On Gardening: Longwing butterflies creating Halley's Comet-type moments

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Two Zebra Heliconians feed on Luscious Royale Cosmo lantana in November. - Norman Winter/TNS/TNS

Blue Moon on Halloween, Northern Lights creeping south, and now Jupiter and Saturn snuggling close for the first time since the Middle Ages. So goes the year 2020 and all of its memories. To The Garden Guy all of these “Twilight Zone” moments may pale in comparison to the Halley’s Comet-type events that have been happening in the butterfly world thanks to the Heliconian or longwing butterflies.

Even though the zebra longwing is the state butterfly of Florida, I assure you it is tropical in nature and like its cousins I’ll be mentioning, are much more common in Central and South America. So, imagine looking out your Georgia window in the summer of 2020 and seeing three at a time feeding on your Truffula Pink gomphrena and swirls of multiples feeding on Luscious lantanas.

This has been going on at The Garden Guy’s house for the last 125 days. Zebra longwing butterflies have taken up residence in Georgia and we don’t know why. The theory or best guess is they came in with a hurricane that blew across Florida a few years ago. Of course, we have been on a semi-weekly hurricane schedule in 2020. The Zebras are even proliferating as far north as Atlanta and gardeners in the Thomasville area have counted 26 at a time.

Passion flower vines tie all Heliconian butterflies together as that is the mandatory host plant for their larvae. As the Monarch needs milkweed, the Heliconian must have a passion vine. Just on the other side of my privacy fence, in the woods so to speak, native passion flower vines grew two stories tall. The female Zebras work tirelessly everyday laying eggs on the undersides of leaves and tendrils. This means the lady inverts in flight to lay this egg in its most protected location.

The vines have had a treasure trove of white caterpillars feeding with such a voracious appetite the leaves became scarce. Happily, new growth appeared. Halley’s Comet comes around every 76 years but having multiple generations or broods of a Zebra longwing butterfly in your yard has been a never event for most of us. We all hope it won’t be 76 years before it happens again.

In Texas, they too have had unbelievably shocking moments when it comes to the longwing butterfly. The flashy orange Julia Heliconian, native to Brazil but also seen in South Florida and South Texas was seen this August in Brazos County, home to Texas A&M. But the rarest of all happened on the same day at the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas. The National Butterfly Center is home to the rare and wonderful lifer events, but this even had them shaking their heads.

Just a few days ago, not one but two Isabella’s Heliconian butterflies were seen. This incredibly beautiful butterfly sports orange, yellow and black tiger stripes. That is a horticulturist’s description versus a professional lepidopterist. Believe me it will bring out the camera faster than a Hollywood star.

That sighting alone, a lifetime event in the wild, in the United States, would cause butterfly enthusiasts to do more than a happy dance. But on that day, there was another sighting, of an Erato Heliconian.

This butterfly is described as black forewing with red band and hindwing black with yellow stripe. I had the opportunity to be in a group that spotted one in the wild once and those gathered jumped into an area of potential vipers just to get a photograph. Embarrassingly, I admit, I got my photo too!

Here we are at Thanksgiving and my Zebra Heliconians are still here in Midland, Georgia, and in a feeding frenzy as I write this. Oddly they are still feeding on those same Truffula Pink gomphrena and Luscious lantanas planted in April. While 2020 has been most challenging, my little corner of nature has brought great joy.

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(Norman Winter, horticulturist, garden speaker and author of, “Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South” and “Captivating Combinations: Color and Style in the Garden.” Follow him on Facebook @NormanWinterTheGardenGuy.)

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©2020 Norman Winter

Isabella's Heliconian made a rare November appearance at the National Butterfly Center in Mission Texas. - National Butterfly Center/TNS/TNS
The Erato Heliconian butterfly showed the same November day as Isabella's Heliconian at the National Butterfly Center in Mission Texas. - National Butterfly Center/TNS/TNS
This female Zebra Heliconian inverts to lay an egg on a native passionflower vine behind The Garden Guy's house. - Norman Winter/TNS/TNS
This Julia Heliconian is similar to the one that made an August appearance in Brazos County, Texas. - Norman Winter/TNS/TNS
This Zebra Heliconian has found this year's new introduction of Luscious Golden Gate lantana to be just perfect. - Norman Winter/TNS/TNS
Three Zebra Heliconians feed on Truffula Pink gomphrena at tThe Garden Guy's house in Midland, GA. - Norman Winter/TNS/TNS