My “Butterfly Gardening in Florida” series rolls on with this third installment in which I will focus on swallowtail butterflies. Florida is home to 10 swallowtail butterflies — more than any other state. They are very easy to identify due to their strikingly large size and their ability to glide long distances between wing flaps.
Much larger than other Florida butterflies, most swallowtails have distinctive tails on their hind wings. I remember the first time I saw one. Actually, there were two, and they were mating. I’ll never forget it! I still thoroughly enjoy watching them chase one another all through my garden.
The giant swallowtails are dark in color — some say brown, others say black —with yellow spots across their fore and hind wings. These distinctive spots serve as protectionagainst predators, as they mimic sunlight shining on dark-colored leaves. Swallowtail’s larvae feed on Aristolochia (Dutchman ’s pipe), which is very abundant here in South Florida.
In the larvae stage (all five), all swallowtails larvae resemble bird droppings. I’ve also noticed that the black swallowtails, when their larvae pupate into a chrysalis near a green leaf, the chrysalis will be green, and when they pupate near a dead brown leaf, the chrysalis is, of course, brown. These clever disguises render them almost invisible to the naked eye, as well as hungry predators.
Another unique characteristic of swallowtails is the osmeterium (tiny orange or reddish Y-shaped glands or horns that protrude from their head). When predators harass them, they emit a pungent odor that resembles old cheese.
The largest in the Papilionidae Family of butterflies isthe giant swallowtail. It is North America’s largest butterfly, and can measure up to eight inches across. The giant swallowtail utilizes native wild lime or citrus trees as host plants (the plants that females lay their eggs on, and serve as food for emerging caterpillars). They are sometimes called Orange Dogs here in Florida because they voraciously feed on the leaves of citrus trees.
The elegant black swallowtail is my favorite swallowtail. Its larvae feed on the carrot family, which includes dill, parsley and fennel. Other swallowtails worth noting are the zebra swallowtail, laurel or palamedes, spicebush, pipevine and the eastern tiger swallowtail. Although the polydamas or gold rim butterfly has no tail, it is still considered a Florida swallowtail.
Look for my next butterfly gardening installment, in which I’ll cover (sulfur butterflies in Florida) The Pieridae Family.