On Gardening: No question about it, this butterfly is a stunner

January 26, 2015

The Question Mark basking in the sun here forms a unique shadow on the small tree.

Just before the first cold weather of fall I saw a butterfly on one of our large oaks. I knew what it was from across our cottage garden, it was a Question Mark. When I showed the photo to a couple of staffers, it was like eyes were opened up for the first time. With amazement they asked if I had found that butterfly in our garden. I did and there is a very good chance you can too if you pay attention this year.

Without a doubt the Question Mark is one of our most beautiful butterflies. It is found throughout the eastern half of the United States. Even though it is so prevalent over such a wide range, my seminar audiences are a lot like those staffers; they seem shocked that there is such a butterfly moving about in their neighborhood. So this week instead of writing about some plant or horticultural technique. I thought I would prime you for butterfly season with the idea of getting you to notice and appreciate butterflies other than just Monarchs and Swallowtails.

The Question Mark gets its name from the white question mark-like marking seen when its wings are folded. But I even have an appreciation for its scientific name, Polygonia interrogationis. When the wings are folded, your first inclination would be to think that you are looking at an old leaf stuck to the tree limb or shrub. But when those wings open up, the butterfly loverís cameras go off with the sound of rapid fire shutters.

Whereas the Monarch butterfly must have milkweed and Gulf Fritillary, a passionflower vine, the Question Mark has a few more options. If you have an elm tree, you are probably in luck. In fact, the American elm, red elm and even the lacebark or Drake elm all provide larval food for the Question Mark. Even the hackberry, which is considered a trash tree by many in the landscape trade, is a treasured host plant.

But the good news goes further as nettles and false nettles like the Boehmeria cylindrica also provide caterpillar food. Would you believe the latter is native in all but seven states? I suppose if there was bad news it would be that the female doesnít lay the eggs on the host plants and that the caterpillars must find it.

There are generally two broods a year, giving the butterflies two different appearances, a summer form and a winter form. Adults of the summer form have dark burgundy to almost black hindwings. The adults of the winter form have longer tails, colored reddish orange with dark spots.

Iíve watched them in the brutal heat of south Texas, along bayous in Louisiana and now several times in Georgia. They have almost always been seen on sap, rotting fruit or homemade banana brew. Only once have I caught them on nectar and that was on a buttonbush. They are reportedly seen on dung if available.

Once winter has departed and you are out and about in the landscape, pay attention to those old trees that ooze a little sap and see if you might catch one of the most beautiful butterflies in the world, the Question Mark, doing a little feeding. The western United States has a close cousin that is equally striking called the Satyr Comma, Polygonia satyrus.