The beautiful Atala butterfly (Eumaeus atala Poey) is now here in the Gardens, thanks to our prolific coontie palm (Zamia integrifolia) population and Thomas Hecker, director of Horticulture at Peace River Botanical & Sculpture Gardens, who recently released a population of the butterflies and their caterpillars into Bok Tower Gardens.
At one time, the population of Atalas in Florida was believed to be extinct due to the overharvesting of its host plant, the coontie palm. Coonties have grown in Florida as far back as the Mesozoic Era of dinosaurs. Over time, early humans learned to use these edible palms as a food source. The root of this slow-growing plant can be processed to remove toxins and ground to make flour. Florida settlers learned this process from Native American tribes and eventually overharvested the plant.
During WWI, this type of flour, more commonly known as Arrowroot Powder, was used for government rations and animal crackers for children, among other uses. Overharvesting and habitat loss, freezes, hurricanes, and insecticides were too much for the Atala population, and the species was considered extinct.
That was until 1979 when a small population was found on Key Biscayne in Dade County. Conservationists used that population to raise larvae on coontie plants, moved them to Fairchild Gardens, and then into other natural areas within their historic range. With some help from passionate biologists, the Atalas began repopulating and are now thriving in areas with native coontie.
Bok Tower Gardens is at the northern edge of their range; however, Atalas can live in Central Florida if winter weather remains mild and freeze conditions do not occur. According to iNaturalist and butterfliesandmoths.org, colonies have persisted in natural areas around Frostproof for decades.
You can help this imperiled species by planting coonties in your home landscape. An Atala population requires many coontie plants, and plantings must be plentiful to support the species. The butterflies need tender new growth for food and will leave if food sources are inadequate. Also, these butterflies prefer to eat coonties that grow in filtered sunlight rather than those in full sun, as the plant material is softer.
In addition to planting coontie, you must plant specific nectar plants for the adults, such as saw palmetto, indigo-berry, butterfly sage, and the weedy Spanish needles (Bidens). By doing these things, you will create the correct habitat for survival. After that, it is a matter of patience to see if the Atala butterflies make their way to your garden.
Prioritizing native plants and planting Florida-friendly is a massive help to Atalas, among many other species.
Look for these rare and beautiful butterflies and larvae on your next trip to the Gardens. Your best chance to see them is among the coontie palms at the entrance to the Visitor Center or in the Pollinator Garden behind the Blue Palmetto Café.
Article and photographs by Keith Novosel, Digial Content Creator, Bok Tower Gardens.