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Saving butterflies: Caterpillars are lowly no longer

In between laying eggs, the black swallowtail goes for the nectar-rich pentas blossoms.
In between laying eggs, the black swallowtail goes for the nectar-rich pentas blossoms. TNS

At almost every seminar I give, I ask the audience by a show of hands if they are caterpillar friendly. I am delighted to say I sense a real change within the gardening public. The caterpillar, once perhaps considered the enemy of the garden, has now become the recognized reward, and woe to the lizard or bird that picks one off.

Last year I started to realize how important caterpillars had become to the public. I received a phone call from a lady who was in tears. She had Monarch caterpillars, but all of her milkweed had been devoured. She asked almost hysterically if she could bring the caterpillars to us since we had so many milkweeds. At least I thought we had many.

She showed up with a box containing 100 caterpillars. I slowly walked through the garden. A little milkweed plant got one caterpillar while larger plants were gifted with two or three. It took no time before I had few leaves as well.

This year we had our own similar episode. Despite having several large fennel and a few parsley plants, it seems the “Fertile Myrtle” of Black Swallowtails produced enough eggs and caterpillars to create panic among the staff. The stress led to them to buy more plants in an effort to try to feed all of the hungry mouths.

Our own real test of being caterpillar friendly caught us all by surprise. It involved Improved Meyer Lemon trees in glazed containers outside our new Andrews Visitor and Education Center.

A couple of things make this caterpillar-friendly test a little more of a challenge.

We got our start as a USDA Plant Introduction Station in 1919. All over the garden are trees, shrubs and bamboo that Frank Meyer, the hero of plant exploration, found and brought back to the country. He is the one who discovered the aforementioned lemon named in his honor. That was just one issue in our true test of being caterpillar friendly.

The second test: These two containers are right at the entrance where every visitor enters the garden. What would they think to see missing leaves or caterpillars, which would no doubt just be worms to many of them?

Our test began beautifully as a giant swallowtail made her visit to the lemons. She would lay an egg or two then drop down to get nectar from some red pentas. Then she would return for a little more egg laying. We saw the eggs, the resulting caterpillars and, in what seemed like such a short amount of time, chrysalis. Every day we would look.

Then the call came over the radio: Norman, you better get over here. As you might have-guessed, a beautiful swallowtail had emerged, a process called enclosure in the lepidoptera world.

All the staff and a few visitors stood in awe as we experienced nature at one of its finest moments. While we were watching, I couldn’t help but think we too had just passed the caterpillar test.

Are you caterpillar friendly? You will have many more butterflies if you are.

Norman Winter is director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, and author of “Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South.”

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