8/31/2000 – Printed in the WEEKEND section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



The flowers are beautiful, yes, but they aren’t the only attraction. There’s another glorious garden resident: the butterfly.

Less than two hours from the Tampa Bay area lies Bok Tower Gardens, one of Florida’s best-kept secrets.

I discovered the gardens as a child in the late 1950s. My father and I were driving from Groveland to Belle Glade when I saw the famous Singing Tower rise above the distant tree line and punctuate the sky. My father, a labor contractor, took little interest in nature for nature’s sake, so I had to beg him to detour and drive to the gardens.

Once there, however, even he was moved by the beauty of the place: the interplay of every shade of green imaginable, the commingling of shadow and light. When the carillon sounded, everyone, including my old man, stopped and looked up. I knew then that I was home.

The vibrant colors of the plants bordering the paths held my attention. Never had I seen so many different colors in one place. But my real love affair with the gardens became permanent when I discovered the butterflies.

Here was a year-round, teeming color show that was mine for the price of a few dollars and an appreciation for one of nature’s most alluring creatures. After that first day, I have returned there many times, often just to observe butterflies.

I recently befriended several avid butterfly watchers, who have shown me that specific knowledge enhances the experience tenfold. Florida butterfly lovers should know that Byrum and Linda Cooper of the Lake Region Audubon Society in Winter Haven have developed a provisional checklist of Bok’s 56 species of butterflies.

For each, the common and scientific names are given, and the months it is in the gardens and the degree of its abundance are listed. Here, for example, is how an entry reads: “Species: Pipevine Swallowtail/Battus philenor/Month: 1-12/Abundance: common to uncommon.” The two other abundance designations are “abundant” and “rare.”

Abundant means that you are likely to see more than 20 of that species per visit to the right habitat; common, you are likely to see four to 20 per visit; uncommon, zero to three per visit; rare, unlikely to see any per visit, but they do appear from time to time.

Everyone with whom I have spoken finds the checklist useful. Free copies are in the gardens’ gift shop. On my most recent visit, I bought a copy of Florida’s Fabulous Butterflies, a colorful book by University of Florida entomologist Thomas Emmel and National Wildlife and BBC wildlife photographer Brian Kenney. Although the gift shop stocks other butterfly books, I like this one best because of its lush pictures, detailed information and easy-to-read prose. Most of the insects in the book can be found in the gardens.

One recent Sunday, I used the book to identify a Florida viceroy, or Limenitis archippus. The Viceroy, found statewide, is one of my favorites because it is a trickster. While in South Florida, it adopts a rich brown to mimic the queen butterfly. When in the northern counties, it becomes red-orange to mimic the monarch. Emmel writes that the viceroy favors moist terrain and swamps along lakes and streams where willow trees thrive.

Near the reflection pool and tower, I spotted the stout, hairy body of a male tropical checkered skipper, its black checks arranged in bands on a white background. True to form, it was flying a few inches above the ground hunting for a female. A few yards away, a female, with darker coloring, fed on reddish flowers. The male detected her and flittered toward her. As if teasing, she caught a breeze and floated into a tall orangish lantana.

With my book, checklist and binoculars, I wandered throughout the gardens for two hours. I saw a cloudless sulphur, cassius blue, white peacock, Carolina satyr, several dorantes longtail and an ocola skipper. I wrote on my checklist each habitat, type of plant that attracted the insects, brightness of the sun and time of day.

I have learned that in many cases, consistency pays off when looking for a butterfly showing. For example, I head straight for multicolored impatiens, native milkweed, lantana, blazing star, butterfly bush and thistle going to seed. Nine times out of 10, I will find colors darting in and out of flowers.