WHITE WORDLESS BUTTERFLIES...This is how poet Hogan Reiken (1779-1860) described Plum blossoms in his Plum Blossom Haiku 

Blog & Photography by Bill Berthet

Since 2003 I have looked forward each year to the start of butterfly season, beginning with the two to three week period in the month of February for the showy display of plum blossoms of Chickasaw Plum, Prunus angustifolia.


Plum Tree in Bloom

Flowers are white, small, five-petaled, and profusely showy in spring.  They mature into round, ½ to 1 ¼ inch-long, attractive red to yellow fruit that is used for making wine, jam, and jelly, along with providing food for birds. Leaves are alternate, lance shaped, 1-3 inches long, often reflexed upward from the midrib, shiny green above, with minute teeth along the margins. Bark is furrowed, Reddish brown, and somewhat scaly with age.

In Chinese culture the five petals of plum blossoms symbolize the “five blessings” referring to longevity, wealth, health and composure, virtue, and the desire to die a natural death in old age.
Plum Blossums

This tree occurs naturally in dry to moist, sandy soil, and is mildly salt tolerant. It ranges from
Delaware, southward to central Florida, and west to Texas in the hardiness zones 5 to 9. It is erect, many branched, and colonizing, and often forms dense thickets which provide valuable wildlife cover for song and game bird nesting, loafing, and roosting. It is also useful for soil stabilization.


There is a grove of 21 Chickasaw Plum trees in Ralph Simmons Memorial State Forest (RSMSF). The “champion” thicket in RSMSF measures around 38 feet high, 50 feet wide, 45 feet deep, and has 42 trunks!!! In 2016 only seven trees were in bloom.

Thicket of Chickasaw Plum
Over the years I have scratched my head, curious to know why the same species of butterflies can be found year after year perched or feeding in only several small areas in this grove of trees. It’s always an entertaining sight watching 3-5 Zebra Swallowtails flying together, daisy chaining in various acrobatic formations, then splitting off like a Blue Angels maneuver.

RSMSF is 3,638 acres, and supports twelve types of natural communities. The four primary habitats are sandhill, wet flatwoods, upland pine, and bottomland hardwood forests.

Acquired by the state of Florida in 1992, the forest borders Georgia for approximately 6.7 miles along the St. Mary’s river in the Northeast corner of Nassau County. This area is also home to Gopher Tortoises and the Southeastern Pocket Gopher, evident by the numerous burrows and mounds. .

Various habitats in RSMSF support state threatened or endangered plants, including Purple Honeycomb-head,  Balduina atropurpurea, Hartwrightia, Hartwrightia floridana, Silver Buckthorn, Sideroxylon alachuense, and Florida Bellwort, Uvularia floridana.


Among the 99 species of butterflies recorded in RSMSF {Berthet-Minno}, 14 are tracked by the Florida Natural Areas Inventory.
Creole Pearly-eye

Several of rare occurrence in Florida include:

Frosted elfin, Callophrys irus
Spring Azure, Celestrina ladon,
Wild Indigo Duskywing, Erynnis baptisiae
Creole Pearly-eye, Lethe creola,  a newly discovered, species of butterfly for the state of Florida.

Pipevine Swallowtail

The 23 species of butterflies observed this past decade nectaring on Chickasaw Plum blossoms include:

Pipevine Swallowtail, Battus philenor
Eastern Black Swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes 
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio glaucus
Zebra Swallowtail, Eurytides marcellus
Palamedes Swallowtail, Papilio palamedes

Red-banded Hairstreak

Cloudless Sulphur, Phoebis sennae
Sleepy Orange, Abaeis nicippe

Gray Hairstreak,Strymon melinus
Red-banded Hairstreak, Calycopis cecrops
Great Purple Hairstreak, Atlides halesus
Henry’s Elfin, Callophrys henrici

Monarch, Danaus plexippus
Henry's Elfin on Eastern Redbud
Queen, Danaus gilippus

American Lady

Common Buckeye, Junonia coenia
Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta
American Lady,Vanessa virginiensis

Sachem Skipper
Long Tailed Skipper, Urbanus proteus
Fiery Skipper, Hylephila phyleus
Sachem Skipper, Atalopedes campestris
Whirlabout Skipper, Polites vibex

Zarucco Duskywing

Juvenal’s Duskywing,Erynnis juvenalis
Zarucco Duskywing, Erynnis zarucco 
Horace’s Duskywing, Erynnis horatius


Honey bees on Plum Blossoms

Plasterer, Mining, Carpenter, Honey, and Bumble bees have also been observed gathering nectar on Chickasaw Plum blossoms. I marvel at the audible noise level of the humming and buzzing created by the multitude of bees gathering nectar.

Another outstanding nectar source for our N.E. Florida pollinators in February is Eastern Redbud, Cersis Canadensis, host tree for the rarely seen Henry’s Elfin, but that’s another story.

Bill Berthet has been landscaping his yard in Mandarin, Florida, with mostly native plants, bushes, vines, and trees to attract our N.E. Florida pollinators and birds for the past 15 years.

B. Berthet, Butterflies of Ralph Simmons Memorial State Forest, M.C. Minno
Discovered at last Lethe creola is a resident of Florida S. Lepid. News 37:81-87, J.V. Calhoun, P.R. Leary, B. Berthet, & A.D. Warren
News of Lepidopterists’ Society Volume 57, Number 3, Notes on Erynnis baptisiae in Florida documenting its widespread occurance on northern peninsular counties, and a new larval foodplant, Andrew D. Warren, John V. Calhoun and Bill Berthet
Ten-Year Land Management Plan for Ralph E. Simmons Memorial State Forest Nassau Co. Prepared by Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services and the Florida Forest Service p. 19-21
US Department of Agriculture Plant Database


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