The Coastal Star

Secret Gardens: Natives make room for butterflies at Sandoway House

 A pair of Monarch butterfly caterpillars denude the stems of a milkweed. 

Photos by Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star



By Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley

Whether you are riding your bike, taking a stroll or driving your car along A1A in Delray Beach, keep an eye out. Tucked between the sea grapes growing on the west side of the busy street, you may notice a low gray concrete wall with a white picket gate.

This is the entrance to the Sandoway Nature Center. Even if you think you are in a hurry, you may want stop and take a look.

“On any sunny day the butterflies are always here,” says executive director Danica Sanborn.

She’s speaking of the spotted gulf fritillary, striped zebra longwing and polydamus swallowtail butterflies that visit when they are hungry or looking for a place to deposit their young. 

The center with its museum and garden opened in 1998. And according to a newspaper account from the time, the members of the Junior League of Boca Raton selected 300 native plants representing 100 species to put in the ground. 

 Today you just have to step through the gate to enjoy what they created. Follow the brick path to enter a sunny native dune landscape with its salt- and wind-tolerant plants. 

A dune sunflower is one of many blooming native
plants in the gardens at the Sandoway House. 

The yellow flowers of the beach sunflower, the miniature daisy-like flowers of the Spanish needle and the purple trumpets on the railroad vine cover the ground. There are no neat rows or carefully tended beds. All is intertwined and overgrown.

That’s how nature wants it. After all, it’s up to these plants to hold the sand in place when the winds blow and waters rise.

“Things really grow wild here,” says Sanborn. 

But that’s the beauty of the Sandoway’s butterfly and native plant gardens. They don’t need to be manicured to be pleasing. After all, weeds can be as pretty as natives. And wildlife doesn’t know the difference. 

If you’ve come to see some of those native species, don’t miss the rare and endangered lignum vitae that is coveted for its hard and durable wood. If in bloom, it will have blue star-shaped flowers.

Children will enjoy the necklace pod plant. It has yellow pea-like flowers and fuzzy brown pods that grow narrow between the seeds to resemble a necklace. 

As you walk through the garden, you’ll enter an area devoted to attracting butterflies. “The kids who visit love them,” Sanborn says.

They may also learn a lesson. Butterflies go through four phases in their life cycle: egg, larva or caterpillar, pupa/chrysalis and, finally, adult butterfly. And if you want them to inhabit your garden, you need to cater to each.

Here at Sandoway House, the golden orange blooms of the fire bush, the tiny pink- and raspberry-bursts of the penta, the curling white flowers of the scorpion’s tail and the bright blue drips on the stems of the porterweed are just some of the blooms that provide nectar or nourishment for the adults. 

Now look at the milkweed that attracts the monarch, the plumbago that is home to the cassius blue and the wild lime that hosts the giant swallowtail.

If their leaves have gaping holes in them, you can bet a butterfly has laid her eggs on the plants. The eggs have hatched into a caterpillar and now that creepy crawly is eating the leaves on its way to becoming a butterfly.  

But don’t worry. The caterpillars’ eating binges don’t hurt these host plants because they quickly regrow foliage.

It’s only natural. 

As if the butterflies aren’t colorful enough, don’t miss the garden’s orange, red and yellow hibiscus blossoms. Not only do they add splashes of color to the landscape but also make a tasty meal for Speedy the gopher tortoise. He’s another popular attraction at the Sandoway House Nature Center. 

If You Go

Sandoway House Nature Center, 142 S. Ocean Blvd., Delray Beach; 561-274-7263

Admission to the garden is free; nature museum is $4 for everyone over 2 years of age. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; noon to 4 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday.

The nature center is looking for volunteers to work in the garden. For information, call Executive Director Danica Sanborn.

Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley is a certified master gardener who can be reached at when she’s not digging in her yard.

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