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Coontie and the Atala Butterfly


Coontie is usually a 3-foot tall shrub that looks somewhat like a miniature palm. But it’s not a palm – it’s a cycad – distantly- but most-closely related to the exotic gingko tree of China. It is also distantly related to pines. Coontie is a plant that almost disappeared by the late 1800s as a result of habitat destruction and losses due to its use in producing a starchy product called “Florida Arrowroot”. As Coontie disappeared, so too did the tiny black, orange, and blue Atala Butterfly and its orange-red caterpillar with two rows of yellow spots along its back and scattered short black hairs covering its body. Atala Butterfly caterpillars adapted to feed on the stiff Coontie leaves and store the toxins from the plant in its body.

Once thought to be extinct, a small population of the Atala Butterfly was discovered on Key Biscayne in 1979 and conservation efforts were begun to establish new populations of both the Coontie and the Atala Butterfly. Coontie is now widely sold as a landscape plant and, sometimes along with it, eggs and caterpillars of the Atala Butterfly. This butterfly is intimately associated with Coontie. This beautiful – and colorful -- butterfly allows close approach by humans. Yes, the bright orange-red caterpillars feed on Coontie leaves – but they don’t kill the Coontie. Planting multiple Coontie plants is a good way to help both the plants and the butterflies.