Gulf Frit Making a Comeback

Sep 26, 2011

Yes, it's back.

The Gulf Frit is definitely back.

Back in September of 2009, butterfly expert Art Shapiro, professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, excitedly announced the re-appearance of the Gulf Fritillary butterfly (Agraulis vanillae) in the Sacramento metropolitan area after a four-decade absence, and in the Davis area after a 30-year absence.

It's a tropical and subtropical butterfly with a range that extends from the southern United States all the way to central Argentina. 

The Gulf Frit is a beautiful butterfly with bright orange-red wings, spangled iridescent silver on the underside, and a four-inch wingspan.

The larvae or caterpillars of the Agraulis vanillae feed on the leaves of the passion flower vine; they eat "many but not all species of the genus Passiflora," Shapiro says. "There are no native members of this genus in the state of California, but several are widely cultivated in gardens."

No one knows exactly when the first Gulf Frit first arrived in California, but "it was already in the San Diego area by about 1875, Shapiro says, and it was first recorded in the San Francisco Bay Area around 1908.

The showy butterfly colonized both south Sacramento and the Winding Way/Auburn Boulevard area in the 1960s but by 1971 "apparently became extinct or nearly so," recalled Shapiro, who moved to the Davis area in 1971. 

The butterfly can breed where there is a "critical mass" of these plants in a town or neighborhood," he told us back in 2009.

Well, there's a thriving passion flower vine behind a west Vacaville residence that makes one think: "Critical mass!"

On one recent sunny afternoon, we spotted about 10 to 12 Gulf Frits breeding on the vine. Squadrons of brightly colored orange and black caterpillars munched on the leaves.

Yes, the Gulf Frit is alive and well.

Very alive and very well.

So if you have a passion for the Gulf Frit, plant Passiflora.

Plant it and they may come.