The Great Florida Outdoors: Florida Coonties and Atala Butterflies

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Photo caption: Coontie Cycad https://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/

According to Daniel F. Culbert in a report for ifas.ufl.edu, “Sunshine State gardeners have rediscovered the Florida coontie as a native plant well adapted to Florida yards. Its increased use in landscapes has encouraged the presence of the rare atala butterfly, which uses coontie as a larval host plant.”

Coontie’s high drought and moderate salt tolerance make it an excellent choice as a low-maintenance landscape plant for coastal Florida. The coontie can be planted in a variety of light conditions, from deep shade to full sun.

I first encountered the wonderful interaction between the coontie and the atala butterfly while exploring the Hugh Taylor Birch State Park in Ft. Lauderdale with my daughter Fionna. The 180-acre park is called “an urban oasis nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and Intercoastal Waterway” and offers hiking, kayaking, canoeing, picnicking, fishing, dog walking, camping, swimming, photographic vistas, and a chance to tour the house of the generous man who donated his lovely estate to Florida. You can observe gopher tortoise habitat and the eclectic assortment of exotic plants including almond, rubber and more that Mr. Birch had planted.

The coontie, an unusual Florida native, is a cycad—a “living fossil.” These primitive plants were a dominant form of plant life during the dinosaur age. This herbaceous plant looks like a small fern or palm and is typically 1–3 ft. high, although forms in the Ocala National Forest can be as much as 4–5 ft. tall.

This primitive plant is dioecious; thus, plants are either male or female and produce male or female cones. The sex of young plants cannot be determined until the cones form on the mature plants. Slender male cones are 3–7 in. tall and produce pollen. Upright brown female cones are about 6 in. tall and are covered with velvety fuzz.

Male cones (strobilus) of coontie are thinner and shorter than female cones. Credit: Dan Culbert, UF/IFAS

Female (megasporangiate) cone of coontie. Upon maturity, the cone falls apart, revealing individual “seeds” covered with fleshy orange skin. Credit: Dan Culbert, UF/IFAS

Spanish writings from the sixteenth century report that the original native Timucuan and Calusa people removed the toxic chemical, cycasin, from the coontie stem by maceration and washing. They then used the starchy residue to produce a bread. This was an important food source that sustained them throughout most of the year.

The Seminole Indians learned this process from the Timucuan and Calusa natives they displaced. The common name, “coontie,” is derived from the Seminole phrase “conti hateka,” which means white root or white bread. Another name for the coontie is “Seminole bread.” The Seminoles also used the starchy stem to make another dish called “sofkee stew.”

Early Florida settlers learned the Seminole’s technique of removing the toxin cycasin from the coontie to produce starch and by the 1880s several mills were in business. The starch became known as “Florida Arrowroot” in the early 1900’s. During WWI, one mill was reported to be processing as much as 18 tons of coontie per day for military purchase. The starch content was reported to range from 20% in winter to a low of 8% in summer.

Adult atala butterflies. Credit: Dan Culbert, UF/IFAS

The coontie serves as the sole host plant for larvae of the rare atala butterfly (Eumaeus atala), once thought to be extinct in Florida. The hungry larvae are able to withstand the coonties’ natural toxins and, in turn, incorporate them into their tissues, rendering the larvae and adults unpalatable to various predators, particularly birds. The bright colors of the larvae and adult butterflies warn predators that they are toxic.

A single female may produce several dozen eggs during her life. The yellow white eggs are deposited on new growth or near the tip of mature leaflets. Eggs also have been found to be deposited on the female coontie cones. The eggs are deposited singly or in clusters of 5–15 eggs. Eggs of the atala typically hatch in four to five days. Atala caterpillars, or larvae, are orange red with seven pairs of yellow spots running along the back (dorsal side). Caterpillars prefer to eat the young shoots of the coontie.

These larvae will reach up to 1.25 in. long at maturity. The resulting orange and brown pupae (chrysalises) are approximately 1 in. long and hang from a silken girdle under coontie leaflets.

Larva (caterpillar) of atala butterfly. Credit: Jerry Butler, UF/IFAS

Other cycads have been shown to support the dietary needs of the atala, such as the newly emerging fronds from cardboard plant, queen sago, and other exotic Zamia species.

Fionna recently told me she has been volunteering during her study breaks at the Hugh Taylor Birch State Park. I think it’s a great place to learn and teach and explore.

Hugh Taylor Birch State Park
3109 E. Sunrise Blvd.
Fort Lauderale FL 33304 ph 954-564-4521

What are you waiting for? What do you have to do next?
Get out and enjoy The Great Florida Outdoors!

Dr. Robert Norman

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