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Outdoor Learning: Small wonders define Florida’s outdoors

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image Zebra longwing butterfly.

Florida has its grand natural sights, such as sunsets, beachfront, and live oaks, but it’s the small wonders that frequently attract my notice.

By DIANE STRAUSER ALVAREZ,  Master Naturalist and Camp Bayou Supporter

Florida has its grand natural sights, such as sunsets, beachfront, and live oaks, but it’s the small wonders that frequently attract my notice. Having grown up in Florida, I was shocked to realize that I knew few names. I could sit outdooors and soak up a beautiful natural scene, but when I began to describe the outdoors in writing and watercolor, I knew no names for grass, bird, butterfly, tree, plant, or insect! I would have loved learning the names when I was a child, but everyone around me took it all for granted. Even though I loved the school library, I didn’t know a field guide existed. I continue to make up for my lack of learning.

On this sunny 70-degree day in winter, I was out with my dogs and saw a zebra longwing butterfly (Heliconius charitonius). Not only is it the state butterfly, but it also depends on one of my favorite native plants, the corky-stemmed passion vine (Passiflora suberosa). This is a delicate vine that will grow in the shade and trail over a fence, brushpile, or low branches of a bush or small tree. It is a perennial (growing year round) and has tiny green passionflowers and purple berries. It is the larval plant where the longwing as well as the gulf fritillary and sometimes the julia butterflies lay their tiny eggs. In the next stage, the caterpillars eat the leaves, then curl up in a leaf-like chrysalis to emerge and take their first flight a week or so later. The zebra longwing may live up to six months, making it one of Florida’s longest-lived butterflies.

Butterflies survive by eating nectar from the wildflowers and other flowers in our yards and gardens. Join me for outdoor learning. What natural wonder have you noticed lately? Let me know at beautyberry@tampabay.rr.com.

This column is sponsored by Camp Bayou Outdoor Learning Center located in Ruskin at 4140 24th Street SE, 3 miles south of S.R. 674 off exit 240 W. on I-75. Email: campbayou@gmail.com or call (813) 641-8545 for more information.

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