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
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“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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Fabulous Friday: Who’s Welcome to Dine?

White butterfly ginger lily produces abundant nectar loved by hummingbirds and other pollinators. It perfumes the garden, making it one of our favorites, too. Deer never touch it.

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When planning your garden and buying plants, is your first consideration who, or what, might eat them?

If you’re planting fruit trees, tomato vines, or salad greens you’re likely planning to share the fruits of your labor and investment with family and friends.  Some friends of mine garden in a community garden, where much of the produce raised is donated to our local FISH organization.

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Begonia ‘Gryphon’ sometimes gives up leaves to deer, or even squirrels. Begonia ‘Pewterware’ has holes on its leaves from nibbling insects . These are plants I grow for the beauty of their leaves, and I hope to enjoy them without wildlife feeding on them.

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But food crops aside, when planting ornamental plants, do you expect them to get nibbled down to next to nothing?

That is an interesting conundrum that many of my gardening friends grapple with each season.  We’re inconsistent in our views here, too.  I’m irritated with the deer who sneak into our garden and then nibble at our shrubs and flowers.  I’ve been struggling to keep rabbits away from ornamental sweet potato vines planted in some pots, spraying Repels All with determination on a regular basis so the vines might grow.

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And yet, many, many gardeners plant perennials and herbs specifically to feed the butterflies and their larvae.  We sold hundreds of pots of milkweed at the recent Butterfly Festival plant sale at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.  I can’t tell you how many gardeners happily bought plants and considered it a bonus to have a resident Monarch cat already munching away on their leaves.

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Monarch cats already munching on our milkweed plants, for sale.

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I checked in with a friend the following week.  “How is your milkweed doing?”  I asked.

“Not so well,” she replied, “All of its leaves are gone.”  She thought she had done something wrong in caring for her new plant, to make it lose its leaves.  I explained that the reason to grow milkweed is for it to feed and support Monarch larvae.  The cats had eaten her plant’s leaves, and the roots were still alive.  She should be patient and watch for new growth.

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Asclepias, milkweed left over from the Butterfly Festival plant sale at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden has been nibbled down to nubs. But the roots are alive, and new top growth will appear soon.  The fencing will help keep out bunnies, but Monarchs can still reach the plants to lay their eggs.

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How many of us are willing to buy plants, expecting their foliage to be eaten away by insects?

One of my butterfly loving friends visited yesterday afternoon, and as I was walking her back to her car, we detoured into the upper garden.  We were watching the hummers, bees and butterflies go about their always hungry business when she spotted a clearwing moth.  That was the first I’ve seen in that part of the garden in several weeks, and we were both happily watching it feed on the black-eyed Susans when I suddenly noticed a cat covered fennel plant beside us.

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Fennel plant covered in nearly two dozen cats.

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The fennel plants had been an afterthought.  I bought them on clearance in early June, and planted three or four in a sunny spot where I thought they would grow well, but not necessarily where I thought they would add much aesthetically to the garden scene.

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We could barely see the plant, most of its leaves already stripped away.  It was something like an odd-ball Christmas tree almost completely covered with crawling cats.  We counted nearly two dozen.

We were both excited to see so many Black Swallowtail larvae at once, and found more on a nearby plant.  This is my friend who released three emerging Black Swallowtail butterflies into our garden this spring, and she was clearly ready to adopt these cats.

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Black Swallowtail butterfly cats make short work of our fennel plants.

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Since the food source was nearly all gone, I was happy for her to take them.  I know she will patiently feed them parsley until they pupate, and then I know she’ll bring at least some of them back to release here, when they are ready to emerge from their chrysalis and fly. What a magical experience to watch a butterfly emerge from the husk of what was once a caterpillar!

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In mid-April, Judith released three emerging butterflies that she had collected as cats late last November; the day before a hard freeze.  She raised these on parsley for several weeks until they were ready to pupate.  I had originally spotted them at the WBG, and so she brought them to our garden when they emerged.

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We still have time this year for another generation of eggs to hatch and their larvae to mature and pupate.   Eastern Black Swallowtails don’t migrate like Monarchs, but a generation will overwinter here in their chrysalides, ready to emerge next spring.

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More and more, my plant choices aren’t so much about form and color to please myself, but rather plants to support various birds, butterflies, hummingbirds, bees, wasps, and other pollinators.  We love watching them feed and go about their life cycles.

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A male, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly feeds on Lantana. The flowers are long lived, continually producing fresh nectar over several days.

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I used to make the distinction that pollinators suck nectar, but leave the plant intact.  That is how I shaped my thinking to support pollinators, while trying to keep the deer away.  Rabbits are always welcome to graze our front lawn, eating whatever grass or other plants may grow there, but the voles who eat the roots of things, are not.  I confuse myself sometimes making these distinctions about who is welcome to dine, and who is not.

And now my mind and heart have opened to include the caterpillars happily munching away on herbs and other host plants.  They are welcome, and I happily plan for their sustenance, too.

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Fennel and parsley support many Swallowtail butterflies. Monarchs need Asclepias. Many native trees, vines and shrubs also support particular butterfly larvae as host plants.  The darker caterpillar here is younger than its mates, but is the same species.

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I’ve spent a happy Friday observing caterpillars and asking those smarter than me to teach me about them.

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None of us have yet been able to identify these cats covering a hybrid Angelonia. There are more than a dozen on this plant, growing at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.  It is unusual to find native butterfly larvae on non-native plants, and so we wonder whether this may be some sort of moth…?

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I’ve taken pleasure in the flight of hummingbirds and butterflies.  This afternoon, I thought I saw a yellow leaf, gently falling to the ground.  Only the leaf landed on the Lantana and fluttered there, revealing itself to be a beautiful male Tiger Swallowtail butterfly, in the midst of his feeding rounds around the garden.

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I read yesterday that researchers have determined that quietly listening to birds singing is more relaxing than most medications people take to cope with the stresses and disappointments of modern life.  I would add watching butterflies feed, and listening for hummers, as simple pleasures that bring us great happiness and contentment.

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Our upper garden, looking a little bedraggled after storms and heavy rains last night, still supports many different species of pollinators and birds, rabbits, turtles, lizards, squirrels, and who knows what else?

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As with so many other things we might do, when we open our hearts to generously provide for others beyond ourselves; I would suggest that planting a wildlife garden is a good antidote to the stresses and sorrows of life.

Perhaps we can offset some of our other environmental transgressions a bit, by creating a safe space to nurture wildlife.  A safe and beautiful place, to find joy and peace of mind for ourselves, too.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Walk in kindness toward the Earth and every living being.
Without kindness and compassion for all of Mother Nature’s creatures,
there can be no true joy; no internal peace, no happiness.
Happiness flows from caring for all sentient beings
as if they were your own family,
because in essence they are.
We are all connected to each other and to the Earth.”
.
Sylvia Dolson

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Newly emerged Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly dries its wings in our garden late last summer.

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Fabulous Friday:  Happiness is Contagious; Let’s Infect One Another

Fabulous Friday: Floods of Rain

Native sweetbay Magnolia virginiana, in bloom this week at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden, fills the garden entrance with its musky perfume.

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This Friday dawned humid and grey, and I set out as soon as we finished a quick breakfast to meet a friend at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.  While I am all about the plants, she is all about the cats and butterflies.  Today, she was hunting for a few special cats to use in her upcoming program  at our local library  about protecting butterflies and providing habitat for their next generations.

We checked all of the usual host plants: Asclepias,, spicebush, Wisteria, fennel, Passiflora vines, and parsley.  We weren’t equipped to check out the canopies of the garden’s host trees, like the paw paw or the oaks, but we were left empty-handed. There were no caterpillars that we could find today.

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A Zebra Swallowtail butterfly enjoys the Verbena bonariensis at the WBG last week.  Its host plant is the native paw paw tree.

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In this peaceful nectar and host plant rich environment, where are the butterflies and their young?  We both happily snapped photos of interesting views and blooms as we searched, took care of a few chores together, and then she was off.

By then the first Master Naturalist gardeners had arrived.  All of us had one eye to the sky and another on our ‘to-do’ lists.

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Native Asclepias tuberosa is one of the Asclepias varieties that Monarch butterflies seek out as a host plant to lay their eggs.

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I have great admiration and affection for the Master Naturalists who work at the WBG, and I appreciate the opportunity to ask questions when they are around.  I hope to join their ranks one year soon.  The course is rigorous and the standards high, and the volunteer work they do throughout our area is invaluable.

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This is our native Carolina wild petunia, Ruellia caroliniensis, that blooms near the gate at the WBG. 

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One of the Master Naturalists was also working on an inventory of butterflies in the garden today.   He checked out all of the tempting nectar plants from Verbena to Lantana, the Asclepias to his blooming herbs, the pollinator beds of native flowers, the various Salvias and Agastache.  Where were the butterflies today?

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Native spiderwort, Tradescantia ohiensis, also grows near the garden’s gate.

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I had the constant company of bees buzzing around my knees and ankles as I climbed into a border to weed and deadhead.

But no Zebra Swallowtails danced among the Verbena.  Not a single butterfly fed on the Salvias where I was working.  A Monarch showed itself briefly and promptly disappeared.  We observed the heavy, humid air and decided they must be sheltering against the coming rain.

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Native Iris virginica blooming last week at the WBG.

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But as the storm grew closer, there wasn’t much time for sociability today.  We could hear the thunder rumbling off in the distance as we weeded, cut enthusiastic plants back, potted and chatted with garden visitors.

My partner kept an eye on the radar maps at home and phoned in updates.  When he gave the final ‘five minute warning!’ it was nearly noon, and the rain began as I headed back to my car.  It was a good morning’s work and I left with the ‘to do’ list completed.

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Seedpods ripen on the sweetbay Magnolia

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But the rain has been a constant presence this afternoon, falling loudly and insistently all around us.  There are flood warnings, the ground is saturated, and I am wondering how high the water might rise on local roads and along the banks of the James and its feeder creeks.  It has been a wet year for many.

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The James River last week, before this last heavy rain brought it even higher.

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There was a timely message from the James River Association in my inbox.  The river is brown with run-off, and has been for a while now.  They are encouraging folks to address run-off issues on their properties.  The best advice there is, “Plant more plants!”  But of course, the right plants in the right places!  Successful plants help manage stormwater; dying ones, not so much.

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I use both rock and hardwood mulch in our garden at home to help protect the soil during heavy rains. This is a native oakleaf Hydrangea in bloom.

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Rain gardens are encouraged to catch the run-off and allow it to slowly percolate into the earth instead of running off so quickly.  There are programs available that help plan and fund new rain gardens to protect local water  quality.

Where there is no good spot for a rain garden, then terraces help on slopes like ours, and solid plantings of shrubs and perennials help to slow the flow of water downhill towards the creeks.

Most anything that covers the bare soil helps with erosion.  But deeply rooted plants help hold the soil while also soaking up the water and allowing it to evaporate back into the atmosphere through their leaves.

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Groundcover plants, like this golden creeping Jenny, also hold and protect the soil.  Our Crinum lily is ready to bloom.  This hardy Amaryllis relative gets a bit larger each year as its already huge bulb calves off pups.

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We’ve been watching flooding news roll in from all over the region this afternoon.  Streets and sidewalks underwater, cars floating away, and families chased indoors by the weather.  It looks like a wet stretch coming, too.

I’m glad have a new garden book, The Thoughtful Gardener by Jinny Blom waiting for me; the prose is as inspiring as the photographs.  I love seeing how other gardeners plant and how they think about their planting.  There is always more to learn.

Once these flooding rains subside and the soil drains a bit, I expect to be back outside and “Planting more plants!”

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Woodland Gnome 2019

Fabulous Friday:  Happiness is Contagious; Let’s infect one another!

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Echinacea, purple coneflower, delights pollinators and goldfinches  in our forest garden.

Wildlife Wednesday: Eastern Black Swallowtail

Novembr 27, 2018, I spotted two tough little Eastern Black Swallowtail cats munching on a lone fennel plant, left in a cleared out bed at the Williamsburg Botanical garden.

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Eastern Black swallowtails lay their eggs and their larvae feed on parsley and fennel. This bed was filled with Lantana, Salvia, and with fennel all summer, and hosted many butterflies from May until November.

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Butterflies covered this planting of Lantana at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden in August.

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When I told my friend Judith about the caterpillars, she came and rescued them the afternoon before a hard freeze, at the very end of November.

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Judith cared for the caterpillars until each formed its chrysalis, feeding them organic parsley in little habitats indoors; then she added them to her collection of living chrysalides. She cared for the sleeping caterpillars all winter and brought them over to our garden yesterday morning,  just as they were ready to leave their chrysalides as butterflies.

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She named the two caterpillars rescued from the fennel at the botanical garden ‘Rough’ and ‘Tough’. They spent the winter pinned to this Styrofoam in her butterfly habitat.

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A total of three Black Swallowtail butterflies emerged during her visit yesterday morning. She generously set all three free in our garden. There were two males and a female. The amount of blue on the hindwings is the main way to distinguish gender in these swallowtail butterflies.

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Here Judith is releasing the first of the butterflies, a female. Then she invited us to help release the other two butterflies into the garden.

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The butterflies need some time for their wings to fully stretch, dry and toughen before they are ready to fly. We were able to hold and observe them as they prepared for their first flight.

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Would you like to attract butterflies to your garden?

The first step is to plant a variety of both nectar plants and host plants.  Nectar plants attract butterflies, and host plants allow them to lay their eggs and will feed the larvae as they grow.

If you attract butterflies and host their larvae, it is important to commit to not using insecticides in your garden.  Yes, the larvae will eat some leaves on their chosen host plant.  The plants will survive.

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Fennel and parsley host several types of swallowtail caterpillars.  Other easy to grow host plants include oak trees; spicebush, Lindera benzoin;  paw paw trees, Dutchman’s pipevine, Aristolochia macrophylla; passionfruit vine, Passiflora lutea; and even common wood violets.

Most butterflies prefer very specific host plants and may only use one or two.  For example, Monarch butterflies want Asclepias, or milkweed.  There are several different species of Asclepias available, and most all of them will support Monarchs.

It is useful to do a little research on common butterflies that live in your own region, and then plant their host plants, if you don’t have them growing on your property already.

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This was the last of the three butterflies to emerge from chrysalis, and the last to be released. He wasn’t ready to fly, and so we gently placed him on this red bud tree, where he rested while his wings hardened. Finally, he also flew away into the garden.

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Butterflies need safe places to shelter out of the wind at night and during storms.  Trees and dense shrubs serve them well.  They also need places where they can ‘puddle,’ landing on the ground to drink water from mudpuddles, moist earth, or even shallow saucers filled with gravel and water.  Butterflies need the minerals they absorb this way.

Butterflies will feed from a variety of nectar plants, including trees, vines, and flowering plants you may plant in baskets, pots or beds.  Lantana is an absolute favorite source of nectar.  Agastache, anise hyssop, attracts even more butterflies than Lantana!  All Verbenas attract butterflies and are very easy to grow.  The more flowers your garden offers, at a variety of heights, the more butterflies will likely stop by to visit your garden.

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We have seen a variety of butterflies in our garden already this spring, including Black Swallowtails. In fact, an hour or so after the release, we saw another Black Swallowtail laying eggs on an emerging fennel plant in the upper garden. This is one of the butterflies we released, resting before its first flight,

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There are many butterflies and moths native in Virginia and all of them are currently in decline. We have a network of dedicated butterfly enthusiasts in our area who rescue and raise cats, releasing the butterflies into the wild as they emerge. By protecting the butterfly larvae, they help insure that more individuals make it to the adult butterfly stage, mate, and increase the population.

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One of the greatest problems faced by butterflies is loss of habitat.  The native plants they depend on to raise their next generation are often the ones removed for development, but not replanted by landscapers.

Gardeners can make a significant difference by providing a small bit of habitat in their own yard.  Like a patch in a quilt, our own bit of habitat may be small.  But, when many of us are all working together, we can provide safe places for butterflies to rest and refuel along their migration routes, and can provide safe and welcoming places for them to lay their eggs.

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Butterflies feed on Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’

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By working together, each of us providing a bit of habitat and safety for butterflies, we can help support the next generations of butterflies; making sure that our own grandchildren can enjoy these beautiful insects and share their magic with their own children, far into the future.

Will you join us?

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail feeding on Verbena bonariensis ‘Lollipop’.

Happy Birthday? Eastern Black Swallowtail

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What a treat to discover a newly emerged Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly while working in our garden today.   I was a little surprised to notice that this butterfly was clinging to a stem and not a flower, and didn’t move as I trimmed the grass nearby.  It took a moment to register that it was still clinging beside its now empty chrysalis and just beginning to stretch and dry its wings.

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Our newly emerged butterfly clung to a stalk of chives, a ready food source once he or she is able to climb up to the flowers.  Right across the path, lots more cats were still happily munching the bronze fennel!

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We plant the fennel hoping to witness this beautiful display each year.  A perennial, it will put out some new growth within a few weeks.

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Eastern Black Swallowtail larvae

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I’m not sure whether this butterfly is a male or female, as I didn’t get a photo of its wings spread from its dorsal side.  It was still seeing the world anew and adjusting to life with wings!  I’ll hope to spot and photograph is individual again in the coming days.

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If you intend to attract butterflies to your own garden, please remember to abstain from using any insecticides and follow organic gardening principles.  Provide host plants for the species you hope to attract, and offer plentiful nectar plants, wet earth where the butterflies can ‘puddle’ to drink, and trees where they can seek shelter.

Many folks these days want to plant lots of milkweed to attract butterflies.  Please keep in mind that the only common butterfly species in our area to use milkweed, Asclepias species, as a larval host is the Monarch.  Other popular host plants, especially for swallowtails, include dill, parsley, fennel, spicebush, rue, Queen Ann’s lace, wild cherry, poplar, apple, ash, and Dutchman’s pipe.

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Happy butterfly gardening!

Woodland Gnome 2018

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