Sep 3: end of summer in the garden means lots of caterpillars and chrysalises

Monarch butterflies are emerging left and right in the garden. A couple of weeks ago on a rainy day, I started a new compost pile for my garden clippings. As I cleared out a space to put up wire fencing to contain the pile, I noticed what looked like an injured monarch on the ground. It was moving slowly and it’s wings didn’t look quite right.

A few minutes later I saw another slow-moving monarch on the ground. It’s wings were kind of shriveled and it looked like it was trying to dry them out. In the rain.

And then I realized: these two butterflies had just emerged from their chrysalises and were getting used to their new bodies before taking off for flight.

Since then, the monarch butterfly population has been on a steady increase. I see them soaring through the garden every day, sometimes only one butterfly at a time, sometimes multiple. I’ve been seeing tiger swallowtails as well, and eastern swallowtails, though not as many as monarchs.

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My office (and coworker) today. #butterfly #garden

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When I was out in the garden on Labor Day, I went to get the wheelbarrow to collect weeds in, and right before I flipped it over to roll it up the hill, I saw a chrysalis on it. Then I started looking around for chrysalises and I found several more.

monarch empty chrysalis
Empty monarch chrysalis

The milkweed is looking pretty gnarly. This is the time of year I start getting antsy to tidy the garden, so I wanted to chop it down. Before cutting anything, I inspected for caterpillars, and the milkweed is crawling with them. So for now it stays. I need to think about where to move the plants next year so that when they get unsightly like this, I don’t have to look at them but the caterpillars can still enjoy them.

 

August 25: first chrysalis

The monarch caterpillars are getting fat. During the eclipse, I walked around the garden inspecting the undersides of leaves, taking inventory. I counted 11 or 12 monarch caterpillars on the milkweed, along with 3 swallowtail caterpillars on the rue and the parsley. The milkweed looks terrible — it’s gone to seed and is covered with aphids and big orange bugs that are eating the aphids. The echnicea looks terrible too — brown and fried — but in the mornings, goldfinches perch on the dried heads and sway while they eat coneflower seeds.

August echinacea
Dying, drying coneflowers for the goldfinches

The monarch caterpillars are drawn to the rue for making their chrysalises. I have been surprised by how popular the rue is.

caterpillar pre chrysalis
Monarch caterpillar pre-chrysalis

It currently hosts swallowtail caterpillars who are eating it, and monarch caterpillars who are hanging in their chrysalises from it.

pretty chrysalis
Same monarch caterpillar later in the day

And just because I like to check in each year to see what the status of all the plants were in prior years, here are some photos from the garden in late August:

Weeded and mowed. And first monarch caterpillar!

I cut back the bee balm this week. It’s stems sprawled, leafless and leggy, and a mildew rusted the few withered leaves that were left. A fresh crop greens the ground where the desiccated bee balm swayed before, and fresh stems leaf towards the sky. 

Cutting that back inspired me to demolish the catnip as well. It had bushed into a chest high tangle of brown stems and withered leaves at its base and almost to its tips, leggy and past its prime. Birds and bees still loved it for its flowers and seed heads, which caused significant internal conflict about cutting it back. We’ve got a ton of other flowers and seeds and branches for perching, so I whacked it.

 After two weeks out of the garden, and after a drenching rain, I needed to trim and neaten. Weeds trashed the garden. It looked like an abandoned parking lot. The grass was shin high and gone to seed as well. The yard was not tidy like I like it.

All week I watched the forecast, hoping for a pleasant Saturday to garden. All week, the forecast called for rain. I slept in, and when I awoke, the sun shone on sparkling wet grass. 

I spent the morning tearing out weeds, snipping dead flower stems, chopping aphid-infested seed pods off of milkweed. And in doing so, found our first monarch caterpillar of the season:

Everything is blooming, and the hummingbirds don’t mind that I cut back the bee balm. One just thrummed in front of me, zipping over to the firecracker plant. It’s drinking there now. I’ll finish up the mowing and go sit in my chair to enjoy the flowers without the distraction of weeds and tall grass.

Caterpillar catalog (and the plants that make it possible)

When I returned home after a weeklong trip to Whistler, I was giddy to walk around the garden and find not one monarch butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, but two.

newly-emerged-monarch
Newly emerged monarch on rue

After finding those, I of course crawled around in the mulch and dirt to inspect the undersides of leaves. I found three more monarch chrysalises plus a bunch of fat swallowtail caterpillars who will soon be crawling off to metamorphasize as well.

This is SO EXCITING Y’ALL. Here’s a full caterpillar catalog of what I’ve found so far:

Some friends at work are also interested in butterfly gardening, and are looking for host plant ideas. Since we work for a company that makes, ahem, blogging software, my friend naturally asked “Did you do a blog post on what all you planted?” Nudge nudge.

Shockingly, I have not. So here it is! Kris and Liz, this is for you.

The plants

For Mother’s Day, our¬†son gave me Christopher Kline’s book, Butterfly Gardening with Native Plants: How to Attract and Identify Butterflies. Combined with a bunch of online research, experimentation¬†with a¬†butterfly garden in Florida, and talking to bunches of people who¬†garden for butterflies and caterpillars, this book helped me plan a garden that includes both host plants (that caterpillars eat) and nectar plants (that adult butterflies drink from). The most successful plants in our garden are the following:

Host plants

Milkweed (Asclepias): We planted both common milkweed and swamp milkweed. These are by far the most insect-loved plants in the garden. They are constantly covered in various species, including aphids, beetles, and, late in the summer, monarch caterpillars. Milkweed is both a nectar plant and a host plant. We’ve seen adult giant swallowtails and monarchs drinking from its flowers, and have found at least a dozen monarch caterpillars on it. Word of warning: milkweed will get covered in aphids.¬†The caterpillars will still come even when every surface is crawling with aphids, so we kept our milkweed intact even though it’s not very attractive once it has stopped flowering and it’s coated in¬†tiny orange insects.

Rue (Ruta graveolens):¬†This is possibly my favorite addition to the garden.¬†The leaves are a silvery blue-green, the plant stays neat and tidy (it doesn’t get leggy or messy), it can take the heat (and drought) and still look healthy, and the swallowtail caterpillars adore it. As an unexpected bonus, the monarch caterpillars¬†love it for building chrysalises. We’ve found at least 3 chrysalises in the small, shin-high plants.

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Butterfly host and nectar plants

Nectar plants

Milkweed: all the butterflies big and small love milkweed.

Indigo salvia: Aside from the milkweed, these purple flower spikes are the most popular in the garden for butterflies to drink from. Bees also love these flowers.

Pink salvia: Okay, maybe these are tied with the indigo salvia for nectar popularity, at least for hummingbirds. I see hummingbirds drinking from these almost every time I sit in the garden.

Bee balm (Monarda): Butterflies and hummingbirds love this as well. Hummingbirds dart between the pink salvia and the bee balm.

Thai basil: I’ve seen some small butterflies and moths (and caterpillars) on these flowers.

 

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Butterfly host and nectar plants

Cone flowers: Butterflies always visit these.

Joe Pye weed: Butterflies love to drink from Joe Pye flowers. Joe Pye weed gets really tall and floppy unless you get the dwarf varieties.

monarch-on-joe-pye_0056
Monarch on Joe Pye weed

We planted some other things that weren’t as awesome as we expected:

Parsley:¬†parsley is a host plant for swallowtails, but the swallowtail caterpillars definitely opted for the rue over the parsley, at least this year. I didn’t find any caterpillars on the parsley, and found at least a dozen on the rue.

I guess the parsley is the only one :-). We have lots of other nectar flowers — brown-eyed Susans, Mexican blanket flowers, some other stuff I can’t remember the names of — but the ones I listed above were definitely the most successful.

If you can identify any of the caterpillars in the catalog, please let me know! I think most of them are probably moths, but I don’t have a good ID book.