On Gardening: Caterpillars are lowly no longer

November 2, 2015

Black swallowtail caterpillars devour a fennel.

Monarch butterflies survived the long migration, and Hurricane Patricia, so I felt like calling attention to a new wave in the world of caterpillars. At almost every seminar I give there is a stopping point about midway where 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.

Just before our recent Autumn Gardenfest at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens in Savannah, I took a couple of speakers on a tour of the gardens and we found ourselves lingering at a Christmas bush senna, not photographing the beautiful yellow blossoms but instead looking for a Cloudless Sulphur caterpillar. These are among the most striking in the world of butterflies.

Last year, however, started my realization of how important caterpillars had become. I received a phone call from a lady that was virtually in tears. She had Monarch caterpillars, but all of her milkweed had been devoured. She asked almost hysterically if she could bring them 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 that became one of hilarity. 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 go to the garden centers to buy more plants in an effort to try to feed all of the hungry mouths.

Then our own real test of being caterpillar friendly caught us all by surprise. Outside our new Andrews Visitor and Education Center we have two glazed containers with Improved Meyer Lemon trees. You’ve got to realize a couple of things that 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 is probably more obvious. These two containers are right at the entrance where every single 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 so 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, it was "Happy Birthday." The most 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.



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