Thursday, July 29, 2010

Butterfly Gardening

Black Swallowtail caterpillar on dill with dew

Black Swallowtail caterpillar,
Papilio polyxenes

I deftly plucked one from the stem—
a plump striped caterpillar who was making a meal of the feathery fingers of dill at the edge of our vegetable garden. And, pleased with my find, paused just long enough to snap off several stems of Queen Anne’s lace before running inside with my prize.

Setting up a small bud vase in the center of the table, I transferred her gently to Queen Anne and sat down to refresh myself from the heat of the afternoon.
Two summers ago, I had set up a vase in just the same way. Having found a caterpillar that I recognized to be of a Black Swallowtail, I watched her grow as she contentedly grazed for days amid a small bouquet of wildflowers, became a chrysalis and emerged into the freedom of an early August morning--the constant shower of frass, the only downside to hosting this unusual dinner guest.

And so I thought it would be with this one.
Yet, within the first several minutes, she dropped to the table, made a hasty trail to the edge, and tumbled off into my waiting hand below. Replacing her again and again, I watched as she repeatedly dropped and nimbly raced each time to the same edge.

My invitation to stay a while apparently not to her liking, I took her back to the dill in the garden, quite sure that by morning her walkabout would have taken her far away.
Instead, I found her tethered to the spot from which I had first picked.
Now a butterfly grows in my garden.

Tethered to a stem with silken strands


This year, Black swallowtail caterpillars, whose foodplants are parsley, fennel, carrot and other umbelliferae, have chosen to devour the dill in my garden. Commonly cultivated dill, Anethum graveolens, has bluish-green fern-like leaves and compound umbels of tiny, bright yellow flowers.
In the days between hatching from a single small yellow egg and forming a chrysalis from which will emerge a lovely swallowtail, these eating machines shed their skin several times as they grow through 5 instars (developmental stages between molts). This small and spiny dark caterpillar with the white saddle (photo below) is an early instar and barely resembles the later black and yellow speckled instars.

early instar on dill

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Kelly said...

...beautiful. I hope you can capture the moment the butterfly emerges--let's hope time is on your side!

Susan said...

Beautiful photos! Lets hope she doesn't get pickled!

Laure Ferlita said...

"Now a butterfly grows in my garden....."

There is something so touching about the way you've said this. It's it interesting that they "know" what's best for them and how to take care of themselves.

We could probably learn from that "lesson."

jeannette said...

Although I don't like caterpillars in real life, they sure make beautiful pics!

holdingmoments said...

A fascinating post Nina.
Like Laura, I love that line....'Now a butterfly grows in my garden'

nina at Nature Remains. said...

I'm glad you're liking the concept of growing butterflies in a garden.
I think the term butterfly garden usually is expected to mean a collection of plantings that provide good nectar sources (for adult butterflies)--showy, tubular flowers.
But in my case, I am indeed harvesting butterflies from a garden of their foodplants (as caterpillars).

Lisa at Greenbow said...

It is that time of year again. I was out taking photos of some black swallowtail caterpillars this evening too. Aren't they just amazing creatures and so watchable.

Weeping Sore said...

Hmmm, I like dill better than butterflies, but appreciate your observations and your patience.

Luzia said...

I like your blog and view of nature! In my garden are a lot of plants for the butterflies and birds........ Have a nice week with your littel flying friends. Greetings from Luzia.

giggles said...

I don't know if it's because I'm paying more attention (I doubt it!) or if it really is...but it seems to be a busier than usual summer for tiger swallowtails..... They are EVERYWHERE!!!!!

Adrienne in Ohio said...

I enjoyed this post, Nina. Hope you'll have some butterfly pics to post soon. Butterfly gardening is so enjoyable! I recently brought in a Tiger Swallowtail egg and am raising it indoors. It has been so fascinating to watch it grow.

nina at Nature Remains. said...

Adrienne--No matter how many times I witness their extraordinary life changes, I'm always excited when I find one, to try to watch again.
Every other time, they've been content to graze and transform right in the middle of the kitchen table amongst a vase of stems I've chosen--just for them.
But this guy...

Gail said...

I've been waiting for the caterpillars, but they haven't appeared at all~but there are plenty of butterfly...Beautiful photos and post~gail

KaHolly said...

Wonderful, wonderful post! I have tried 3 years running to grow dill for the caterpillars, but to no avail. I think my environment might be too harsh! But I will try again next year. Thanks for sharing your success. ~karen