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  • Writer's pictureljmarkson

Rehoming Gulf Fritillary Caterpillars

Last year I posted about not being the only nature lover I know who moves gulf fritillary caterpillars from native passionflower vines (passiflora incarnata) they defoliate to vines that still have leaves. I mentioned my friend Pat who I learned also does this at a local nature park she is helping to repopulate with native plants. Last week I opened my door because the dogs were barking and there was Pat standing in the rain with a Tupperware container filled with about 40 gulf fritillary caterpillars that needed a home. She explained she had met a woman earlier in the year who has a passionflower vine and told Pat she didn’t like caterpillars defoliating them. Pat told her to call when the caterpillars were on the vine, and she would come and get them! The woman actually called her last week and Pat drove right over to hand pick all the caterpillars off the vine.

What is amazing about all these gulf fritillary caterpillars that Pat rescued is most of them seem to be the same age and just about ready to form a chrysalis.

Passionflowers are done blooming by this time of year and the leaves will turn yellow and start dying within weeks, yet the woman who called Pat didn’t want the caterpillars of the gulf fritillary butterfly to ruin the leaves of the only host plant they can complete their lifecycle on.

The choice between blemish-free green leaves and this beautiful butterfly is an easy one for me!

I don’t fault her, this idea of perfect plants comes from a long gardening tradition of perpetuating the idea that insects are undesirable and incompatible with gardening.

  • Nurseries sell plants treated with specialized long term pesticides that kill any insects that encounter them.

  • Plant hybridizers create useless and pollenless frankenflowers.

  • Pesticide companies sell perfection by soaking residential yards in poison to kill insects.

  • Gardening publications showcase perfect flower beds filled with blemish-free plants and offer ways to “manage pests” in your garden.

  • Online gardening forums are chock full of advice and tips on how to exterminate insects found on plants. I don’t even join them because they’re all about controlling insects.

  • Neighborhood peer pressure rewards neat and tidy yards that look like they’re stuck in a 1960s aesthetic and destroys anyone who doesn’t conform

Native Passionflower is so gorgeous, it is understandable why traditional gardeners might treat the plant the same way they would an exotic ornamental.

Understanding that we need to save the insects and value native plants is a major paradigm shift. It is a step in the right direction that the woman was kind enough to call Pat to take the caterpillars and didn’t just spray them with pesticides. What’s funny to me about this situation is I have a number of native plant friends would all feel like they won the lottery if their passionflower vines were covered in caterpillars and who would have also come running to put the caterpillars on their passionflower vines!

THIS is why I plant passsionflower vines in my yard. Any flowers I see are just an added benefit.

When Pat offered to get the caterpillars last spring it was before the vines at the nature park were mistakenly cut down by the County maintenance crews, so now there are no vines to bring the caterpillars to. Fortunately I let my native passionflower vines grow wherever they pop up because by the end of the season I can never have enough for all the gulf fritillary butterflies who use my yard as a caterpillar nursery. By now, the vines in my sunny front yard are defoliated, but I still have green vines in my slightly shady backyard. Many of the caterpillars Pat gave me had the iridescent, squishy look they get when are on the verge of pupating (forming a chrysalis). I was sure they wouldn’t need the leaves for long.

When the gulf fritillary caterpillars start looking obscenely squishy like this one, it won't be long before they pupate

There were still not enough vines with leaves for all the caterpillars.

By fall this is what my passionflower vines look like thanks to an abundance of gulf fritillary butterflies using my yard as a caterpillar nursery! Notice the caterpillar in the photo!

I called my friend Leslie who started the popular Pollinator Friendly Yards group because she has a naturescaped yard. She also lets her vines grow wherever they want. She excitedly came rushing over to take the 20 caterpillars I couldn't accomodate to her habitat yard.

I saw this lovely gulf fritillary butterfly when Leslie was giving me a little rainy day garden tour last month so I could get out of the house.

Caterpillars make up more than 50 percent of the herbivorous insects in the country so they are a cornerstone of a healthy habitat. Most of the saved caterpillars will turn into butterflies, but the ones that do not will contribute to the food web of our yards. I found a few chrysalises within days of putting the caterpillar on the vines.

A few days after Pat gave me the gulf fritillary caterpillars to rehome, I found this gulf fritillary chrysalis hanging from a native aster near one of the passionflower vines I them on.

In 5-10 days I’ll get to see gulf fritillary butterflies playing in my fall yard!

Leslie made this amazing graphic to describe our rescue mission for everyone in her almost 100K Facebook group to share.


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