Tucked away on a busy thoroughfare in South Tampa is a quiet slice of natural Florida that’s soon to be teeming with hundreds of native butterflies.
It will be the Tampa Bay area’s first butterfly conservatory, and its goal is to “put a little bit of Florida back in Florida.”
Founder Anita Camacho told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay her passion for pollinators and spreading environmental awareness locally began about 25 years ago when her mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Research into the disease led Camacho to learn about the long term effects of exposure to pesticides and chemicals.
Butterfly Conservatory of Tampa Bay
Little Red Wagon Native Plant Nursery
4113 Henderson Blvd., Tampa.
Since then, Camacho has dedicated much of her personal and professional life to spreading the word about the benefits of chemical-free gardening, native plant gardening and native pollinator conservation.
Butterflies—which will be celebrated on March 14 as part of National Learn About Butterflies Day—are an indicator species, Camacho said, and “their decline is telling us there’s a big problem…and we got to listen.”
Camacho grew up in Land O’Lakes and graduated from the University of Tampa with a degree in accounting. She’s a certified public account by trade but has been an avid gardener and butterfly lover since she was a child. Over her years in the Tampa Bay area, she joined local gardening and butterfly groups, growing her passion in “every spare minute I had.”
She’s now the founder of the Tampa Bay Butterfly Foundation and president of the Tampa Bay chapter of the North American Butterfly Association. The headquarters for her conservation efforts is the Little Red Wagon Native Plant Nursery on Henderson Boulevard in South Tampa. Camacho officially opened the place in August 2020 after a successful native plant drive-up sales to “do something positive” during the pandemic.
“You don’t have to go to a park to see nature…it should be all around us,” she said. “These are the things that evolved here, and wildlife needs those plants.”
Camacho said 99% of the nursery consists of plants native to Florida. The other 1% is a small group of non-native, noninvasive herbs that are beneficial to some species of butterflies.
There are rows of cabbage palm and coral honeysuckle and clusters of maypop passionflower and stoke’s aster. The pots of milkweed sell out fast because of its importance in an ongoing global conversation about protecting the endangered monarch butterfly. Though the monarch is a migrating species, Florida has its own population of monarchs that stay put throughout the year.
Besides being a hot spot to buy pesticide-free native plants, Camacho’s nursery also educates customers on the importance of what they’re buying. Each cluster of pots has colorful cards that explain the care and keeping of the plant as well as which butterfly or pollinator is attracted to it.
The Bahama cassia shrub includes a picture of an orange barred sulphur butterfly and the water hyssop pots note that it’s a larval host plant to the white peacock butterfly. The golden ragwort pots—and about a dozen other plant varieties at the nursery—have a card that says the plant is a great nectar source for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
“It improves our health…having natural things around us,” Camacho said. “You don’t have to have a green thumb for butterfly gardening. It’s probably the easiest gardening anyone can ever do.”
Soon, the nursery will also be home to the Butterfly Conservatory of Tampa Bay, which is currently under construction and slated to open at the end of spring. To get to it, visitors will venture through the nursery’s gift shop and pop-up education space that temporarily houses mesh enclosures of some native butterflies in their caterpillar stage and several tanks of native reptiles.
When it’s finished, the conservatory will have classroom space for field trips and summer camps, a laboratory area for traveling researchers, an insectarium, a koi pond, rotating butterfly life cycle windows, an exhibit on native oak species and a 2,000-square-foot “butterfly rainforest” housing up to 400 butterflies. Camacho describes the space as an immersive, living science museum.
“They’ll learn as they’re going through the conservatory…learning about these creatures and how they can help,” she said. “Planting the seeds of conservation—that’s what the conservatory does. We’re trying to do that and promote the native plant species at the same time.”
Part of the reason why butterfly gardening is so easy, Camacho said, is that it doesn’t take acres to create one. You could have two plants and have a butterfly garden for monarchs, she said: milkweed for the eggs and caterpillars and a nectar-producing plant for the adult monarchs to feed on.
The same goes for other native butterfly and pollinator species—even just having potted native plants on a patio or front porch can make a big difference.
“You plant it and they come; it’s about that simple,” Camacho said. “Every garden matters. Every plant matters.”
Dr. Jaret Daniels seconds that sentiment. He’s an entomologist and curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity. Essentially, he specializes in insect conservation and research of butterflies and moths, especially those native to Florida.
“We have a lot of species that aren’t really found anywhere else—endemic taxa,” Daniels said. “And they’re increasingly under threat.”
Daniels points out the plight of the monarch and the Miami blue butterfly. While the monarch is still wide ranging, he says the populations have decreased 80%-90%in the last 30 years. The Miami blue, which had a wider range in the 1960s and ‘70s, is now one of the rarest butterflies in North America.
According to Daniels’ research at the Florida Museum, the only wild Miami blue populations left are in the Key West and Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuges.
“Like California, Florida has some of the same pressures: growing population, habitats under threat, human encroachment, urban encroachment, and other pressures like pesticides, mosquito control, climate change and invasive species,” Daniels said. “But people can make a difference; they should not think that they’re removed from this.”
Daniels said small changes anyone can make include adding more blooming and native plants and mowing the lawn less, which reduces water usage and supports more insect species that are crucial to the native environment. And, having places like Camacho’s native plant nursery and butterfly conservatory gets people excited about these crucial creatures.
“You walk through a butterfly exhibit…you get excited about the experience. It’s as much emotional and excitement-driven as it is a place to get real resources,” Daniels said. “We want to get more people excited and understand that they can help—that’s the big message.”
According to the Florida Museum, there are about 46 different species of butterflies in Hillsborough County, including Florida’s state butterfly, the zebra heliconian. One of the key goals of Camacho’s conservatory is to get locals excited about butterfly conservation in their own area by immersing them in a recreation of natural Florida.
“It will be a tranquil experience of walking through free flying butterflies and people can see different landscapes and what they attract,” Camacho said. “It just starts to grow; people become much more aware of what they’re doing. It grows into other avenues of our lives…so we can put back what we’ve taken away.”
The Butterfly Conservatory of Tampa Bay is slated to open in late spring at the Little Red Wagon Native Nursery, 4113 Henderson Blvd., Tampa. Learn more about the native plants available at the nursery and the butterflies they host at littleredwagonnativenursery.com.
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