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THE CAROLINA SKIPPER AND HER KIN

September 24, 2017

Among the fall visitors to our garden in the early fall is a small winged creature that I have always called a Carolina skipper. I have recently learned that the correct name is the common checkered skipper. This butterfly is easy to identify by the distinctive white spots on her dark gray wings. True to its name the diminutive insect skips from one flower to another. While others of her kin will linger for a longer sip of nectar, the checkered skipper moves quickly to the next bloom.

Residents of South Carolina might assume the checkered skipper would be the state butterfly, but that honor goes to the eastern tiger swallowtail. This is among the largest of the butterflies common to the Palmetto State. The eastern tiger swallowtail was adopted in 1994 with the approval of the South Carolina General Assembly. Interestingly, it is also the state butterfly of North Carolina and Georgia.

Swallowtails are named for the long portion of their hind wings which resemble a swallow’s tail feathers. Each of the forewings of the eastern tiger swallowtail has four black stripes resembling a tiger. Males are yellow with black stripes, while females can be either yellow or dark gray with the same striped pattern.

Adult butterflies do not eat solid foods as they did in their larval stage. Instead, they sip nectar using a proboscis – a long, tube-shaped tongue.

As I worked in my yard last weekend, a spicebush butterfly was my constant companion.   While I stooped to pull weeds, the tiny creature fluttered past time and again.  When I stood to stretch, my beautiful visitor danced in circles close by.  I felt unusually blessed by its presence.

Pausing from my labors, I marveled at the delicate, black butterfly, marked with iridescent blue.  Most gardeners in these parts know that by early fall there are precious few blooms on our tired summer plants. I stopped for a moment to admire the graceful visitor to our garden.

I mopped perspiration from my face with an old, faded bandana and tossed it aside as I continued working.  Moments later I noticed the spicebush butterfly perched on the flowered rag as if sipping nectar.  I realized that my own salty sweat had attracted the butterfly.

During spring break several years ago, two of our sons and I hiked a portion of the Foothills Trail together.  On the second day of our backpacking trip, the pedestrian trail crossed an equestrian trail.  The pungent aroma of horses filled the air.  A hundred or more bright yellow tiger swallowtails fluttered about.  As we passed among the swirling swarm, we noticed the main attraction just off the trail.  It was a pile of fresh horse manure.

As much as I enjoy butterflies, I much prefer to think of them as being attracted by flowers rather than by human sweat or horse manure.

I have included in our garden plants known to attract butterflies.  We have several butterfly bushes.  The summer garden is graced with zinnias and cosmos.  In the fall, milkweed, bronze fennel, sedum, and Joe Pye weed are favorite items on the butterfly buffet.

The plant that anchors one corner of our garden is a lantana.  Throughout October, pink, yellow, and orange composite flowers cover the spreading lantana.  The vibrant colors provide an eye-catching display in the autumn garden.  One of the beauties of the lantana is that it is a congregating place for butterflies. The flowers of the plant are enhanced by the fluttering flowers that are attracted to the bush.

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.  My estimate is that 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, accompanied by a bevy of fluttering guests, made quite a display.

In our neck of the woods, September and October are peak months for butterflies. As they prepare to migrate, these winged insects drink deeply from the flowers.  The nectar provides the energy some of them will need as they fly south for the winter.  Some of the ones that dance around the flowers in our gardens, or, for that matter, around a sweaty bandana or a pile of horse manure, will spend the winter in Central America. Many of the monarchs will migrate; many of the others will not.

Butterflies begin life as caterpillars.  After a time of chewing on leaves, they hang upside down and spin a silken case in which they are enfolded.  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, transformed creatures.  This metamorphosis has made butterflies a symbol for new life.  Sometimes butterflies have been released at weddings just as the groom and bride 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 vividly remember the funeral service for a woman who loved butterflies.  She had decorated her home with a butterfly theme.  She tended a special butterfly garden in her backyard designed to attract her flying flowers, as she called them.

After her death following an extended illness, it was only natural at her memorial service to emphasize her enjoyment of butterflies.  Some of the flower arrangements sent by friends and family members included silk butterflies.  At the cemetery on a mountainside, the crowning touch to her service came as a complete surprise.  As I finished reading the scripture, a monarch butterfly danced 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.

There is no telling what will attract a butterfly.

By late summer, my garden is arrayed with butterflies of all varieties. Once they take wing, these beautiful insects are drawn to flowering plants that provide an enticing feast.

Creating a butterfly garden requires a little planning. Among butterfly favorites are ageratum, aster, butterfly bush, bee balm, black-eyed Susan, catmint, coneflower, coreopsis, cosmos, goldenrods, honeysuckle, hyssop, lantana, mallow, marigold, phlox, salvia, sedum, verbena, yarrow, and zinnia. The work of creating a garden spot that attracts these gorgeous flying insects is well worth the effort.

I sat in the backyard of an older man who for several years had cultivated an active butterfly garden. The man had just learned that he was dying of cancer.

The autumn afternoon offered a gentle breeze and warm sunshine. We sat in lawn chairs next to his butterfly garden. The place was alive with flying flowers. Checkered skippers, spicebush, swallowtails, monarchs, buckeyes, a red admiral, and a 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.

After a long pause I added, “You know the Church has long regarded the butterfly as a symbol of resurrection.”

After a few thoughtful moments, he said, “No wonder I enjoy them so much.”

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