Butterfly Musings

Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly feeding on Lantana

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I took a break from watering the garden Sunday morning to spend some time with the butterflies happily feeding in the late September sunshine.  Their movement enlivens the space as they drift and swoop from flower to flower.

I’m always a bit surprised when one takes off and floats up into the surrounding trees, or across the roof and out of sight.  For all of their apparent fragility, they are surprisingly resilient and tough.

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Judith tells me that the 30 odd Eastern Black Swallowtail cats she adopted from our fennel plants a few weeks ago have all gone into chrysalis now.  She has been feeding them organic parsley as she fattened them up and prepared them for their magnificent metamorphosis.

What a wonderful process to observe.  I can’t wait until they begin to emerge, and at least a few of them ‘come home’ to our garden once again.

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I wonder whether this beautiful swallowtail I photographed Sunday might have been one of the little cats I found on some of our parsley in August.  I just left them be, hoping they would survive to one day fly.

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Living in such close relationship with these beautiful butterflies has transformed my idea of tending a garden.  Now, if I could plant only a single type of flowering plant in summer, I would plant Lantana.  I would plant Lantana because it is such a magnet for butterflies.  They love it, and growing it almost guarantees there will be winged visitors all summer long.

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But beyond planting the best of the nectar plants:  Lantana, Agastache, Buddleia, Hibiscus, Verbena, Zinnia. One also needs to have a selection of host plants.  Yes, butterflies want to eat.  But they really want a home where they can shelter, lay their eggs, and raise their generations.

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Planting host plants implies accepting that the butterfly larvae will eat their leaves.  They may be unsightly for a while.  But that is a reasonable trade-off when one considers that all of those cats have the opportunity to become butterflies.

Please understand that wildlife gardening requires a complete re-thinking of what traditional gardeners assume and expect.  Rather than trying to eliminate insects and their ‘damage,’ we invite and welcome them.  We look after their needs as faithfully as we put out food and water for our cat or dog.

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Black Swallowtail cats enjoy the parsley. Find end of season parsley on sale now. A biennial, it will return next spring.

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Many native trees and shrubs serve as host plants for native butterflies.  If you want to know more about what to plant to host and feed butterflies commonly seen in coastal Virginia, please see the list compiled by the Butterfly Society of Virginia.  Even if you only have space for a flower pot or two, you can enjoy the magic of caterpillars by growing host herbs like parsley, fennel and dill for swallowtails; some milkweed for Monarchs, or even a few native violets.

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Monarch cats on potted Asclepias

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Once we better understand insects, and the crucial role they play in our environment, we come to understand their interrelationships with one another, and with the plants in our garden.  We welcome the many sorts of bees and wasps, feed the butterflies, admire the beetles and listen for the music of the crickets and katydids.

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I’ve found the secret is to plant a tremendous diversity of plants, and plant abundantly, so that what damage there  may be to certain leaves can be overlooked or at least put into context and accepted.

Once one decides to welcome and nurture butterflies, bees, and the many other insects who show up for dinner, it is crucial to abstain from using insecticides and avoid herbicides.  The more one observes, the more one realizes that insects are an intricate part of the web of life.  Birds will turn up to feast on some of them, and their own food webs will develop to keep everything in balance.  Diversity leads to sustainability.

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Wildlife seek shelter, food, water, places to rest and safe places to raise their young.  The more of these our gardens provide, the more we can assist in helping diminished and endangered populations rebound.

Each of us with a bit of land to garden can help restore the web of life so often broken by over development and encroachment on wild spaces.  As if by magic, we find turtles and toads, lizards, many sorts of birds, squirrels, and butterflies sharing our garden with us.

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When the butterflies come home to our garden spaces, we know we have been blessed with their beauty.

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Woodland Gnome 2019
.
“I love nature dearly and all creatures
that contribute to make it what it is.
I see the beauty in all expressions of life,
and I see how blind so many of us still are.
Our planet is remarkably abundant
and there’s more than enough for us all.
It is greed and shortsightedness that create the illusion
of scarcity.”
.
Yossi Ghinsberg
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About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

5 responses to “Butterfly Musings

  1. You know, I might have mentioned before, I used to live near Monarch Grove, which is famous for the monarch butterflies that swarm to the blue gum groves. However, I have never noticed a monarch butterfly caterpillar anywhere in the garden.

  2. Great post, E! You’ve inspired me to plant more umbels next spring. My favorite adult host plant is Zinnia, mine are mobbed every September!

    • Zinnias! Of course! The Zinnias at the Botanical Garden get lots of butterfly traffic. I’m going to go back and add that! Thank you! ❤ I've been planting grocery store carrots in the early spring for the flowers. Now I'm wondering whether those are hosting early cats, and I've not noticed. They just sort of disappear after awhile, and maybe they are feeding the first set of cats to hatch in late spring. We especially love the swallowtails, and so the umbels really help increase our population. I had wanted to plant a pipevine this spring, but never found a plant. Hugs, e

  3. The caterpillar pics are great! I’ve never seen so many different ones! We finally went to the Rockefeller Preserve yesterday (we get a bit lazy). It’s about a 3 hour commute taking 2 trains and walking (we don’t drive). We’re city slickers and don’t get outside often. We’re thrilled when we see nature, we saw 1 deer and 4 chipmunks.

    • What fun to get out to the preserve yesterday! I hope you had a great time. I just love chipmunks. We never see a single deer here-usually a family group looking for dinner….. We had a visitor at our Botanical Garden yesterday looking for Monarch cats. I’m not sure whether she found any, but it has been a bumper year for caterpillars here. We’ve also had more butterflies than usual, which we are enjoying very much. Thanks for your note, WG

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