Cloudless Sulphur butterflies fly into Walton County

September 14, 2009

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae). Photo courtesy Theresa Friday
Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae). Photo courtesy Theresa Friday

Partridge pea plant host to these beauties

Butterfly watching is a great pastime.  Even if you aren’t taking the time to marvel at the diversity of butterflies in the state of Florida, surely you’ve noticed the graceful Cloudless Sulphur butterfly.

The Cloudless Sulphur is distinctive in its size and coloring. It is a relatively large butterfly with a wingspan ranging from two to three inches, and coloring that is gender-dependent. Males are commonly a bright yellow, lacking any markings, while the females may be distinguished by black markings bordering their yellow-white wings.

The scientific name of the butterfly is partially derived from the Greek language as well as one of its food sources; Phoebis meaning “pure” or “radiant,” and sennae corresponding to the Senna plant which it consumes as a caterpillar.

Cloudless Sulphurs are commonly found in open areas with abundant sunlight, ranging from roadsides to fields, pastures, and fallow agricultural lands. They may be found feeding upon thistle, morning glory, sennas and clover.

Along the Gulf Coast, a common, native wildflower known as partridge pea, is a host plant for this butterfly and helps ensures the survival of the Cloudless Sulphur butterfly.

Cloudless Sulphur caterpillar.
Cloudless Sulphur caterpillar.

The partridge pea, or sensitive plant, is a slender-stemmed, one to three foot tall annual.  The leaves consist of 10 to 15 pairs of small, narrow leaflets. Leaves collapse when touched, giving rise to the common name sensitive-plant.

The showy yellow flowers, about one inch across, grow in small clusters on the stem.  Flowers normally bloom July through September.  The fruit is a straight, narrow pod 1½ to 2½ inches long, which splits along two sutures as it dries; the pod sides spiral to expel the seeds some distance from the parent plant.

This wildflower provides bright color, and the flowers attract bees and butterflies. Seed pods are eaten by gamebirds and songbirds.

Partridge pea is considered an important honey plant, often occurring where few other honey plants are found.  Nectar is not available in the flowers of showy partridge pea but is produced by small orange glands at the base of each leaf.  Ants often seek the nectar and are frequent visitors.

This plant has many benefits.  It is a host plant for the sulfur butterfly which lays its eggs on the leaves, and the larvae use the leaves as a food source.  It is also considered an excellent species for planting on disturbed areas for erosion control and improving soil fertility.  It establishes rapidly, fixes nitrogen, reseeds, and slowly decreases as other species in the seeding mix begin to dominate the site.

Like other members of the pea family, partridge pea requires the presence of microorganisms that inhabit nodules on the plants root system and produce nitrogen compounds necessary for the plants survival.

Partridge pea has a long history in Native American culture as a medicinal plant but, partridge pea can be a purgative in humans and is toxic to livestock. So once again, let’s leave this one for the birds, bees, and butterflies.

The Cloudless Sulphur is a beautiful native butterfly.  It is a harmless insect, making it a welcome visitor to any garden.  So leave some weeds and wildflowers and enjoy the butterflies.  You’ll be glad you did.

Theresa Friday is the Residential Horticulture Extension Agent for Santa Rosa County.  The use of trade names, if used in this article, is solely for the purpose of providing specific information. It is not a guarantee, warranty, or endorsement of the product name(s) and does not signify that they are approved to the exclusion of others.

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