GAINESVILLE, Fla. (WCJB)- Usually, tropical plants struggle outdoors long term in North Central Florida, but they're thriving at the Florida Museum of Natural History. When you walk inside you don’t feel like you’re in Gainesville, because while Gainesville has several native palm trees, it's not quite tropical (especially since the city averages 16 freezes a year).
While butterflies get most of the attention at the butterfly museum, the butterflies have their eyes on the tropical plants that surround them and you should too! In the rainforest garden, you’ll find fishtail palms and Alexander Palms - which are usually reserved for Central and South Florida gardens. The garden has exotic tropical trees like a spiky silk floss tree (with beautiful spring blooms), and a Jamaican poinsettia (which will have you thinking of the islands, not Christmas). You’d be hard pressed to find those plants outdoors anywhere in North Central Florida.
All these plants are growing under a screened enclosure at the Florida Museum on campus at the University of Florida. The screen keeps the butterflies from escaping and provides a little extra frost protection for the plants inside, but the real secret is the heated water feature, and warmth radiating from the building. It also doesn’t hurt that downtown Gainesville radiates a little extra warmth on cold nights. Plants that are nectar sources for the butterflies are covered even during light freezes because the butterflies need those as their food source even during the coldest days of winter. The other tender shrubs are only covered when a hard freeze is expected, and the large trees and palms aren’t covered at all.
Some plants like the Fishtail palm were completely bare of leaves after the deep freezes in 2010, but it still pulled through. The Alexander Palm is showing some damage after last winter but has a lot of healthy growth. Gainesville recovered several nights in the 20s last winter. A few other nice finds: a Monstera vine that’s fruiting and a rainbow eucalyptus that will one day show off an incredibly colorful trunk you have to see to believe (even then you might not believe it).
The butterfly rainforest manager Ryan Fessenden grew up in south Florida and says he’s always purchasing plants from that part of the state for the butterflies to snack on and for people to admire.