Friday, June 25, 2010

Gardening Butterflies


Recently, I was reading a garden blog, where commenters were remarking how they loved butterflies, but hated (and would kill) caterpillars. To my mind, this summed up America's total disconnect from nature.

When I was planning our garden, I planted several plants that were reputed to be "larval hosts" for butterflies. That's a fancy way of saying that these plants are the ones on which adult butterflies lay their eggs, and on which the larvae (that's "caterpillars" to us non-scientists) develop. These are the plants on which the caterpillars pupate inside of chrysalises, from which new butterflies emerge.

Provide caterpillars with habitat, and you may enjoy a garden (and world) full of butterflies.

To be more blunt: Kill the caterpillars, and you're destroying butterflies.

Yesterday, Robb spotted a tiny, colorful caterpillar on the fennel in our vegetable garden. He described it to me over the phone, and I took a quick look at the internet. As I had hoped, we seemed to have attracted Anise Swallowtail Butterflies to our garden. We see these beautiful large butterflies passing through, but I hadn't noticed them hanging around, except on our lemon tree.

I was really excited. Had you stopped by the house last night, you might have found me crouched among the fennel fronds, trying to photograph teeny-tiny caterpillars. The black caterpillar in the top photo is less than a centimeter in length. It is the first instar (or developmental stage) of the Anise Swallowtail Caterpillar.

This is the third instar of that same caterpillar. This creature has grown and molted its skin twice, since it hatched out of its solitary egg. This caterpillar is larger than the one above, but still quite small. It will lose its impressive spikes, the next time it sheds its skin.

This color isn't particularly accurate, as the photo was taken at dusk. Photographing tiny, shiny creatures on threadlike foliage is a real challenge. The slightest breeze (or wobble on the part of the photographer) will ruin the picture. We'll call these pictures "artistic" which is a code word for "woefully out of focus."

If caterpillar photography is challenging, taking pictures of butterflies is worse. I honestly don't know how the professionals do it.

I'm really good at taking photos of the spot where the butterfly used to be.

Butterflies are apparently very particular in their choice of host plants. They will only lay eggs on certain species. This is a good argument for finding a place in one's garden for native plants. I've planted several species of milkweed, but so far have not attracted any Monarch Butterflies. Likewise, I've planted Dutchman's Pipe, but haven't seen any Pipevine Swallowtails. I've been watching some odd inch-worm-looking creatures on my monkeyflowers, hoping that they'll develop into something interesting.

I have no clue what this strange-looking creature might be. I posted it on Flickr, and one of my best sources for animal identification joked that he'd bet five bucks that it was a "fennel tapeworm." I laughed for a solid minute over that comment.

But seriously, if you have any space for planting, do consider choosing plants that do more than look pretty. Consider the needs of the other creatures, with which we share the world. Read up on the larval host plants of butterflies. Then plant a few extras, and let the caterpillars eat, too.


Jennifer Carrasco said...

Lisa, I just love your entries and photographs! Beautifully done with such intelligent and poetic comments.
You are so right about the American disconnect.....all summer last year I watched one (and only one) swallowtail butterfly flit sadly through our neighborhood, searching for a mate. I'm sure,since I have lots of dill, fennel and parsley, that the lack of swallowtails comes from the killing of caterpillars.

When I was little and going fishing with my dad, I would come on clouds of swallowtails sipping on the mudflats. Shirtless in the sun, I would gingerly pick them up (don't damage their "feathers",) my dad would warn, and let about 20 of them crawl on my chest. They must have liked the sweat on my body, because they would stay, moving slowly across my skin. They "sipped" me and smelled like flowers.

Town Mouse said...

I think what's worst are the pesticides. People usually can't kill all caterpillars by hand, but once you start to spray...

How exciting your garden is becoming a little Noah's arc for the butterflies!

Jess said...

I am in AWE of your photos! Congrats on attracting so many lovely creatures. I hope to get more butterfly action in the future. There is nothing in the world luckier than being favored by the presence of native creatures in one's own yard.

KatherineElizabeth said...

Lisa, speaking of gardening and butterflies in SF, have you heard about the Green Hairstreak Project? It's taking place in GG Heights, an attempt to link two populations of endangered GH Butterflies (they're only separated by 5 blocks but you know, for a BF that can be alot!). So, Liam the local lepidopterist has spearheaded an effort to get neighbors to plant native buckwheat, which the GH BFs lay their eggs on the the larvae eat. Anyhow, it's pretty cool:

And congrats on the pipevine/swallowtail. You're lucky!

Bill D said...

I am glad you said something about not distroying caterpillars, because most yards these days are deserts for insect of all kinds. Good for you. If you want to know more about me, check out my website at


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