These Gulf Fritillary caterpillars are a perfect example of “If you build it, they will come.” For the last few years, I have worked at building a butterfly habitat. It got a big boost in mid-October when Cee and I went to Gainesville to visit the Florida Museum of Natural History. Our plan was to shop their plant sale (held twice a year) and then visit the butterfly house. To our delight, their web page for the plant sale made it easy to find butterfly habitat plants. It was a chart indicating whether the listed plant was nectar, host, accent or native. Both Cee and I used that web page to make a ‘want’ list.
One of the plants I purchased was a ‘Lady Margaret’ Passion Vine. It doesn’t look as good as it did in mid-October. I attribute this to all kinds of wacky weather — high 80’s then low 30’s, and minimal rain. I think the passion vine is in survival mode. It is so confused it’s blooming. Normal bloom time is mid-summer to mid-fall, not January.
Passion vines are a host and nectar source for the Zebra Longwing and Gulf Fritillary. For more information on the passion vine and butterflies in Florida, see this article at the University of Florida. My post has basic information on the Gulf Fritillary.
On January 27, I noticed one of the buds unfurling but I didn’t grab my camera. One of the caterpillars was wrapped around the flower busily gnawing it to nothingness.
This morning I walked out to see what was left of the flower. I was pleased to see slightly more than half of it:
The list of caterpillars spotted at the Southern Rural Route is growing — Monarch, Giant Swallowtail and Gulf Fritillary.
Gomphocarpus physocarpus is the botanical name for a plant more commonly known as Balloon plant, Balloon Cotton bush, Bishop’s Balls, Elephant Balls, Family Jewels Tree, Goose Plant, Giant Swan Plant, Hairy Balls, Monkey Balls, and Oscar.
Cee, the Southern Rural Route’s butterfly lady, introduced the plant to me as Hairy Balls. Thus, it will always be Hairy Balls because I’m doing good to remember any name at all. Throw in a name change and I would be in serious trouble. She generously shared a couple of 2-inch plants for experimental growing in my garden.
Gomphocarpus physocarpus was formerly Asclepias physocarpa. I don’t know when it was reclassified. Confusion will abound going forward because there is always someone who didn’t get the memo on reclassification. For instance, the USDA plant database seems aware of the change but their charts still reflect the Asclepias classification.
It is a species of milkweed, a tropical/tender perennial (for Zones 8 through 11) that blooms in the late summer and early fall.
The plant resembles the common milkweed but it can grow to 5 or 6 feet, the leaves are a lighter shade of green, and not as wide or long as common milkweed leaves.
It is both a host and nectar plant for the Monarch butterfly.
Typical of milkweed plants, aphids can be a problem.
My plant became very unattractive – a single, woody stalk curling out towards the sun. I pulled it out and tossed it after collecting seeds. Research indicates that I could have pruned it in the late spring to make it bushier. Late spring may work for northern climates but in the South, if you wait that long the plant will be four feet tall. Use your own judgment for your climate.
The seed pods are yellowish-green round balls that grow to about 2-1/2 inches in overall length. They are covered with soft whisker-like hairs spaced 1/4-inch from each other.
Collect seeds in the fall. Allow the pod to turn a rosy-tan color for seed maturity. After the seed pod cracks, break it open and strip the seeds from the white “silks.” The seeds should be brown/black and dry looking. Dry completely before storing.
Hairy Balls is normally grown from seeds wind-sown by the plant (bag the seeds to avoid). In Southern climates it can be fall-sown. In northern climates, start seeds indoors in the early spring several weeks before the last frost. The seed does not need to be cold stratified.
Do not cover the seed when sowing and keep the soil moist and in bright light to aid germination (15 to 30 days). Being a tropical milkweed, it will germinate best in warm temperatures (68-80F).
It is considered an invasive in the tropics, subtropics, semi-arid and hyper-arid climates. It grows freely in Hawaii and Africa.
Cee and I took off on a road trip to Gainesville, Florida to see the Butterfly Exhibit at the University of Florida’s Florida Museum of Natural History. Most of the Museum is free but the Butterfly Exhibit charges $12 for Floridians and Seniors. You don’t realize how small it is until you see it from the outside but, oh, is it magnificent! Walkways take you into a lushly planted tropical rainforest with plants below you, at eye level, and above you. Flying all around are beautiful, large butterflies and moths. A very large moth crashed into the back of my head with enough force that I knew something had hit me. I don’t know the names of these butterflies or where they hail from but I did manage to digitize a few of them.
Because of the sun, the crowds and the cramped quarters, I was unable to photograph the plantings. You’ll find a few photos at the Florida Museum Butterfly Rainforest website.
We each bought about 7 plants in the front of the Museum at the Butterflyfest Plant Sale, a 3-day plant sale. We had postponed our trip to coincide with the plant sale date. I don’t know how often they have these larger plant sales but on Friday and Saturdays they feature 15 plants for sale.
Cee and I were after nectar and host plants for butterflies but they also had a few accent plants. Prices were comparable to a big box store but these plants are, for the most part, seldom offered at big box stores and are hard to find at smaller nurseries.
Cee talked me into buying a weed. I have never in my life paid good money for a weed! She insisted, as she picked it up and handed it to me, that I had to have a False Nettle because it was a host plant for the Red Admiral butterfly. In the excitement of the moment, I took the plant despite the fact that I have never once seen a Red Admiral on my property. Ever. I am truly doubtful I will see one with a lone False Nettle in my garden, either, but at least it grows into a green bush with insignificant flowers and might help discourage other weeds. Kind of like my purple Porterweed that I grow for the big, fat bumble bees.
In addition to the False Nettle, I bought a Brazilian Shrimp Plant, Orange Plume/Mexican Honeysuckle, Lady Margaret Passionflower, Blue Curls, Cigar Plant, and I replaced my Rainbow/Peacock Fern for the third time.
We barely scratched the surface of what the Florida Museum has to offer but it’s only 72 miles away. We’ll go again.
A mild Florida winter and a few milkweed plants extended butterfly reproduction into December and January. I found myself inviting the neighborhood children into the yard to show them my monarch caterpillars. Most of the children are under 10 but I was amazed that one 5-year-old already knew about caterpillars and butterflies. When I was 5, I buried my dead goldfish with his head above the dirt so he could breathe. Obviously, the idea of caterpillars becoming butterflies would have been beyond my comprehension. I’m still a little slow. Most children today come into the world with the ability to thumb type on cell phones. I still poke at the keyboard with one finger. Sigh.
The 5-year-old also managed to set my gag reflex in motion when she wanted to pick up a caterpillar and hold it in her hand. My hysterical mind began to scream, “Are you kidding me? Aack! Aack!” Not wanting to dampen fearless curiosity, I allowed her to gently pick up the caterpillar for a quick crawl on her palm while I stepped back a foot.
A few days later, on January 6, I called the Butterfly Lady, Cee. When she answered her cell phone, I said, “Come get my worms.” She laughed. She was a tad busy as she had just returned from a trip. It was up to me to deliver my 12+ worms to her larger food supply. I had my brother transfer them to a gallon water jug with the top cut out. I covered the jug with enough netting and duct tape to safely imprison them should I encounter a hurricane on my 23-mile trip. I also strapped them in the seat beside me where I could keep a wary eye on them.
SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST CATERPILLARS
Cee’s attitude towards winter butterflies is “survival of the fittest” because she takes a break in the winter from all the work of hatching butterflies. It takes a lot of time to bleach eggs, habitats and milkweed to minimize OE (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha). Other butterflies, such as swallowtails, don’t require all that bleaching even though she still bleaches the habitats between batches. If you want to know about bleaching eggs, this video explains it.
MANUALLY MOVING A CATERPILLAR FOR THE FIRST TIME
On January 24, I once again discovered a lone caterpillar on the same milkweed plant. The milkweed had only 2 cold-burnt leaves remaining. I knew the caterpillar had to be moved to a larger food source. Wanting to overcome my unreasonable aversion to caterpillars, I donned a pair of garden gloves to move the caterpillar to the Hairy Balls Milkweed. My brother had mentioned it was hard to get them off the milkweed as they hang on for dear life and I found this to be true. I walked towards the Hairy Balls Milkweed with outstretched palm just in case I tripped. As I was encouraging junior to grasp the milkweed, my head snapped back when my peripheral vision picked up movement. There was a large caterpillar claiming home-ownership of that milkweed plant. I was beyond surprised – this was late January and this caterpillar had not been on this milkweed at the time I delivered the others to Cee. If it had been, it was too small for the naked eye to see. Once I got junior on the milkweed, I stepped back to assess the situation. Seven caterpillars and one of them had the audacity to be hanging out on the other Hairy Balls Milkweed that had 3 hairy balls on it. I was not happy. I did not want caterpillars mowing it to the ground before I collected seeds from the 3 hairy balls as this was my first time growing this type of milkweed.
FREEZE PROTECTION FOR CATERPILLARS
Our weather headed into a freeze on January 29 that was to last 3 days. I was afraid the caterpillars would die in a sustained freeze so I covered them with two bed sheets. They were uncovered the morning of February 2. They didn’t appear frozen — color was good and they were still attached to the milkweed but they were not moving. On the other hand, the caterpillar I left uncovered because his milkweed was too hard to cover, was moving and feeding. I checked on the sleepy heads an hour later and they were finally moving. Eight caterpillars survived the freeze. Across town on the same day, Cee found several caterpillars on the milkweed she had intended to trim.
UNUSUAL PLACES CATERPILLARS WENT INTO J-FORMATION
The J-Formation is the term used to explain when the caterpillar attaches itself by a silk pad to begin the metamorphosis from caterpillar to chrysalis. This usually occurs on a plant stem but Cee has found the caterpillars or the resulting chrysalis in unusual places.
One of her caterpillars went into J-formation on her Staghorn Fern. Cindy and I marveled that the caterpillar had to climb up the bumpy oak tree bark and slither down the chain holding the Staghorn Fern. The only other possibility is the monarch butterfly accidentally laying an egg on the Staghorn Fern instead of milkweed. As we wondered about this, I was standing there, camera in hand, but it did not occur to me to take a picture of the chrysalis or the tree or the chain. I later asked Cindy to shoot the photos for me. Honestly, I need adult supervision.
Monarch butterflies have a mortality rate of over 90% due to parasites, predators and diseases. A Monarch butterfly flitting through your garden is a miracle of survival. It victoriously made it through the entire life cycle — egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, and adult. After all that striving, it will live a mere 2 to 6 weeks as an adult butterfly.
This blackened Monarch caterpillar showed up in a small patch of milkweed I provide as a host plant for monarchs.
I consulted my friend, Cee, the Butterfly Lady, to find out what happened and she provided me with several possibilities.
Monarchs in tropical areas have the highest rate of infection from Ophryocystis Elektroscirrha, mostly referred to as OE probably because no one can pronounce it. OE is a parasitic single cell organism infecting only milkweed butterflies in the Lepidoptera order. The most well-known of these are Monarchs, Queens and the Luna Moth.
The Tachinid Fly, another parasite, attacks anywhere from 10% to 40% of the Monarch population by laying eggs on the caterpillar. The egg hatches and the fly larva bores into the butterfly caterpillar where it becomes a maggot that feeds on the caterpillar from the inside out. Doesn’t that sound awful?
The list of predators is long. Ants, mites, spiders, Chalcid and Trichogramma wasps, plus larval forms of other insects can attack the Monarch eggs. Birds and rodents can also attack caterpillars. As an adult, the Monarch may not make it to old age because of birds, dragonflies, mantids, parasites, wasps, rodents, and insecticides.
The two most common infections that result in “Black Death” are Pseudomonas and NPV. In both cases, the caterpillar shrivels up, turns black, and goo seeps from both ends.
Pseudomonas is a bacterial infection that likes warm, moist environments. It is found all over the world in soil, water and plants. It’s a good idea to allow your plants and soil to dry after watering to discourage development.
NPV, or Nuclear polyhedrosis virus, is most evident in areas with short or mild winters. The longer growing season allows time for NPV to spread. It causes caterpillars to crawl toward the top of the plant and then hang in an inverted V when it dies. Each caterpillar can have a billion virus particles. All that goo seeping from both ends spreads the virus.
A freeze might kill the plants on which virus particles from dying caterpillars exist but it does not kill the virus. Six hours of direct sun will kill the virus but, of course, the sun does not reach shady areas.
It’s hard to tell whether Pseudomonas, NPV or a predator killed a caterpillar because the caterpillar death often looks the same.
THE GOOD NEWS
Despite the discouragement of parasites, predators, and diseases, the female Monarch can produce 200 to 600 eggs in her short lifetime which means the 90% mortality rate still leaves almost 10% of caterpillars becoming butterflies. When you see one of those 10% flitting about in your garden, recognize the miracle you are witnessing.
You can help the caterpillars become butterflies by making room in your yard for native plants. According to Jim McCormac, in the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, “Nearly all caterpillar species shun non-native flora.”
The University of Florida offers a list of host and food plants for Florida butterflies. You can’t go wrong with a few varieties of milkweed plants which are host plants for the Monarch, Queen and Soldier/Tropical Queen butterflies.