One of the most enjoyable aspects of gardening is seeing the garden space take on a life of its own. No, I’m not talking about weeds and other pests! That’s certainly a factor, but it’s been my experience that the enjoyment of the yardscape and the transformation over time in the yard greatly outweighs any of the negatives that occur with unwanted vegetation.
Besides, as I have mentioned a time or two before, all that greenery that does get pulled up during our rounds outside are greatly appreciated by our little flock of chickens.
As the garden space has matured, an ecosystem has developed that is sustaining life — as it should! The yardscape is not a sterile, antiseptic place, “sanitized for your protection” (as labels used to proclaim that were placed on the toilet seat of hotel rooms). The garden is alive, a bit disordered, and from time to time, a bit disconcerting.
As I’ve discovered new creatures in the landscape, I’ve been tempted to proclaim, “Look! There’s a new visitor!” In almost all cases, that would have been incorrect, as these creatures have become citizens here, not visitors. They now live here, and I’m just discovering them! When one gardens and creates a variety of shady and sunny spots, tree canopy, and moisture sources, some adventure is sure to follow.
Until recently, we only could spot slugs — mostly on our rhubarb plants. We “graduated” to snails as well. Now, while I wish that we didn’t have either, and we have to work to control them, the fact is that their presence further validates our place as a “real” habitat.
We’ve also had our share of spiders, snakes, praying mantis, wasps, bees, birds, squirrels, bats, a fox or two, and … butterflies.
In fact, it was a butterfly spotting that provided inspiration for this article. As I finished up the feeding of the chickens and the collection of their daily donation of eggs, I strolled back towards the house. As I did, I saw movement of something golden out of the corner of my eye.
Now, I know that insect critters are normally the purview of Taylor Lindsay, fellow contributor to the Transcript Bulletin. In fact, she wrote a brief article on the swallowtail in May 2015. Even so, I find my recent experience compelling to the level that I want to share it with you. My apologies, Taylor!
When I first looked at the butterfly, the first thing that came to mind was, “monarch.” I was way off. Monarchs tend to be a deep orange color (much like the color of a tiger, hence one of the names for a monarch being “common tiger”) with a striking black pattern, much like the lead lines in a stained glass window. My friend was a bright yellow color. The size of our new inhabitant was about four inches from wingtip to wingtip — similar to some types of the monarch. However, the wing shape was more angular and was adorned with tails and splashes of blue and orange along the bottom edges of the wings.
Well, hello, Western Tiger Swallowtail! Beautiful and energetic, my new friend moved rapidly from flower to flower, nimbly sipping up nectar from a variety of flowers as it moved along. It didn’t seem too concerned of my presence, and moved along, keeping out of reach, but allowing me to get close enough to photograph. I suspect this was a female, due to her size. In the swallowtail realm, females tend to be larger than males.
As it turns out, this species is fairly common in the western United States, and looks very similar to the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, found commonly, well, in the Eastern portions of the U.S. This particular type in my garden was twin-tailed, with each wing having an interesting and colorfully adorned swallow-shaped appendage along the bottom edge toward the rear of the butterfly.
Many portions of the American West, including our area, provides the welcoming habitat for this beautiful flyer. For nectar, it will feed readily from a variety of flowers, including lavender, zinnias, and, as you might suspect, butterfly bush. In our garden, the purple larkspur is in full bloom, and this was especially attractive.
A ready food source in the summer months is only one part of the equation for a butterfly. There also needs to be host plants that the butterfly can lay eggs on to continue the species’ life cycle. Once again, we have a ready supply of host trees, including cottonwood, birch, sycamore (the London Plane Tree, popular in this area, is a sycamore hybrid), willow, ash, wild cherry, and aspen.
Our topography works well for the swallowtail as well as it prefers streams, canyons, less dense woodlands, parks, wooded suburbs, and areas along rivers. The butterfly gets needed moisture from mud, where it gets both a drink of water and the minerals it needs. Once I noticed the swallowtail, I starting seeing them in other settings, including Speirs Farm, the Fawson Preserve, and in Pat Jessie’s and Peter Driscoll’s garden. With a moderate amount of cover and nectar-bearing flowers, it’s likely you’ll get them to live at your place as well.
The Western Tiger Swallowtail takes flight in about June and July around here. Like all insects, they have a relatively short time to complete life cycles. The males go on the lookout for willing females. After mating, the females lay eggs, one at a time, on the surface of host tree leaves. The female swallowtail can lay up to about 100 eggs in the season. The caterpillars (larvae) that hatch feed on the leaves, sustaining themselves. As they do so, they create small silk bedding mats. These are located inside curled leaves (held in place by the caterpillar’s silk) for protection from the elements and predators (such as some types of wasps).
As the larva (caterpillar) matures, it pupates, becoming a pupa that is almost immobile but attached to the surface of the leaf nesting place it has created. The pupa nests itself inside a silken cocoon and begins its transformation process inside a hardened pendant-shaped shell, called a chrysalis. Eggs that were laid later will grow into caterpillars that will pupate and hibernate in their chrysalis to start the whole process over again when spring returns. It’s interesting to note that the swallowtail caterpillar will molt about five times (each sub-stage is called an instar) before reaching full maturity to be able to pupate. Fascinating stuff, I tell you! Who knew there was such drama and intricacy right around us?
By the way, before we end up today, I need to add something to last week’s articles about roses. I mentioned that if your roses do experience winter kill, that you must take care not to prune back too close to the rootstock as to avoid having only the rootstock variety grow back. This is true for grafted varieties, but not for “own root” types. The source mentioned, highcountryroses.com, specializes in own root varieties and they are available from other sources as well. In this case, should winter kill occur, pruning back to the surface to allow the rootstock to regenerate would result in the same variety.
Even though it’s hot outside right now, the long evenings when the temps drop a bit are a delight. Be sure to take advantage of the warmth and keep an eye open for interesting and beautiful visitors and citizens in your garden. It won’t be that long before we are hoping once again for the higher temps!
Jay Cooper can be contacted at email@example.com, or you can visit youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.