early-spring host resources and abundant, high-quality nectar. But not all milkweed is healthy for pollinators. Most of us are familiar with the showy tropical milkweed which has become a popular landscape plant. Because this version of Florida milkweed (there are 21) has adapted to our suburban settings, it remains green longer than other varieties, encouraging the monarch to linger here and breed too late in the season. It also exposes monarchs to colder temperatures and to the pesticides on lawn plants. At CREW you’ll find more congenial varieties of milkweed for the monarch to deposit its eggs and sip the nectar of the plant. Look for swamp milkweed, butterfly milkweed, or aquatic milkweed.

Hairy indigo and the ceraunus blue butterfly

Hairy indigo was introduced in Florida as a ground cover to protect against soil erosion in citrus orchards. As with so many plants brought to Florida for a specific purpose, it has escaped its boundaries and is now seen in natural habitats, where it is a favorite of the delicate ceraunus blue butterfly. Hairy indigo is a low-growing plant with hairy stems and leaves, and in summer it produces a profusion of pink or red spikes of flowers.

Saw palmetto and the great purple hairstreak butterfly

Saw palmetto is a low-growing, winding plant that looks somewhat like a sabal palm lying on its side. In the spring it produces long stalks of yellow-white, fragrant flowers. You can see plenty of saw palmetto at CREW, especially at the two trail systems on Corkscrew Road- CREW Cypress Dome and Marsh Trails. The great purple hairstreak has a few other favorites for collecting nectar, including Bidens alba (also known as Spanish needle), another common sight at CREW. Despite its name, the great purple hairstreak butterfly isn’t really purple; it’s outer wings are brown with a touch of purple, and its underside is an iridescent blue. This butterfly may have multiple sources of nectar but it has only one place to deposit its larvae: on the parasitic oak mistletoe plant.

Pipevine plant and the pipevine swallowtail butterfly

This is another pollinator/plant relationship in which the plant is the larval host for the butterfly as well as its favorite source of nectar. It’s a little unusual because the plant itself is toxic to most butterflies and caterpillars, but the pipevine swallowtail is immune. In fact, that toxicity protects the caterpillars – predators recognize the toxic poison and look for food elsewhere. Pipevine is a climbing woody vine with pipe-shaped burgundy or purple flowers that bloom in May and June.         

Coontie plant and the atala butterfly

The only plant on which the atala will deposit its eggs is the coontie plant, another toxic plant. Atala larvae eat the coontie plant and render the butterfly toxic. The flamboyant red abdomen of the atala is a warning to predators that this butterfly is poisonous. The atala had almost disappeared from Florida until recent conservation efforts restored it to some habitats with abundant coontie plants.

Turkey tangle fogfruit and the white peacock butterfly

You’re almost certain to see a white peacock butterfly on CREW lands. It prefers to eat the leaves and the nectar of turkey tangle fogfruit (try saying that quickly!) but it takes advantage of just about any wildflower offering nectar. The white peacock flies low to the ground so it’s easy to spot.     

The next time you check the pollen count, don’t get mad because pollen stirs up your allergies and makes you cough or sneeze. Be grateful for pollen – it is essential to the successful creation of seeds and fruits that propagate the many wildflowers and plants of CREW.

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