Wednesday, May 28, 2014

When Passions Collide

I love making things grow. I also love having butterflies in my yard. About this time every year, the two passions collide -- literally!

I plant flowers not just to provide food, in the form of nectar, for the adult butterflies, but also to feed their babes -- known to scientists as instars and to us as caterpillars. For example, milkweed species are the only plants on which monarch butterflies will lay eggs. Passionvines, or passionflowers, are the sole larval food for both the Gulf fritillary and the zebra longwing (pictured here).

Nature ensures that fritillaries and longwings don't compete for the same passionvines by bestowing a preference for passionvine in full sun on the fritillaries and passionvine planted in shade on the longwings. How cool is that?

I have three types of passionvine in my yard: 

  • Maypop passionvine (Passiflora incarnata) native to Florida
  • Corky stem passionvine (Passiflora suberosa) also native to Florida
  • A hybrid variety with magenta flowers called Passiflora 'Lady Margaret'

The Lady Margaret and Maypop varieties have stunning flowers any gardener would be proud to showcase. 
Passiflora 'Lady Margaret"

The corky stem is a bit of an ugly duckling. Its flowers are small and somewhat pathetic looking. But it is beloved by zebra longwings, and that is why I have it.

Lady Margaret is planted on my backyard fence in full, blazing sun. Maypop winds along my deck railing in part sun/part shade. The corky stem is tucked away on a trellis in deep shade. People don't notice it and that's fine with me. I don't even notice it.

But I do notice the other two varieties, which is why the gardener in me cringes this time of year, because those get munched to oblivion by Gulf fritillary and zebra longwing caterpillars.

Gulf fritillary caterpillar
Two years ago, every single leaf on my Lady Margaret was eaten by fritillary cats. I mean EVERY SINGLE LEAF. Nothing was left but bare vines sprawling along my fence like highway lines on a map. 

That spring, my husband and I counted as many as 32 caterpillars at a time on the plant. Those were just the ones we could find.

I marveled at the buffet line of caterpillars, simultaneously shedding a tear for the lost beauty of the Lady Margaret.

This year, the same destruction is underway, and we'll soon be left with bare stems on the Lady Margaret again. But the plant will bounce back quickly - it always does. 

My Maypop is new and not nearly as appetizing yet, but the butterflies already are hovering around it.

So, here in all its shredded and ragged glory, is what is left of my Lady Margaret this year. 

But here is my reward for choosing nature's way over the perfect garden.
Adult Gulf fritillary

No doubt about which is better.