Metamorphosis

More than a collection of color and collaboration of texture and form, a garden is the base for life. Providers of pollen, donators of nectar, and deliverers of foliage, plants are foundational partners for biodiverse ecosystems. Insects, as well as other wildlife, are direct beneficiaries of the botanical bounty, frequently repaying that bounty with their own pollination and reseeding gifts.

This green gathering of groundcovers all serve as fuel for others in my garden’s seasonal story.

The plant with the petite sky-blue flowers is a Leadwort plumbago, Ceratostigma plumbaginoides. It meanders through several areas of my garden, dollops of blue attracting small native sweat bees. The bright green, lobed foliage at bottom left of the photo belongs to Gregg’s mistflower, Conoclinium greggii, which is currently not blooming. Its fuzzy, lavender-blue blooms will be available for the late summer/autumn migrating monarchs, as well as for a wide variety of other butterflies and bees. The groundcover with the charming clam-shell, variegated leaves–the majority plant in this particular group–is a White-veined Dutchman’s Pipe, Aristolochia fimbriata, a common non-native host plant for the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly, Battus philenor.

Alongside some dainty pops of blue on the plumbago, the White-veined pipevine feeds Pipevine caterpillars, like the chubby fella below. This year I have enough of the pipe vine that the cats haven’t completely denuded it as they munch their way to adulthood, but they certainly have eaten plenty of leaves to the stems.

Once the caterpillars eat their fill and morph through their various instars, they follow their chemical signals and settle in a place to metamorphize into a different form of themselves. This one strung itself to the limestone just outside the frame of my back door. It traveled far from its feeding place to get to this spot and I wonder: why here, adjacent to the door? It’s an open spot. potentially vulnerable to predators, less hidden than on a plant, like a stem or an under-leaf. Chrysalises are much better camouflaged in the garden than attached to an open wall. Nevertheless, the caterpillar was resolute in its choice, working to moor itself there on its journey to a new, winged self.

The caterpillar also chose to begin changing during a stormy 48 hours; it strung its string, but remained in the J formation through that cooler, wetter period.

In time, the chemical changes happened, the chrysalis formed, and it remained stationary–though not static–for almost two weeks. The chrysalis emitted light and color as it transitioned, sometimes golden, sometimes green, sometimes dark, but always a little different from the day before.

I missed the debut of the adult, having overslept a bit during the premier morning; butterflies emerge with the sun’s rise; gardeners, not always. At 8am, it was there, drying its wings, waiting for the right time to take flight.

The butterfly did fly later that morning, though I’m not convinced it was entirely ready. I bumbled out the door, focused on some back garden chore, and the startled insect winged its way off of the limestone and over the garden, the remaining drops of its successful chemistry experiment scattering in the sunlight.

I’ve left the shell of the transmutation in place, the remnant of caterpillar observable in form, the memory of brilliant butterfly in warm, gauzy colors.

28 thoughts on “Metamorphosis

    • The shell seemed to emit light as time passed. I’ve seen this kind of chrysalis before, but they’re usually hanging from a leaf or something and harder to watch on a daily basis. It was fascinating to see how the chrysalis changed over time.

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  1. Tina I’m sorry I haven’t written in so long, but I’m still very depressed and don’t pick up the computer. I hope you and Bee Daddy are in great health and your back has improved. With your magnificent photos you have captured one of the wonders of Nature: how a caterpillar turns into a chrysalis, its different phases and how a divine butterfly finally emerges, I love it. They are a life lesson. Thank you for showing us the whole process step by step, I loved it. Take care. Hugs. Very affectionate greetings from Margarita.

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      • Tina thank you very much for your words of encouragement. Your blogs are always very interesting and I learn a lot with them, I love them and their photos are fantastic. I really liked the metamorphosis: it was great! I take care of myself. Take care of yourself. A hug. Very affectionate greetings from Margarita.

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  2. So cool, loved seeing its transformation. Ever since I’ve been learning about host plants, I’m embracing munched plants in the garden and applauding their role in the ecosystem. Win-win!

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    • We’ve all been brought up to think that the perfect leaf, perfect flower is the epitome of garden beauty, when, in fact, munched plants are host plants and that’s the true beauty of nature. I agree: WIN!

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  3. I really enjoyed this series of photos. I still laugh when I remember the surprise of some blogging friends who found a chrysalis under each of the arms of their two garden chairs. They gave up sitting on their patio for a time, just because they knew they’d forget the creatures were there, and do some damage.

    I love the swallowtails, although I rarely see this species, and don’t remember ever seeing pipevine. I just looked at the USDA map, and found it’s not here as a native; it must be one of those plants that gardeners nurture for the sake of the butterflies. Your plants certainly provided you with quite an experience!

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    • Thanks, Linda. I try to be very careful during the summer months as I prune and check the pruned things to make sure there isn’t a chrysalis attached, If there is, I set it aside in a safe place to morph. I can understand your friends and their chairs!

      The plant isn’t a native, you’re correct. According to the LBJWC, there are 8 native Aristolochia, 6 that are native here in Texas. The site specifically lists Aristolochia erecta, (Swanflower), Aristolochia tomentosa (Woolly dutchman’s pipe), Aristolochia pentandra (Marsh’s dutchman’s pipe), and Aristolochia serpentaria (Virginia snakeroot) as all being larval hosts for this butterfly. I’ve looked a native aristolochia, but they don’t seem to be available commercially, though I haven’t really tried in seed form.

      You’ll find this really interesting. Do you remember that you sent me seed for American basket flower and I had one bloom last summer? Well, for two years now, these stalks have grown up in spring and summer and I let them–to a point. I decided they were some weedy thing that I don’t want, so I take them out when they’re about 4 feet tall. Yes, they get huge.

      My sister-in-law, Sharon, had the same stalks show up in her garden this year, but she was wiser and more patient than I am. She let them grow and they’re American Basket flowers!! So pretty, so tall, so wonderful!! Mine last year crawled along the ground and they’re only supposed to be 1 or 2 feet, but these things are jolly pink-n-green giants! I need to get a photo of hers and do a post. I’m kicking myself that I took my stalks out. Grrrrr!

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  4. Love the time line of the pipevine. It is quite beautiful in its finished product. I have always wanted to plant the pipevine but have never seen it for sale in nary a nursery here. Maybe I just need to order a few from an online nursery.

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  5. You might not have made it for the actual hatching (which I imagine was a bit frustrating), but it’s brilliant that you caught the newly emerged butterfly so soon after. What a privilege! What a beautiful creature!

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