Your Natural History Moment

There goes the passiflora...passion flower, it turns out, is really tasty to a certain caterpillar. Watercolor over pencil on 8 1/2" x 11" Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook.
Passion flower, it turns out, is the host plant for a particular butterfly larvae. Watercolor over pencil on 8 1/2″ x 11″ Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook.

When I planted native passion flower on the back fence, it was part of my hardy-tropicals garden scheme. But instead of fabulous flowers I got an outbreak of glorious butterflies- gulf fritillaries. The butterflies are so beautiful I’ve forgiven their larvae for eating it all. Black and orange spiny monsters by the dozens have chowed down, greenery going in one end, frass popping out the other. Once they stripped the leaves, they gnawed  the petioles down to nubs. And when they finally ran out of food, they morphed.

While I watched, a caterpillar girdled and killed a vine, turning it from green to brown. Then it shucked its gaudy hide and clung head-down, wrapping itself in a plain brown chrysalis nearly identical to a dead leaf. Its siblings attached their own cryptic hulls to the brown vine, though green ones twined alongside. It was almost as though the caterpillar engineered a safe haven for the fritillary family’s metamorphosis.

Things aren’t looking too good for the passiflora- I hope it recovers from the fritillary invasion. But is it really an invasion when the air is full of butterflies?

(update: see below for frustrated and hungry gulf fritillary caterpillar footage)

5 thoughts on “Your Natural History Moment

  1. Kathy Walters says:

    I love this vine and grow in in my zone 10 garden just for the butterflies. It has somewhat aggressive roots so it should flush out with new growth, probably where you least expect it. Your illustration is wonderful. I have no doubt but that those caterpillars made the ideal environment to become a chrysalis.

  2. zeladoniac says:

    Corienne, click on the underlined “gulf fritillary” in the first paragraph to see a photo (not mine) of the butterfly- it’s beautiful. Kathy, thanks for your comments. I think we don’t give animals nearly enough credit for their cool environmental modifications.

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