Earlier this year, my husband, Tony, and I visited a butterfly garden where thousands of butterflies gracefully waltzed around bougainvillea as if they were in sync with the classical music playing throughout the attraction. The beauty of that scene impressed us both, and we came home determined to create a small butterfly garden of our own.
Tony dutifully set out host plants of milkweed and a colorful array of lantana behind our lanai. I sowed seeds for Passiflora macrocarpa, an ornamental attractor with a sweet aroma that butterfly experts recommend. We couldn’t think of a more perfect place than our lanai to sit and watch the metamorphoses of nature’s masterpieces.
Occasionally monarchs would flutter by, and we hoped they were depositing a few eggs on the milkweeds. As the summer days grew longer and hotter, we checked the leggy host plants for signs of caterpillars, but our first attempt at butterfly gardening seemed to be a barren one.
A few weeks after we resigned ourselves to no butterfly babies this year, I went to snip parsley that I kept inside the lanai. Imagine my surprise to discover three bright green and yellowish-orange caterpillars devouring the parsley leaves with an appetite that could match any human teenager’s. By the time my husband arrived home from work, all that was left of the plant were a few stems and some dried leaves. Larry, Moe, and Curly—as I called them—weren’t slowing down either, and we immediately wondered if there would be enough parsley to sustain them through the night. All this concern came from a couple who normally do not like creepy, crawly things—especially in their herbs.
First things first, though. We went to the Internet to find out what kind of caterpillars pursued parsley with such abandon. It turns out they are destined to become eastern black swallowtails—not as colorful as monarchs but a work of nature’s art nonetheless. We also learned that this particular caterpillar likes dill. That was a good thing, because the next morning there were no parsley plants to be found anywhere in Lady Lake. We bought a couple of straggly-looking dill plants and hoped those would be sufficient host plants to get the boys through to the pupae stage of metamorphosis.
As I write this column, I do not know yet if I’ll be releasing swallowtails in a few weeks. I do know, however, that studying these small creatures has been like watching art in action. We even had a little drama when one fell out of the pot because he ventured too far out on a parsley sprig, and we had to rescue him before the cat discovered something crawling along her lanai floor.
Charles Dickens once said, “Nature gives to every time and season some beauties of its own.” How true, I thought, as I studied the perfect symmetry and bright colors that Larry, Moe, and Curly unexpectedly brought to my back door.
Editor’s Note:Two out of the three DeSantis caterpillars became beautiful swallowtail butterflies that were released as soon as they spread their wings.