Posts Tagged Monarch chrysalis


“Caterpillars are really just walking leaves, for that is all they eat.”

–Douglas W. Tallamy, The Nature of Oaks

I am reminded of this sentence in Tallamy’s latest book every time I encounter a caterpillar in my yard. It feels to me to be a deep and important truth, one that is easily overlooked by many, I fear.

He notes in another paragraph that he wants people to stop thinking of caterpillars and other insects as bugs. Instead, he asks us to remember that every stink bug, caterpillar, wasp, and ant is potential food for an animal, perhaps another insect or spider, perhaps a bird, perhaps a mammal. Wildlife needs those bugs to keep the cycle of life operational.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails enjoy many native and non-native flowers, but their caterpillars eat leaves of a number of our native canopy trees, especially Tulip Poplar and Black Cherry.

Now, instead of caterpillars, I see leaves with legs. And although, Tallamy didn’t write it, I now see the butterflies and moths that these caterpillars become as leaves that fly — farther than an autumnal tumble from branch to earth on a chilly north wind. Flying lepidopterans allow leaves, albeit transformed ones, to travel much farther. I am hoping that some of the transformed leaves of swamp milkweed in my garden make it all the way to Central America in the form of a Monarch butterfly migrational journey.

It has been a tough year for the leaves-with-legs in my yard. Predatory wasps and birds got most of the early rounds of Monarch butterfly caterpillars that appeared on my common and swamp milkweeds. One moment, the tiny hatchlings would be happily chomping away. The next — nothing, save a few bits of frass (caterpillar poop) adorning leaves below those on which they were feeding.

Monarch caterpillars on Sept. 20.

Two weeks ago, I was elated when I spotted eleven small Monarch caterpillars dining on swamp milkweed near my front water feature. Wasps were no longer patrolling the plants, their life cycles completed for the season. I thought these leggy leaves had a real chance to make it to their next transformation. For nine days, they grew fatter. I felt certain they were close to their time to become bejeweled emerald chrysalises.

One by one, they began to vanish. Caterpillars wander when they are preparing to pupate. They deliberately leave their food plants and search for another place to build their magic metamorphic enclosures. I searched carefully all around for signs, seeking walking leaves dangling from stems of other nearby plants in the classic J position they assume before they melt into the gilded jewel boxes from which they emerge as winged leaves ready to fly south.

Finally one afternoon, I spotted a fat caterpillar walking on the ground around the water feature. I feel certain it was seeking a plant upon which it would metamorphose. Just as I excitedly pointed out this caterpillar on its transformational journey to Wonder Spouse, one of the Green Frogs spending the summer in our water feature jumped down from the rim of the pool, and before we could blink, we watched the amphibian grab the caterpillar, swallowing it in two big gulps. We were stunned. And horrified.

Green Frog sunning on rim of water feature

Of course, I know that frogs eat insects, but it never occurred to me that they would eat caterpillars as they descended the milkweeds to metamorphose. Later that day, I spotted perhaps the same frog staked out beneath a milkweed that still had two caterpillars dining on it. It was very clearly waiting for them to descend and become its next meal. I confess, I chased the frog back into the water feature, scolding it.

After scouring the area for signs of transforming Monarch caterpillars, I found only one dangling from a spent scape of a daylily. It was in the J position that afternoon, safely beyond the reach of greedy frogs. By the next morning, the leaf with legs had become a jade green chrysalis. I have moved it to what I hope is the safety of my greenhouse before predicted rains could potentially enhance opportunities for fungal contamination or predatory wasps/flies could harm it.

I visit it several times a day to encourage it on its metamorphic journey. October seems to be planning to stay warmer than “normal,” but one never knows when a cold front might blow in with the first frost. It’s not unusual for Monarchs to migrate in late October, so there’s every reason to hope for a positive outcome for this little emerald jewel box.

Still, my heart will lighten when metamorphic magic transforms the chrysalis into a leaf with wings that will carry it safely to warmer winter climes.

Safe travels, flying leaves…


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Worth the Wait: Milkweed Magic

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

In the southeastern US piedmont region where I live, I am happy to report that more and more homeowners are adding native pollinator gardens to their landscapes. By providing sources of pollen, nectar, and leaves of plants that native bees, butterflies, moths, wasps, etc. rely on, we are all helping to replace at least some of the native ecosystems obliterated by urbanization that once fed these insects. As Douglas Tallamy explains in his book, Bringing Nature Home, if we lose our native pollinators and other insects, we also lose the native wildlife that eats these insects — birds, bats, frogs, etc.

A freshly emerged Monarch Butterfly

A freshly emerged Monarch Butterfly

One of the poster-insects for the plight of our native pollinators is the Monarch Butterfly. Reports seem to vary every year recently regarding the status of this beautiful species, but it seems clear that we should all continue to add to our landscapes the native food plants that this butterfly relies on: milkweeds (Asclepias spp.)

Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata)

Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata)

Milkweeds are a test of patience for gardeners. New transplants don’t usually bloom prolifically the first year after planting. These plants spend that first year establishing healthy root systems. But by their third year in your garden, you will agree that milkweeds are worth the wait — for the beauty of their prolonged flowering, for their fat, brown pods from which seeds escape on silken parachutes, and for the diversity of pollinators that dine on their flowers, and the Monarch Butterfly caterpillars that devour the plants.

A honeybee enjoying Swamp Milkweed blooms.

A honeybee enjoying Swamp Milkweed blooms.

For gardeners wondering which species of milkweed to try in their gardens, I recommend three options. These are the easiest to grow, and also the most readily available in the trade.

  • Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata) is native to moist areas and can handle some shade. However, it thrives in standard garden beds, as long as you water it during droughts, and perhaps a bit extra during its first year as it is establishing. In return, you will get three-foot-tall plants covered in clusters of pink flowers. There’s also a white-blooming variety of this species, but I think the pink forms are much lovelier. A well-established plant will bloom for at least a month, and will be visited dawn to dusk by happy pollinators. If you’re lucky, these visitors will include some Monarch butterflies.
Honeybees on Butterfly Weed

Honeybees on Butterfly Weed

  • Butterfly Weed (A. tuberosa) is native to hot, sunny hillsides. It’s not unusual to see it growing on unmowed road banks in my region. The trick to this species that produces bright orange flowers is excellent drainage. If it sits for long in too-moist soil, it will forsake you. The plants I’ve added grow bigger every year, producing more and more flowering branches literally abuzz with happy pollinators.
Common Milkweed (A. syriaca)

Common Milkweed (A. syriaca)

  • Common Milkweed (A. syriaca) thrives in moist, sunny places. It is not as showy as the first two species above, but it seems to be the favorite food plant of Monarch Butterfly caterpillars, perhaps because it is the most commonly occurring milkweed species on patches of undeveloped land. I tucked mine toward the back of a flower bed, where they can grow tall while waiting for Monarchs to find them. I planted mine in my boulder bed, and they haven’t bloomed for me, possibly because they don’t get quite enough sun. But they grow well, producing tall, green plants, and last year Monarch caterpillars ate them literally to the ground. However, the plants returned in greater numbers this year, which is when I realized that this species spreads via running rhizomes. As Matt Gocke, Greenhouse and Nursery Manger at the North Carolina Botanical Garden told me, you plant this species once, and you will never need to plant it again, because of its ability to spread itself via rhizomes.

Milkweed Pests

Milkweeds are slow to emerge in spring, far later than many other native perennials. But once they appear, they grow quickly, and soon the pollinator visits begin. Two pests will also eventually show up.

Oleander aphids on Common Milkweed

Oleander aphids on Common Milkweed

Bright orange Oleander aphids inevitably appear on every milkweed species I grow, but they seem to favor Common Milkweed. So-called because they also feed on oleanders, these aphids are orange to warn potential predators that they are poisonous, having ingested the toxins in milkweed that cause deer, rabbits, and other plant-eaters to pass them by. These aphid infestations can get pretty ugly. I control mine by donning garden gloves and simultaneously spraying the stems with a strong jet of water while rubbing off the aphids with my fingers. Aphids are poor climbers; once knocked down by the water, they have trouble getting back up the stems.

A Milkweed bug

A Milkweed bug

Milkweed bugs usually show up eventually on some of my milkweeds. These can be destructive to developing seed pods, because they suck out the nutrients in the pods, thereby stunting them. If they get out of hand on my plants, with my gloves on, I pick them off and drop them in a jar of soapy water, where they quickly die. Most years, I never see very many of these insects, which makes me wonder if some bird eats them despite their possible toxicity.

A Few Other Milkweed Species

Snowberry Clearwing moth visiting flowers of Whorled Milkweed.

Snowberry Clearwing moth visiting flowers of Whorled Milkweed.

Being a somewhat obsessive gardener, if I like a genus of native plants, I’ll often try to grow as many different species as I can. Thus, I grow a few additional species of milkweed.  This is the second year for my Whorled Milkweed (A. verticillata). Until it blooms, you wouldn’t even believe it’s a milkweed. That’s how un-milkweed-like its leaves look, at least to me. But its small white clusters of flowers are unmistakably milkweed blooms, and this year the plant has formed a lovely small shrubby plant that continues to produce flowers popular with an array of pollinators.

Without the flowers, I'd never guess the identity of Whorled Milkweed.

Without the flowers, I’d never guess the identity of Whorled Milkweed.

Red Milkweed (A. rubra)

Red Milkweed (A. rubra)

The flowers of Red Milkweed are similar to those of Swamp Milkweed, and they share a preference for the same growing conditions. I grow mine in a pot that sits in my summer water feature. It blooms in early spring, but doesn’t re-bloom.

Fewflower Milkweed (A. lanceolata)

Fewflower Milkweed (A. lanceolata)

Fewflower Milkweed is native to swampy parts of the coastal plain region up and down the eastern coast of the US. I planted this in one of my summer water feature pots last year, but it didn’t bloom. But this year, beginning about two weeks ago and still going strong, the plant began to produce clusters of peachy-orange flowers. The color is not as in-your-face as that of Butterfly Weed flowers, but as the common name implies, each flower cluster contains a relatively small number of flowers. They are as popular with pollinators as the other milkweed species, but probably not a practical choice for most piedmont gardeners.

Swamp Milkweed pods releasing their seeds.

Swamp Milkweed pods releasing their seeds.

I think native milkweeds should be on every gardener’s list of must-have perennials. For an investment of some patience on your part, you will be rewarded with prolonged, colorful blooms visited by swarms of bees and butterflies. And if you’re really lucky, perhaps you’ll get the chance to watch a Monarch caterpillar transform into a chrysalis, and then a butterfly, as I did last year.

Chrysalis of a Monarch Butterfly in development

Chrysalis of a Monarch Butterfly in development

Fall is a great time to plant milkweeds in your garden, and you can get the three species I suggested — plus perhaps a few more — at the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale next month. I’ll be there on Member’s Night to get first crack at all the wonderful plants that will be offered. I hope I’ll see you there!


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Grateful for Time

exit_side view

When I was ten, my parents sent me to the best place I had ever been in my life: summer camp. We rose early, ate well, and played outdoors all day – hiking, swimming, archery – I would have happily stayed until school started again. While there, I met the most amazing adult I had ever known. I don’t remember his name, but I remember his job title: Camp Naturalist. He knew the name of every plant or animal I asked about. Not only did he know their names, he knew stories about them – how they lived, where to find them, why they were important. I followed him around the way kids chase teen idols. Before the end of the week, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up – a naturalist. I wanted to know everything he knew – and more.

Tulip Poplar Flower and Bud

Time flew. I studied the natural sciences in college and graduate school, but somewhere along the way, it became clear to me that while my enthusiasm for the natural world remained, my knack with the written word was more valuable in the “real” world. I became a professional writer with an abiding love of the natural world, and an obsession with the art and science of gardening.

Coneflowers galore

That’s why on this day when we Americans count our blessings, I find I am deeply grateful for the gift of time. Often in previous decades when I spotted an interesting flower or animal, I wasn’t able to stop and study it, or even take a picture of it. No time. But now I am blessed with that irreplaceable gift of time, which is why a month or so ago, I was able to be a midwife to metamorphosis.

That’s overstating things a bit. I didn’t actually help, but I did watch for hours on several days for several weeks, as the Monarch caterpillars that decimated the milkweeds I’d planted for them transformed themselves into chrysalises. And one emerald chrysalis successfully transformed herself into a perfect butterfly. I named her Mona.

Today I want to share with you the journey I shared with a pair of Monarch caterpillars. Both became bejewled jade chrysalises, but only one succeeded in the final transformation to butterfly.

September 27

Two caterpillars on my Common Milkweed had eaten it to a stub of its former self. On this day, one of the caterpillars transformed into a chrysalis. I had been checking on it regularly, but I missed the magic moment of metamorphosis. I was determined not to miss that moment when the second caterpillar changed.

The first caterpillar transformed into a chrysalis when I stopped watching it for a few minutes.

The first caterpillar transformed into a chrysalis when I stopped watching it for a few minutes.

September 28

The second caterpillar attached itself to a stem and hung down just as the other one had, forming what looked like a letter J. I began checking on it every half hour, knowing from my research – and from watching the first one the previous day — that it would likely take several hours.

Late that day, after over 1000 photos (ah, the double-edged gift of time) just as a soft rain began to fall, the caterpillar began swinging back and forth to force the outer skin of its former self up to its anchor point. More swinging freed the skin, which fell to the damp ground, revealing another perfect emerald chrysalis, twin to the one created the day before. (Note: You can click on any image in the gallery to see a larger image and any caption I’ve added.)

October 7 (Day 9)

I read that the change from chrysalis to butterfly usually takes 10-14 days, but I checked on them daily – just to be sure. A friend warned me that his Monarch chrysalises had been the victims of predatory wasps that bored inside and killed them. He suggested I cover mine to prevent a similar fate. I loosely wrapped the milkweed plants where the chrysalises dangled in the light-weight garden fabric I use to protect young squash plants from pest insects. The fabric allowed light and water to pass through, not directly touching them, but enclosing them within a predator-proof shield.

first chrysalis-10-13

October 13 (Day 15)

I could detect no change in my emerald charges. The day after the second caterpillar became a chrysalis, my area saw two weeks of clouds and record rainfall. I wondered if perhaps they were waiting for the sun to return.


October 16 (Day 18)

The color of the younger chrysalis now looked wrong, especially compared to the one formed a day earlier. That older one was showing wing color. The time must finally be drawing near!

The first hard freeze of the season was predicted for the following two nights. I worried that the chrysalis showing wing color would freeze before it could transform, so I decided to cut off the stem to which it was attached and move it to my cool greenhouse. By this time, it was clear to me that something was wrong with the younger chrysalis. My research suggested its appearance pointed to a fatal fungal infection.

October 19 (Day 21 – Emergence)


For two days after I moved the chrysalis into the greenhouse, it dangled from its stem while I scrutinized it often, trying to discern any changes in its appearance. But my first visit on this day revealed a distinctive darkening of the chrysalis; brighter orange wing colors glowed deeper within. I knew from my research that transformation was near.

I spent about three hours photographing and staring at it, willing it to metamorphose. Then I got hungry and thirsty, so I decided to run into the house for a quick refueling. In the twenty minutes I was gone, I missed the actual moment the butterfly emerged from the chrysalis! I concluded that real naturalists probably bring snacks to the field.

There she was, dangling from the remnants of her now-abandoned transformation chamber. Determined not to miss another second, I took a zillion or so photos as Mona slowly stretched out her wings and began to dry off. I knew I had a female butterfly from my research. Markings of the two sexes are quite distinctive. Mona the Monarch was definitely female.

Mona didn’t emerge until the sun was about to set. I was worried she wouldn’t dry off before another cold night gripped the area, so I left her in the greenhouse, instructing her to wait for me to come get her after the sun had warmed the air the next day.

October 20 (Day 22 – Independence Day)

It looked to me as if Mona had barely moved overnight. She still clung to the remnants of her birth chamber attached to the milkweed stem I had anchored in a vase too heavy to tip over easily.

Mona had barely moved overnight.

Mona had barely moved overnight.

My greenhouse in the early morning is shaded and cool, and I was growing impatient. The day was autumnal perfection – cloudless deep-azure skies and a bright warm-but-not-hot sun. I decided to carry the vase holding Mona on her perch outside to the sunny south side of my garage – a favorite basking spot of my local lizard population.

Mona responded almost instantly to the kiss of warm autumn sun on her wings. Slowly she opened them wide to catch the full benefit of the sun. Then she closed her wings, meditated a moment, then opened them again. She repeated this process over and over for about twenty minutes, reminding me of fledgling Red-shouldered Hawks I had watched a few springs earlier as they took turns standing on the edge of their nest flapping their wings, testing the air, wakening flight muscles.

Red-Shouldered Hawk with two of her chicks before they were quite big enough to begin flexing their wings.

Red-Shouldered Hawk with two of her chicks before they were big enough to begin flexing their wings.

I was constantly taking pictures during this time, but her decision to take flight was so sudden and powerful that I was unable to focus my camera in time for a parting photograph. Mona shot straight up, heading directly into the sun, reaching the top of nearby canopy trees in mere seconds. She made a decisive turn to the southeast and disappeared from my sight before I could breathe.

Acting like the crazy woman some folks probably think I am, I found myself waving enthusiastically and wishing her a safe journey. Her flight direction would take her to the coast a couple of hundred miles away. Many migrating Monarchs follow the Atlantic coastline south in the fall. Mona seemed to know exactly where she needed to be.

exit_open wings2

Bon voyage, Mona!

Thanks to the gift of time, I was able to fulfill a ten-year-old girl’s dream of watching and learning from the natural world. How blessed am I, I thought to myself as I squinted into the sun trying to follow Mona’s flight path, to have the better part of three weeks to follow a caterpillar through its metamorphic journey?

Since Mona left, I had another occasion to deeply appreciate the gift of time. Wonder Spouse developed a sudden, entirely unanticipated health issue that required surgery serious enough to merit two nights in the hospital. I am delighted to report that he is back to his energetic self, working his usual jam-packed schedule. But there is nothing like sitting in a hospital waiting room while the love of your life is in surgery to make you give thanks for the precious gift of time.

Already back to full speed, Wonder Spouse has resumed his normal activities.

Already back to full speed, Wonder Spouse has resumed his normal activities.

Recent events in the world have probably led most of us to appreciate the gift of time. Even during our happiest days, lives can change in the space of a heartbeat. It seems to me to be an excellent moment to be sure I am using my blessing of time wisely, to share my gift of time with others as well as with that ten-year-old girl who wanted to know the name of every tree and bird she met in the forests she loved.

That summer camp I loved was an Episcopal Church camp. My father was an Episcopal priest, so it was the obvious choice for his children. My feelings about organized religion are — shall we say — mixed, but when I think about the blessing of time, my mind inevitably turns to a benediction my father always recited at the end of every service he led.

He was a trained actor, so the cadences of that short prayer rolled over the congregation like ocean waves, weaving a spell of peace over all. I cannot read the words without hearing his baritone behind each syllable:

Support us, Lord, all the day long, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, Lord, in your mercy, give us safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last.

This year, I send all my readers prayers for peace – and the precious gift of time.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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