While most folks think that spring is the time of year for butterflies, it really is the late summer and early fall that butterfly season…and perennial season—no surprising coincidence… reaches its peak. This is the time of year when we start to see an abundance of butterflies and their caterpillars feeding happily as they start the transformation into their beautiful adult version. We should all be so lucky that our adult version is more stunning than our adolescent version!
I planted a twig (mostly a lump of roots) of passion vine (Passiflora) late last fall in hopes of attracting some gulf fritillary butterflies. The gulf fritillary lays its eggs on the passion vine and is thus the food for its caterpillars. The flower of the passion vine is stunning and the vine grows rapidly and (shall we say) liberally. If you plant it, be prepared for it to emerge in several areas. I am delighted with this growth habit as the flowers are showstoppers and the vines will be controlled by the caterpillars.
The first sign of caterpillars happened several weeks ago in the form of eaten holes in the leaves. By lifting the leaves, I was able to easily spot the small caterpillars.
I must have the only passion vine in the vicinity because there were many eggs laid and hatched on my vine. The caterpillar of the gulf fritillary is orange with black spikes. It is completely harmless—unless you taste like passion vine.
The vine was loaded with caterpillars as more and more hatched, and ultimately stripped of all its foliage leaving a pathetically naked vine. While many gardeners would be horrified that I let the caterpillars defoliate a beautiful vine, I was delighted. This is a vine that loves to be eaten, and will come back very soon in full force with more shoots coming up in the surrounding area. If it weren’t for the caterpillars, this vine may easily get out of control.
Once a caterpillar reaches its full size, it often leaves its host plant in search of a spot to pupate. Caterpillars often travel great distances to find the perfect spot for this miraculous transformation. I found chrysalises all over the arbor, porch, on a window sill, side of the garden shed, and on a chair.
Now is the time to be thinking of planting for next year’s butterfly season. Fall is the best time of year to plant the perennials that butterflies (and bees and other pollinators) depend upon for their food sources. Look to native or adaptive perennials to create your butterfly gardens and don’t forget about the host plants that butterflies need for their caterpillars.