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September 17, 2022

Among the 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 extended 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. 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 one summer weekend before the COVID pandemic, a spicebush butterfly was my constant companion.   While I stooped to pull weeds, the tiny creature fluttered past time and again. My beautiful visitor danced in circles close by when I stood to stretch. I felt unusually blessed by its presence. 

I stopped for a moment to admire the graceful visitor to our garden. 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 mopped sweat from my face with an old, faded bandana as I continued working. I tossed it aside. Moments later, I noticed the spicebush butterfly perched on the flowered rag as if sipping nectar. I realized that my own salty perspiration 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 footpath crossed an equestrian trail. The pungent aroma of horses filled the air. A hundred or more bright yellow tiger swallowtails flittered about us. 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 prefer to think of them as being attracted by flowers rather than human sweat or horse manure.

In our garden, I have included 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. The flowers of the plant are enhanced by the fluttering flowers attracted to the bush. 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.

Butterflies are difficult to count because they are constantly on the move. One sunny afternoon last month, I came into our driveway and paused to look at the lantana. I estimated that there were no fewer than thirty on, above, and around the bush. There were several varieties, including majestic monarchs, deep-orange fritillaries, and one red admiral. 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. Many of the monarchs will migrate; many of the others will not. Some of the ones that dance around the flowers in our gardens will spend the winter in Central America.

One morning the week before school started,  I was sitting on the screened back porch with my granddaughters when we noticed a pair of large tiger swallowtail butterflies fluttering from purple cone flowers to orange zinnias to pink phlox. They seemed to be performing a ballet. The bright yellow wings of the butterflies catching the sunlight added a touch of even more beauty to the flowers.

In the late summer, something happens in our garden that is nothing short of amazing. The miracle of metamorphosis occurred yet again this year in our backyard. It’s the season for caterpillars and butterflies. By late summer, our 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. And it is well worth the effort. Among the favorites of butterflies 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.

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. That is to say, some are malevolent while others are benevolent.  

I have a volunteer sunflower in my backyard, now taller than I am. It sprang up when a sunflower seed escaped a birdfeeder and landed in a flowerbed. Out of curiosity, I decided to let it grow. I have recently noticed that several 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 ea

The boll weevil has wreaked havoc on 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 hornworms. 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. Fishermen 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 silkworm is perhaps the best example. The minute threads produced by the silkworms are used to make valuable cloth that can be fashioned into fine garments. Most of my old neckties were created from the secretion of caterpillars.

In my garden, I have planted bronze fennel. With their lacy leaves, the dark green plants make a lovely backdrop. The 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 our property grows a patch of wildflowers. 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. The larvae eventually become butterflies. 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 shroud 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 reminder of new life. They are beautiful symbols of hope. 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 as an apt symbol for the resurrection. For several years a church in my hometown followed the Eater worship service by having the children release painter lady butterflies. This weary world needs as much hope as we can find. Butterflies are gentle blessings, tender mercies from a divine creative hand.

I vividly remember the funeral service for a woman who loved butterflies. She had decorated her home with a butterfly theme. She tended a unique 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 flower arrangements sent by friends and family 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 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 moments, we marveled in amazement.

There is just no telling what will attract a butterfly.

I sat in the backyard of an older man who had cultivated an active butterfly garden for several years. 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, 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.”


Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at

Stories from this week’s column will appear in the forthcoming book

Cultivating the Spirit: Devotions from the Garden, to be published later this year.

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please donate or volunteer as you are able, to Hope Center for Children, P.O. Box 1731, Spartanburg, South Carolina, 29304, 864.583.7688,

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