• ljmarkson

Nature's Perfect Harmony: Native Passionflower Vine and Gulf Fritillary Butterflies


A little gulf fritillary caterpillar is making a meal of a native passionflower vine leaf

There’s a fascinating phenomenon I've noticed but haven't specifically read about between native passionflower vines (passiflora incarnata) and gulf fritillary butterflies. It illustrates for me why its so imperative we nurture native nature when we have the opportunity.

In late spring sprouts of passionflower vine rise from large deep underground root colonies and quickly grow to cover structures or the ground. In midsummer smaller offshoot runners start randomly popping up everywhere near the initial spring vines but sometimes as far as a few yards away. I once weeded out these rude pop-ups that dared to inconveniently show up where I didn't plant them. I still had a traditional gardening mindset of the gardener controlling nature. The function of each plant in relation to the ecosystem didn't matter.

I'm sure the gulf fritillary caterpillars that defoliated this pop-up near my front steps are glad I didn't weed it out!

One year I noticed by the end of fall it didn't seem like there were quite enough vines for the never-ending cycle of voracious gulf fritillary caterpillars devouring them.

A midsummer pop-up passionflower vine I let grow in a walkway is a lifesource for this tiny gulf fritillary.

The following year I added inexpensive bamboo trellises next to midsummer vines wherever they appeared. By mid-August, just when the gulf fritillaries started laying eggs in earnest, there were plenty of younger, more tender vines that popped up in midsummer ready for the onslaught of ravenous caterpillars. The butterflies were somehow in harmony with the vine growth because they preferred to lay their eggs on the much smaller pop-up vines all over my front yard instead of the huge, well-established vine growing up my back deck! I wonder if this is because the more tender younger vines are easier for the tiniest caterpillars to eat when they hatch.



This pop-up passionflower vine is covered with gulf fritillary eggs and caterpillars

I'm just starting to understand how little I know about the complex and delicate relationship between each plant and the little ecosystem of my yard. Sometimes the biggest impact I can have nurturing nature is to just watch what unfolds in my yard and try not to control it.

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