Footprints in the Sand: Florida Landscapes



Footprints-in-the-Sand-FMB-ColumnThere has been a lot in the news about water quality since last summer. I believe that most of the residents of our local area are very much aware of what happened and would like nothing better than for that to become ancient history. I’m with them.

Scientists and others have instructed us to limit our use of lawn fertilizers and become more cognizant of where water runoff goes to avoid adding nutrients to our natural waterways, which can help prevent future algae outbreaks. Each one of us can do a little that in turn will help a lot.

We planted many native Florida plants when we moved into our house in 2001, but about eight years ago we stepped up our efforts to make our landscape Florida friendly. The goal was to greatly reduce or eliminate watering and fertilizing the yard and plants, especially in the winter dry season months. The first step taken was to put crushed shell, where grass used to grow, in the backyard. We added walking paths with concrete benches, self-contained waterfall ponds and outdoor lighting. Next came the greenery.

The selection of the plants and trees were made carefully. We wanted them to be drought tolerant and capable of handing the close-to-freezing temperatures we might have during the winter weeks. Yes, we have weeks of winter, not months.

Rob Modys-Florida Landscape-Footprint in the Sand
Black Swallowtail chrysalis and caterpillar. Photo by Rob Modys.

A variety of palms were planted along with bromeliads, orchids and flowering native plants. Originally our plan was geared toward managing watering, but the native plants soon began to draw lots of butterflies. We went from catching a glimpse of the occasional monarch, to seeing lots of monarchs. As the garden grew, we began to see gulf fritillaries, zebra longwings, black swallowtails, white peacocks, sulphurs, queens and even atalas. The last one mentioned really surprised us.

The atala is one of the rarest of Florida butterflies. It came very close to extinction in the 1950’s because it relies on only one host plant, the coontie where females lay their eggs for caterpillars to feed. The coontie roots were harvested by Native Americans and early Florida settlers for starch that could be turned into flour and the plant was almost wiped out. In the late 1970’s research was done on the relationship of the atala and the coontie plants. A small colony of the butterflies was found on a barrier island near Miami and that began the push to save the atala.

Until recently it was believed that the southeast coast was the atala’s only location in Florida. I personally can attest to the fact that this is not true. I saw one in my butterfly garden several months ago, thanks to the coontie plants I’ve planted. There is also an abundance of them in Cape Coral’s Rotary Park. The Tom Allen Butterfly House is located there and that’s where I saw my first atala and learned about the importance of adding coontie plants to our garden.

Butterflies are amazing creatures. Their lifecycle begins as an egg laid on a host plant. That plant is usually unique to a certain type of butterfly and becomes food for the caterpillar that hatches from the egg. It begins eating as much as possible before becoming a chrysalis. After a short time, the chrysalis breaks open and out comes a butterfly. The newly formed butterfly then looks for nectar plants so it can start the process over once again.

Many anglers in Southwest Florida pay close attention to a little white butterfly called the southern white. All during my years as a Gulf coast fisherman I have hoped to see the white butterflies in the early spring. Their appearance is one of the first signs that migrating tarpon are on their way. They usually appear in March and are most likely to be seen while boating on one of our many bays.

If you want to learn more about native Florida plants and butterfly gardens visit All Native Garden Center in Fort Myers or stop by the Tom Allen Memorial Butterfly House at Rotary Park in Cape Coral.

Captain Rob Modys is a lifetime Florida outdoorsman, retired spin & fly fishing guide and host of REEL Talk Radio on ESPN 99.3 FM from 7-10 a.m. every Saturday morning. He is past president and board chairman of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association and serves on the board of the Florida Guides Association. Capt. Rob also shares his fishing knowledge in a series of fishing classes at Bass Pro Shops.






  1. Black Swallowtail chrysalis and caterpillar. Photo by Rob Modys.


  1. Atala Butterfly with iridescent wing markings. Photo credit: Abi Warner/