A Montgomery Discovery

Living Fossils and Extinct Butterflies for Your Garden

Back when the South Florida landscape was high pinelands, the Zamia integrifolia – also known as “coontie” – flourished. This cycad is a “living fossil” that goes back 325 million years to dinosaur days. Seminole and Tequesta harvested coontie, to grind and rinse the root (removing the toxic cycasin) to make flour. For the Eumaeus atala, aka the Atala butterfly, this host plant is where eggs are laid and caterpillars feast. By the mid 1920s, overharvesting during the pioneer boom depleted coontie, and the Atala was believed extinct by 1937. But in 1959, to everyone’s astonishment, a small Atala colony was found on Virginia Key. The butterfly and its coontie host have been making a comeback ever since.

Ever curious, I visited the Montgomery Botanical Center, the 120-acre living research facility south of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens, to see descendants of the Atala butterfly. I saw a robust population, in all development stages, living among hundreds of the living-fossil coonties of Mesozoic flora. Having never seen an Atala before, let alone so many, I was mesmer- ized by this display of bright red-orange spotted caterpillars (warning predators of its toxicity), clumps of chrysalises, and small butterflies, black in color with iridescent blue markings and a bright red abdomen.

My guide, Executive Director Dr. Patrick Griffith, described Montgomery’s 10-year study of Florida cycads (alongside FIU and the USDA Chapman Field Station) that led to a most unexpected discovery: the remains of coonties found in early native settlements, evidence they were cultivated long ago. “We had no idea that we would discover a trade network,” said Dr. Griffith. “The genetics tell us the pattern of relationships of this species, which almost exactly matches the trade net- works of people who lived here almost 2,000 years ago. It was the people who moved them around.” Since then, Montgomery’s in vivo museum of slow-growing specimens of coontie has become the Atala’s favorite food court.

“I gotta tell you, this is a conundrum for us at Montgomery because we love these cycads and put a lot of effort into growing them,” said Dr. Griffith. “We also love these caterpillars and want them to do well. That’s why we are happy to work with the North American Butterfly Association so we can hand them off.” 

Zamia Integrifolia or Wild Coontie
Living Fossils and Extinct Butterflies
Atala Caterpillar Eating the Zamia

Atala caterpillars and chrysalises collected from Montgomery and the University of Miami are now being relocated to repopulate areas where they can thrive. Local butterfly enthusiast, Jason Vollmer, uses his home as a pop-up redistribution center, tallying each Atala, prepping pick-up containers, and recording drop-off locations detailing address, quantity, and date. “The exact total up to today is 55,926,” says Vollmer.

Since April of this year, 4,200 of these were released by the Coral Gables Garden Club’s group, dubbed the “Butterfly Battalion.” Releases occurred at local pollinator gardens, like one in the historic MacFarland District. “This September, we will expand our work, and in 2023, add a new pollinator garden at the Girl Scout’s Camp Mahachee,” says Garden Club president Susan Rodriguez. “Native plants support butterflies like these, the endangered Schaus Swallowtail, and others.” Having host and nectar plants within public and private landscapes safeguards them from becoming extinct.

Living Fossils and Extinct Butterflies
Caterpillars Ready to Relocate
Living Fossils and Extinct Butterflies
Atala Butterfly Chrysalis

At my home, I began with 12 coontie and eight wild coffee plants. I added nectar plants to create a haven in my east side yard. Atala prefers short flowers like those of Florida privet, avocado, sweet almond, lantana, or wild coffee. They also love the coontie, which requires little care and is drought tolerant with well-draining soil; lighting may range from shaded to full sun. Since May, I have had four small Atala cycles. On the west side yard, meanwhile, my vertical herb garden next to loads of milkweed for monarchs continues to thrive. My no-fail rule when buying pollinator plants is to rely on top professionals – first, human advice; then, expert approval from a nearby bee or butterfly.

While we are no longer pinelands, bringing part of history into our home gardens provides species like Atala the environment they need. These little ones are also quite entertaining. Being only 1.5 inches wide, and having eaten the coontie’s cycasin, Vollmer describes them as, “Our drunken little flyers”… and indeed, on they go FUI (flying under the influence), determined to remain here as long as we allow it.