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Beauty Takes Wing

July 28, 2013

Every summer something happens in our garden that is nothing short of miraculous. I have seen it recently while Clare and I sipped our morning coffee on the back porch. A large tiger swallowtail fluttering from purple cone flowers to orange zinnias to pink phlox also sipped an early drink from each blossom. The bright yellow wings of the butterfly caught the fresh sunlight, adding a touch of beauty to the flowers. The miracle of metamorphosis had happened yet again this year in our backyard.

            It’s the season for caterpillars and for butterflies. By late summer, my garden is aflutter with butterflies of all varieties. Once they take wing, they are drawn to flowering plants that provide a feast of nectar.

Creating a butterfly garden requires a little planning and some maintenance. It is well worth the effort. Among butterfly favorites are ageratum, aster, butterfly bush, bee balm, black-eyed Susan, catmint, coneflower, coreopsis, cosmos, goldenrods, honeysuckle, hyssop, lantana, marigold, phlox, salvia, sedum, verbena, yarrow, and zinnia.

Butterflies are difficult to count because they are constantly on the move.  One sunny afternoon last month, I drove into our driveway and paused to look at the lantana that anchors our front flower bed.  There were no fewer than thirty on, above, and around the bush.  There were several varieties including majestic monarchs, deep orange fritillaries, and an American painted lady.  The lantana, attended by a bevy of flittering guests, created quite a display.

There are literally millions of species in the biological order Lepidoptera. Every one of them has a larval stage we know best as caterpillars. There are both Jekyll and Hyde varieties.

            In my backyard, I have a volunteer sunflower, now taller than I.  It sprang up when a sunflower seed escaped a birdfeeder and landed in a flowerbed. Out of curiosity I decided to let it grow.  Recently, I have noticed that several of the leaves have been chewed to a pulp.  I have yet to see the caterpillar that is doing the damage.  I imagine his eating binge occurs after dark.

Caterpillars have been rightly called eating machines.  They can devour the foliage of plants seemingly overnight.  Some cause great destruction and do millions of dollars in damage to agricultural crops each year.

            The boll weevil has wreaked havoc in cotton crops across the South. Armyworms attack cotton and soybean crops.

            Every vegetable gardener knows to be on the lookout for cabbage worms and tomato horn worms. Earlier this summer I noticed a webbed tent, the characteristic abode of tent caterpillars, on the branch of a pecan tree.

            Some caterpillars are desirable. Fisherman know that the delicate purple blossoms of the catalpa tree attract Sphinx moths that lay eggs on the underside of the large green leaves.  When the eggs hatch, catalpa worms start eating the leaves of their host plant.  Bream fishermen treasure these tiny worms because bluegills and shellcrackers consider them to be such a delicacy.

            Other caterpillars are raised because of their economic importance.  The silk worm is perhaps the best example.  The minute threads secreted by the silk worm are used to make valuable cloth that is to be fashioned into fine garments. Most of my neckties were made from the secretion of caterpillars.

In my garden, I have planted bronze fennel.  The dark green plants make a nice backdrop with their lacy leaves.  Its fragrance reminds me of licorice.   I have fennel in my garden because it is a favorite host plant for a particular kind of caterpillar, the larvae of the swallowtail butterfly, our early morning visitor.

            Near the back of my property, grows a patch of wild flowers.  There is some goldenrod, but more importantly, there is milkweed.  The orange blossoms of the milkweed plant attract monarch butterflies.  They lay their eggs on the leaves.  These orange and black beauties are migratory. The majestic insects fly 3000 miles each fall to winter in the high mountains of central Mexico. In the spring they wing their way back to North America.

            All butterflies begin life as caterpillars.  After a time of chewing on leaves, they hang upside down and enfold themselves in the silken case they spin.  In this chrysalis stage, they resemble a dead leaf until the moment comes when they emerge from their cocoon.  Spreading their newly formed wings they fly away, gloriously transformed.

This metamorphosis has made butterflies a symbol for new life.  Sometimes butterflies are released at weddings, just as the bride and groom are pronounced husband and wife, to mark the beginning of their new life together.  Early Christians saw in the butterfly an apt symbol for the resurrection.

I’ll never forget the funeral service for a woman who loved butterflies.  She had decorated her home with a butterfly theme.  She tended a special garden in her backyard designed to attract her flying flowers.

After her death following an extended illness, it was only natural at her memorial service to emphasize her enjoyment of butterflies.  Flower arrangements sent by friends and family members included silk butterflies.

At the cemetery on a mountainside in Western North Carolina, the crowning touch to her service came as a complete surprise.  As I finished reading the scripture, a monarch butterfly fluttered into the funeral tent and descended upon the Bible I held in my hands.  The tiny orange and black creature perched like a bookmark between the opened pages.  For a few silent seconds we marveled in amazement. The choreography in that service was beyond anything I could have scripted.

Some years ago, I sat with a man who was dying of lung cancer. We were in his backyard next to his butterfly garden. The afternoon was pleasant; the air was still. The garden was alive with flying flowers. Spicebush, swallowtails, monarchs, buckeyes, and mourning cloak all sipped nectar from the array of blooms.

            We sat in silence for a time before he spoke.

            “They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”

            “Yes,” I agreed. “You know the butterfly is a symbol of resurrection.”

            After a long pause, he said, “No wonder I enjoy them so much.”

Kirk H. Neely
© July 2013

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