Caterpillar Connoisseurs: The Role of Caterpillars For Birds

Caterpillar Connoisseurs: The Role of Caterpillars For Birds

Wilcox Nursery has spent 2023 focusing on the role of caterpillars in our ecosystem. Much of our focus has been on why and how you can attract butterflies and moths to your garden using native plants. One of the most visible ecological impacts of caterpillars is as a food source for birds. Caterpillars provide proteins, fats, and carotenoids that are essential for developing baby birds. Research from Doug Tallamey shows that as many as 96% of terrestrial birds in North America rely on insects to feed their nestlings. Each nest of Carolina Chickadees can eat 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars during its time in the nest, hundreds per nest per day.  

Birds touch our lives in many ways. They help control pests, such as mosquitoes, roaches, and rodents. Carrion-eating birds provide natural cleanup and disease prevention. Birds are pollinators, fertilizers, and seed dispersers. As one of the most visible types of wildlife, birds are also widely enjoyed by people. Birding boomed in popularity during the pandemic as we found ourselves stuck at home, finding more time to observe the wildlife right outside our windows. 

The role of native plants in supporting the life cycles of Lepidoptera and birds cannot be understated. One study showed that non-native hedgerows had 98% less caterpillar biomass than a native hedgerow. Another study compared pairs of properties in which one was planted with mostly exotic and the other mostly native. The native yards had a higher number of caterpillars, more species of caterpillars, and a corresponding increase in bird numbers and diversity. 

The most effective way to increase the biodiversity in your own landscape is to plant natives. Oak trees host over 500 species of moths and butterflies. There are smaller species of oaks that work better in urban and suburban areas than the classic Southern Live Oak. Underplanting with additional host plants that also provide cover offers a 2-for-1 for birds with food and shelter. Providing suitable nesting areas throughout the developed parts of Florida, we can start connecting the fragmented habitats. 

Plants to Support Birds:

Sand Live Oak
  • Host for: Oak hairstreak, Horace’s duskywing, Red-banded hairstreak, White-M hairstreak, and leafroller moths
  • A medium to large tree growing from 25-75 feet high. This is an upland species and is the better choice over Southern Live Oak for properties that are very dry. These trees are well adapted to salt air tolerance in coastal settings as well as inland settings. It has a picturesque form and provides habitat for wildlife. 

Shop Sand Live Oak Here

Myrtle Oak
  • Host for: Horace’s duskywing, Red-banded Hairstreak, White-M hairstreak, and Leafroller moths
  • A small-medium shrubby oak that ranges from 10- 15 feet, rarely up to 30 feet. Requires part to full sun and dry to extremely dry soil. The acorns are valuable to birds and mammals. This plant is ideal if you want to add an oak for the wildlife value but have limited space. The oldest known individuals are over 1,000 years old!

Shop Myrtle Oak Here

Green Buttonwood
  • Host for: Martial Scrub Hairstreak and Tantalus Sphinx Moth 
  •  A large, broadleaf, evergreen shrub or medium-sized tree naturally occurring in coastal settings. Highly wind and salt tolerant. This species can be low and spreading with twisted limbs or trained into an upright multiple trunk or single trunk tree up to 40 feet in height. It can also be used as a screening or enclosure shrub. Small creamy white flowers precede dry seeds that are clustered to give it the appearance of coat buttons.Tolerant of inundation with salt water.

Shop Green Buttonwood Here

  • Host for: Fiddlewood Leafroller Moth
  • A fast growing, tropical native shrub or small tree. It has large, glossy, deep green leaves. The sprays of white, beautifully fragrant flowers are produced throughout the warm months, and are very graceful dripping from the branch tips. They attract butterflies and other pollinators. Birds readily use the fruit of this beautiful plant. Fiddlewood can grow from 8 feet to 18 feet and is quite broad in shape. 

Shop Fiddlewood Here

Spanish Bayonet
  • Host for: Yucca Giant Skipper and Cofaqui Giant Skipper
  • A long-lived shrub that blooms typical, showy yucca flowers in spring. It makes a showy specimen but beware of the sharp edges. Natural found in very dry, sandy soils. It prefers full sun but can tolerate shade. They slowly grow to 10 to 15 high and 3 to 6 feet wide. 

Shop Spanish Bayonet Here

Canna Lily 
  • Host for: Brazilian Skipper
  • A deciduous wetland wildflower growing 3 to 6 feet tall. Prefers full to part sun and requires a consistently moist soil to thrive. They bloom with wonderful yellow flowers in late Spring and early Summer. Provides habitat for dragonflies and other insects. Plant them near the edges of a pond or other moist areas of the landscape for a beautiful show of flowers.

Shop Canna Lily Here

Creeping Sage

  • Host for: Fulvous Hairstreak
  • A perennial ground cover that can spread 3-4 feet or more on wiry stems.  Useful ground cover that is very adaptable, but prefers moist soil and will grow in sun or shade.The bright green foliage is great for brightening shadowy or dark areas of a landscape. It can be trimmed to provide a neater appearance. Consider as an alternative to asiatic jasmine.

Shop Creeping Sage here

For more information, see our “Gardening for Birds” handout

By Nikki Bales

Coastal Resilience: Embracing Florida’s Salt-Tolerant Plants

Coastal Resilience: Embracing Florida’s Salt-Tolerant Plants

Living on the coast of Florida offers numerous advantages, from breathtaking ocean views to a mild climate. However, coastal living also comes with its fair share of challenges, particularly when it comes to weathering hurricanes and tropical storms. To enhance coastal resilience and protect your property from the wrath of Mother Nature, consider planting native salt-tolerant plants. In this blog post, we’ll explore the benefits of these hardy plants and why they are a smart choice for coastal homeowners.

The Importance of Native Plants

Native plants are species that have evolved in a particular region over time, adapting to the local climate and conditions. They are an essential component of the ecosystem, providing food and habitat for native wildlife. When you choose to plant native species in your coastal landscape, you help preserve the natural balance of the local ecosystem while reaping a host of benefits for your property.

Why Salt-Tolerant Plants?

  • Resilience Against Saltwater Intrusion: Coastal areas are susceptible to saltwater intrusion, which can harm conventional plants. Salt-tolerant plants, as the name suggests, can withstand exposure to saltwater inundation and thrive in salty soils. This resilience is especially valuable during hurricanes when storm surges bring sea water inland.
  • Erosion Control: The robust root systems of salt-tolerant plants help stabilize the soil and prevent erosion. Hurricanes often bring heavy rainfall and strong winds that can strip away topsoil, but native salt-tolerant vegetation acts as a natural buffer against these forces.
  • Low Maintenance: Native plants are well-suited to the local climate, reducing the need for excessive watering and fertilization once established. They are adapted to periods of drought, so they are low-maintenance choices for homeowners.
  • Habitat for Wildlife: Salt-tolerant plants attract native wildlife, such as birds, butterflies, and pollinators. By creating a haven for these species, you contribute to the overall health of the ecosystem.


Popular Salt-Tolerant Florida Natives

Seaside Goldenrod

Seaside Goldenrod, Solidago sempervirens, is a perennial wildflower that grows 3-6 ft. in height. Small, yellow flowers are arranged along the upper side of branches, forming a feathery, plume-shaped inflorescence in summer and fall. Pollinators visit this showy flowering wildflower heavily! Goldenrod is very easy growing, salt tolerant, as well as tolerant of wet to dry soil. Plant in a background setting with full sun. To prevent excessive seeding, cut the seed heads off after blooming has wrapped up. Shop Seaside Goldenrod here.  

Red- Tip and Horizontal Cocoplum

Red-tip Cocoplum, Chrysobalanus icaco, can quickly grow into a large bush or small tree growing up to 20 feet. Its foliage is nearly round, shiny, dark-green, leathery and very ornamental with the new growth tips displaying a bronze-red coloring. The fruit are edible, dark purple plum-like fruit. Red-tip Cocoplum will grow in full sun to shade and it becomes very drought tolerant after establishment. Cocoplum can be very frost sensitive. They take pruning well and are easy to grow as a popular and widely used native ornamental. It is the larval host for Epicorsia moths. Shop Red- Top Cocoplum here. 

Horizontal Cocoplum is an evergreen shrub with low, broad or horizontal growth. This plant can still grow to 6-8 feet high, but can be reasonably maintained at between knee and waist height. Be sure to leave this plant plenty of room for its 5-6 foot spread. The flowers are small cream-colored blooms that are not particularly noticeable in late spring. The white with pink blush fruit is edible and attractive on the plant. Tolerant of full sun to shade and are drought, salt, wind, and poor soil tolerant. They are also a larval host for Epicorsia moths. Shop Horizontal Cocoplum here. 

Cabbage Palm

Cabbage Palm, Sabal palmetto, is the honorable state tree of Florida as well as a monarch palm tree for exuding a sense of place in Florida landscapes! Fan shaped leaves can create a spherical shaped head on mature palms that are not pruned. White flowers are numerous followed by shiny, black fruits. It supports many epiphytic plants and this palm is a wildlife bonanza supporting pollinators, birds, and mammals. Additionally, it has a rich ethnobotanical history. Cabbage Palm is very wind, salt, drought, and flood tolerant. Unfortunately, many of the Cabbage Palms that are in suburban landscapes, especially commercial properties, are terribly over pruned. This cancerous cultural habit is ugly and damages the well being of the palm and reduces its ecological services. If Cabbage Palm has to be pruned, it should never be pruned with the leaves cut past a horizontal plain at the bottom set of the leaves. Shop Cabbage Palm here. 

Cabbage Palm (Sabal Palm)

Sea Grape

Sea Grape, Coccoloba uvifera, is variable, but can reach up to 35 to 40 ft. in height. It is an evergreen shrub or tree with nearly round, large red-veined leaves. They produce spikes of whitish flowers; and edible, reddish fruits which hang in grape-like clusters on female plants. This is an iconic large shrub or tree from coastal settings. Leaves turn bronze to red in the winter. Plant Sea Grape in well drained soil in full sun to partial sun. It can be used as a specimen plant or tree and hedging. It is great for high wind and salt exposed beach front or other coastal exposed locations. The leaf is large and can create a great deal of debris, so plant it where this will not become a problem. Shop Sea Grape here. 

Sea Purslane

Sea Purslane, Sesuvium portulacastrum, is a native that occurs widely throughout the globe in warm coastal areas and is an important erosion control plant. It is a succulent that is very adaptable, but it comes from locations that are moist and regularly inundated with salt water. It does not have to be washed in salt water in cultivation, but it is a great ground cover for coastal landscapes. The thick foliage is dark green on rubbery stems. The small pink flowers are produced sporadically year round. Its foliage is used as an edible. Shop Sea Purslane here. 

Silver and Green Buttonwood

Silver Buttonwood, Conocarpus erectus var. sericeus, typically will grow to 15-25 feet in height, sometimes larger. It is a medium tree or large shrub with an open to dense crown with pruning. Its leaves are alternate, 2-4 inches long, leathery, and covered with silvery hairs. Flowers are green ‘button-like’ clusters on the branch tips and the cone-like fruit are made of many small dry seeds. It requires full sun and is used as an accent, hedge, screening plant, or specimen tree in residential and commercial landscapes along the coast. Buttonwoods are the ‘fourth’ Mangrove and as such, are highly wind and salt tolerant, including inundation tolerance for front line water front landscapes. This is a very popular native for its colorful ornamental foliage. Shop Silver Buttonwood here. 

Silver Buttonwood

Green Buttonwood, Conocarpus erectus, is a large broadleaf evergreen shrub or medium size tree naturally occurring in coastal settings and is considered the 4th Mangrove in the Mangrove complex. It has high wind and salt tolerance. This species can be low and spreading with twisted limbs, or trained into an upright multiple trunk or single trunk tree up to 40 feet in height. It can also be used as a screening or enclosure shrub too. Small creamy white flowers precede dry seeds that are clustered to give it the appearance of coat buttons. This is an evergreen tree that fits most properties and is very adapted to high wind, salt, drought, or inundation with salt water in nearly frost free areas. Shop Green Buttonwood Here. 

Hurricane Preparedness with Native Salt-Tolerant Plants

When planting salt-tolerant natives for hurricane preparedness, consider the following tips:

  • Use a Variety of Species: Diversify your landscape with a mix of salt-tolerant plants to increase resilience. A variety of species will provide more robust protection against extreme weather conditions.
  • Proper Placement: Plant salt-tolerant vegetation strategically along your property to create natural windbreaks and buffers against storm surges.
  • Regular Maintenance: While native plants are low-maintenance, periodic pruning and upkeep ensure they continue to thrive and provide optimal protection.


Planting native salt-tolerant plants in your coastal Florida landscape is a win-win. You enhance the resilience of your property against hurricanes, contribute to the local ecosystem, and enjoy the beauty of these hardy, low-maintenance plants. By choosing these native species, you not only protect your home and reduce storm damage in the landscape, but also play a vital role in preserving Florida’s unique coastal habitats.

Embracing the Quiet Beauty of Winter Dormancy: Florida Native Plants That Rest

Embracing the Quiet Beauty of Winter Dormancy: Florida Native Plants That Rest

As winter gently sweeps into the Sunshine State, you might assume that Florida’s vibrant landscapes would lose their luster. However, nature has a surprise in store. Many of Florida’s native plants gracefully enter a state of winter dormancy, revealing a different kind of beauty that’s just as captivating as their lush, green, and blossoming counterparts. In this blog post, we’ll explore the charm of these dormant plants and discover some native species that take their well-deserved rest during the winter months.

The Serene Season of Winter Dormancy

Winter dormancy is not a sign of weakness or decline in native plants. Instead, it’s a clever adaptation to Florida’s unique climate, where the subtropical and temperate zones overlap. During this period, these plants conserve energy, reduce water loss, and prepare for the spring awakening. While they may appear bare or less vibrant, they are far from lifeless. In fact, their subtlety adds a touch of elegance to the winter landscape.

Florida’s Native Dormant Stars
Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)

This native shrub grows to 6 to 12 ft. tall and about as wide. Its arching branches display small pink flowers in the spring and early summer as well as striking violet-purple berries in the fall. During winter, after the berries have been devoured by wildlife, beautyberry showcases its graceful arching branches, adding a sculptural quality to the landscape. Pollinators are attracted to the subtle, but attractive small flowers and songbirds to the showy berries. Beautyberry is a very easy growing, drought tolerant shrub for well drained soil and partial shade to full sun. Shop Beautyberry here.  

Winged Elm (Ulmus alata)

This native shade tree grows to 50 feet high or better, with a broad spreading canopy. The young branches have wing-like growths running their length which creates a distinctive characteristic of this species. Winged Elm grows quickly, yet is strong wooded and is used for a variety of uses. The tree is an absolute for nesting songbirds and the dry seed is not only relatively clean, but a good wildlife food source. Plant Winged Elm for summer shade and winter sun. Shop Winged Elm here. 

Red Maple (Acer rubrum) 

This large, deciduous shade tree grows 40-60 feet with a rounded, compact crown. Red Maples will display red foliage in wet natural areas year round but need cool to cold weather in the fall to get foliage color in landscape applications. It produces red flowers, arils (winged seeds), and new leaves through the winter making this a colorful native tree potentially producing color over a long period of time. Plant in average to wet conditions in sun or partial sun for shade, landscape color and wildlife benefit. Shop Red Maple here. 

Coral Bean (Erythrina herbacea) 

This deciduous and thorny, low shrub to small tree has many herbaceous stems arising from the woody lower stem and perennial root. They have legume pods containing several bright red toxic beans. The striking terminal spikes of red flowers in the spring attract migrating Hummingbirds and are typically bore before spring foliage emerges. The plants die back to the ground in the winter in colder areas. It is very thorny with re-curved spines. It is tolerant of salt air, partial shade, or full sun. Very drought tolerant. As a thorny plant, it is good for background and security barriers. Shop Coral Bean here. 

Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum)

This impressive deciduous conifer grows to 75 ft. or taller. Bald Cypress has beautiful soft ferny looking foliage and is slender or conical in early years becoming flat topped in very old age. It is an important tree economically, being used for a diversity of wood and forestry products. The trees can live to great ages developing buttressed trunks and knees from the roots. It is the Redwood counterpart to its west coast relative, living to great ages. This is a wetland species that is very adaptable to flooding as well as drier drained sites. Shop Bald Cypress here.

Caring for Dormant Natives

While dormant native plants are relatively low-maintenance, there are a few steps you can take to ensure their well-being:

  • Pruning: Minimal pruning is usually sufficient during dormancy to remove dead or diseased branches. Avoid heavy pruning, as many native plants will soon burst forth with new growth in the spring.
  • Mulching: Apply a layer of mulch around the base of dormant plants to help conserve moisture and protect their root systems from temperature fluctuations.
  • Watering: Keep an eye on soil moisture levels, especially during dry spells. Native plants are adapted to Florida’s climate, but they still need occasional watering, particularly young or newly planted specimens.
Conclusion: A Time for Reflection and Renewal

Winter dormancy in Florida is a season of quiet beauty and reflection. Native plants that embrace this period not only survive but thrive, demonstrating nature’s incredible resilience and adaptability. As we witness the subtler, more contemplative side of Florida’s landscapes, we can appreciate the artistry of dormancy and eagerly anticipate the vibrant renewal that spring will bring to our gardens and natural spaces. So, as the days grow shorter and the nights cooler, take a moment to cherish the dormant beauty that surrounds us and the promise of the seasons yet to come.

Coloring The Landscape With Larval Host Wildflowers and Ground Covers

Landscaping with larval host wildflowers and ground covers in Florida is an excellent way to support local ecosystems and promote biodiversity, especially for butterflies, moths, and other pollinators. Many butterflies and moths lay their eggs on specific host plants, and the larvae (caterpillars) feed exclusively on these plants. By incorporating these host plants into your landscape, you can attract and sustain butterfly and moth populations.

Here are some larval host wildflowers and ground covers that are suitable for Florida’s climate:

  1. Milkweed (Asclepias spp.): Milkweed is the primary host plant for Monarch butterflies. Several species of milkweed are native to Florida, such as the Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and the Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).
  2. Passionvine (Passiflora spp.): The Gulf Fritillary and Zebra Longwing butterflies lay their eggs on passionvines. Our native Florida species include the Corkystem Passionvine (Passiflora suberosa) and the Maypop Passionvine (Passiflora incarnata).
  3. Goldenrod (Solidago spp.): Goldenrods are a native keystone species meaning their presence is required for a healthy ecosystem. They are host to over 100 species of moth and butterflies playing a crucial role in Florida. Consider the Seaside Goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) or the Chapmans Goldenrod (Solidago odora var. chapmanii).
  4. Senna (Senna spp.): The Cloudless Sulphur and Sleepy Orange butterflies lay their eggs on Senna plants. Floridas native sennas include Partidge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata), Privet Cassia (Senna ligustrina), and Bahama Cassia (Cassia bahamensis).
  5. Blackberry (Rubus sp.): The blackberry is another keystone species hosting almost 130 species of caterpillar. It also doubles as a delicious source of fruit!
  6. Asters (Symphyotrichum spp.): The aster family is a large group of over 100 species mostly endemic to North America and fill a huge role as a keystone species. They are a host to about 100 species of moth and butterflies and can be found in almost every type of ecosystem. They are especially known for their beautiful flowers.
  7. Matchweed/Frogfruit (Phyla nodiflora): The matchweed is a great groundcover to mix in with other groundcovers and turf or as a stand alone specimen. They are a host to the peacock butterflies which can be seen fluttering around among the matchweed in large numbers in spring.

When incorporating larval host wildflowers into your landscape, consider planting them in sunny areas where butterflies are more active. You can also create butterfly gardens or specific sections in your garden dedicated to these host plants. Adding other nectar-rich flowers will attract adult butterflies, providing both food and breeding grounds for these beautiful insects.

When selecting plants for your Florida landscape, try to prioritize native species as they are more adapted to the local environment and will support a broader range of native wildlife, including butterflies.

Before planting, check with local nurseries, botanic gardens, or extension offices to ensure you choose the most appropriate species for your specific region in Florida. Additionally, avoid using pesticides that may harm butterflies and caterpillars, and aim to create a welcoming and pesticide-free environment for these important pollinators.

Shrubs and Grasses: Our Great Connectors At Ground Level

Shrubs and grasses: our great connectors at ground level. These types of plants will dominate the square footage of most landscapes as they work their way around trees, structures, paved surfaces, and parameters linking all these different elements like a cohesive picture frame.

Wildlife such as small mammals, birds, and insects rely on shrubs for food, shelter and breeding places while predators hide and hunt within. Butterflies and moths take shelter from rain and adverse weather inside the dense foliage and small birds hop around within looking for berries or insects to feed on. The connection between the butterflies/moths and the birds is closer than we know. They rely on each other, but not in their mature forms.

Caterpillars are the main food source for hatchlings due to their high nutrient content and soft, juicy bodies. They are the perfect consistency for mother birds to raise their young until they are able to feed on tougher foods. Similar to human babies, starting with soft foods before we can move on to hard foods. 

So we must start thinking about all parts of the life cycle. If we want butterflies to enjoy our landscapes, we must provide host plants for egg laying and caterpillar food. Similarly, if we want to invite birds to the landscape, we must have caterpillars present as their main food source.

Host shrubs and grasses provide an optimal way to quickly make this happen in high numbers. Whether you are targeting a certain butterfly or just a way to provide as much food for the food web and life cycle as possible, it is fairly easy to incorporate these plants into existing landscapes or new landscapes.

How to do it:

  1. Analyze Your Landscape
    You’ll want to take inventory of the way your landscape performs at different times of year. Some of the more important things to consider are soil moisture, shade, drainage, space and purpose.
  2. Build Plant Pallet
    Based on your analysis, refer to our list of host shrubs and grasses below and separate into categories based on your site conditions (for example: full sun and wet spot)
  3. Select Plants
    Once you have built your possible plant pallet, research the plants further to determine which ones you would like to incorporate into your landscape. Some thoughts might be a target butterfly or moth, one that hosts the most or a keystone species.
  4. Pick up and install
    Now the fun part, find the plants and install them. Now watch them flourish and invite new wildlife to your landscape.


Large Shrubs (can also be small trees)
Sea Grape25’ tall and wide, moderate to dry, sun
Green/Silver Buttonwood20’ tall and wide, wet to somewhat dry, sun
Wild Lime15’ tall and wide, moderate, sun
Wax Myrtle15’ tall and wide, wet to dry, part to full sun
Walter’s Viburnum12’ tall, moderate to dry, part to full sun
Jamaica Caper12’ tall, slow, moderate to dry, sun
Fiddlewood15’ tall and wide, wet to moderate, shade to sun
Firebush12’ tall and wide, moderate to dry, shade to sun
Medium Shrubs 
Bay Cedar8’ tall, moderate to very dry, sun
Privet Cassia 8’ tall, wet to very dry, sun
Necklacepod7’ tall, moderate to very dry, sun
Buttonbush6’ tall, moderate to dry, sun
Shiny Coffee6’ tall, wet to moderate, shade to partial shade
Small Shrubs/Grasses
Fakahatchee Grass5’ tall, wet to moderate, partial shade to sun
Dwarf Fakahatchee Grass3’ tall, moderate to dry, partial shade to sun
Purple Love Grass2.5’ tall, moderate to dry, sun
Scrub Blueberry (Keystone)3’ tall, moderate to very dry, sun
Lead Plant3’ tall, moderate to very dry, sun
Bahama Cassia5’ tall, moderate to very dry, sun
Soft leaf Coffee5’ tall, wet to moderate, shade to partial shade
Dwarf Shiny Coffee3’ tall, wet to moderate, shade to partial shade
Snowberry5’ tall, moderate to dry, shade to sun