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.

A Sunflower and Some Sort of Skipper

Late in a day, once the sun lessened its August gaze on the garden, I spied this skipper on a sunflower.   It wasn’t nectaring, nor did it fly away as I watched.  Was it settling in for an evening’s rest?  Perhaps.  Everyone, even busy pollinators, need their rest.

I think this skipper is a Eufala SkipperLerodea eufala, as described by the Butterflies and Moths of North America website.  The site describes the Eufala as plain grey-brown, with several vague spots.  But, it could be a Dun SkipperEuphyes vestris, and if so, probably a female, as the same website mentions three “cloudy” white spots on the forewing.  Both species are widespread in their North American distribution and common in Texas.  Both skippers belong to the same Lepidoptera Family (Hesperiidae) and Subfamily (Hesperiinae).  As well, these skippers use grasses or grass-like plants as their host plants, which are plants the eggs are laid on and that hatched larvae feed upon.  The adult food sources differ just a bit, with the Eufala being the one who feeds from flowers the composite family of plants–plants like sunflowers.  

I photographed top, bottom, and at each side, rushing my efforts in case the skipper became annoyed and took flight.  It remained motionless.

I enjoy the intellectual exercise of identifying insects, even with my frustratingly limited background on types, species, and families.  Thankfully, with a click of my mouse or a swipe of my phone, there are plenty of resources available when I’m searching for an answer to an insect question.  In a case like this one, where the object could be one thing, or perhaps another, and where the identifier doesn’t have the training (or patience…), the answers for this amateur activity aren’t always definitive.  And that’s okay.  

I enjoyed watching this unobtrusive beauty: its quiet presence against the showoff summer flower was satisfying.  While sleuthing insect answers increases my knowledge and appreciation of the garden’s goings-on, ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether I know exactly what sort of critter rests on the flower.  The skipper’s existence is valuable because it is. 

And that’s all that matters.

 

Doing Its Job

As is typical for December here in Central Texas, our roller-coaster weather has delivered a couple of light freezes, but also record warm temperatures.   Native plants and their companion critters have evolved to roll with that coaster, continuing the blooming and the pollinating actions well into late autumn.

On a windy afternoon, I watched this tiny Common Checkered Skipper, Pyrgus communis, flit near to the ground while visiting the remaining open blue blossoms of Gregg’s MistflowerConoclinium greggii, and sometimes alighting on the driveway, wings spread to catch the rays of the sun.

This particular mistflower is a relatively new addition to my garden.  Gregg’s has grown in my back garden and there are still sprigs which pop up, but with increasing shade,  those individual mistflower stems are growing less and blooming only sporadically with each passing season.  I was determined to find a place in my shady garden to grow Gregg’s Mistflower and with some rearrangement of the garden furniture, I opened a spot in my front garden for the perennial groundcover, alongside the driveway and adjacent to the street, where full sun and reflective heat will be a boon to this tough, lovely native Texas plant.

Gregg’s Mistflower is a powerhouse pollinator plant.  All sorts of butterflies, big and small, colorful and plain, love this sweet-nectared pretty.  The original Gregg’s in my back garden–a passalong plant from a friend–blooms a paler blue flower and with brighter green foliage.  This new plant–purchased from my favorite local nursery–sports deeper blue-purple blooms and a richer green foliage. I bought a new plant because I didn’t want to transplant the sprigs, with their bits of root, from the back garden so close to winter and possible killing frosts.  Those stems of plant-with-roots might have survived winter, but I didn’t want to take the chance on their succumbing to a freeze, delaying growing Gregg’s in the front garden.  The gallon pot of Gregg’s Mistflower will go dormant with a hard freeze, but its full, lush root system will allow the perennial to reemerge with strength in spring, ready for a new year of blossoms and food for bees and butterflies.

Despite the strong breezes, the Common Checkered-Skipper seemed besotted with its choice of meal.  The host plants of this skipper species are several in the Malvaceae family, but adults nectar from a wider variety of blooms, including many in the Asteraceae family–like Gregg’s Mistflower.

The mistflower produces gorgeous blue-purple blooms. Spent blooms are a warm, toasty color.

The skipper’s blue-tinged hairy topside suggests a male; female Common Checkered Skippers’ hairy parts are black. This fella spent a minute or two on the fuzzy blooms it visited, working each in full before moving on.   I was pleased (and surprised!) with these shots, as the wind was challenging to catching the skipper in something other than a blur.

Native plants and their critter companions are vital for a healthy environment.  In this garden vignette, both the bloom and the butterfly were hard at work, doing their jobs:  the blooms, providing nutrients and sustenance for the insect; the insect, partaking from a food source for its own benefit, but also, providing the impetus for the production of more mistflower by the action of pollination.  The plant and its insect continue a time-honored cycle and add beauty to the world.

And isn’t that what gardening is all about?