Veronica's Garden

Rachel Creager Ireland on writing, living, the Flint Hills, and the Post Rock Limestone Caryatids

Tag: butterflies

What Lives In Your Neighborhood?

It doesn’t necessarily take a lot of time to notice nature. Admittedly, sometimes it involves sitting for a while, seemingly doing nothing. Type A people can’t do it. But other times, you see things just because you’re willing to.

I spent about an hour today clearing some weeds, cutting tree shoots, watering the few cultivars I have this year. The weeds have become so overgrown that I’ve learned new things about them. One vine I’d always thought was some kind of bindweed turned out to have a flower completely different from the morning-glory trumpet shape of Convulvulus arvensis. It really doesn’t look that much like bindweed, so I’m not sure why I thought it was related, now that I think of it. Today I discovered it is honeyvine milkweed, Cynanchum laeve. This one is truly a vining milkweed, and, as such, it is a food for monarch butterflies. So it turns out I do have at least one monarch food on the property.

Watering Rowan’s pot of zinnias, I saw a little moth I didn’t know, and it was kind enough to let me get a good shot. Then, while ripping up some weeds to expose a beleaguered rose, I inadvertently destroyed the web of a striking black and yellow garden spider, Argiope aurantia. Sorry, ma’am.

By that time, it was too hot to work outside, and I was hungry, so Wildfire the kitten and I came back in for lunch.

When you go outside, even if it’s just from your door to the car, look to see what’s out there. What lives in your neighborhood?

Fair Warning

It’s a good time of year to tell everyone: I brake for butterflies. I slow down for wildflowers, and I skid to a stop for a turtle in the road.

Unknown butterfly

Lepidoptera, and Their Cousins

We’ve had spring rains this year, which means that it’s turning out to be a good year for butterflies. They deserve it, after the last two years of extreme heat and drought. In my last post about butterflies, I showed the three I see most commonly; the American lady, the pearl crescent, and the buckeye. I have since confirmed the white lepidopteran shown in that post to be a cabbage white, Pieris rapae.

Since then, I’ve caught a good photo of the other white butterfly who visits the flower garden. This one is similar to the cabbage white, and related, but not altogether the same; that is, the checkered white, Pontia protidice.

The American lady has a cousin who resembles her, whose common name is the red admiral. They are both Vanessas: the lady is Vanessa virginiensis; the admiral is Vanessa atalanta.

When the spectacular great spangled fritillary, Speyeria cybele, drops in, she’s usually pleased to show off her lovely silver spots.

But I’ve had the most difficulty identifying her cousin, who is much more shy of the camera. I barely get an aim, much less focus, before she’s off to some other bloom, leaving me, far more often than not, with nothing more than a picture of a flower. After perusing at length my antique Nature Library Volume 6, Butterflies, I finally found a picture that matched the bits of wing I managed to get into some of my photos; and learned that the variegated fritillary, Euptoieta claudia, takes her Genus name from the Greek word meaning “easily scared.”

None of these lepidopterans are particularly unusual, or remarkable, as butterflies go; they’re just little bits of the daily miracle that is life here in the Flint Hills, Kansas, on this lush and living planet, Earth.

Butterflies!

The Autumnal Prairie Dons Her Yellow Dress

It was an exceptionally dry, hot summer. Weeks without rain, coupled with record-breaking heat, dessicated the earth. Gardens failed to produce food. The deer were getting skinny. Everything seemed to be dying.

Finally, late in the summer, we had a couple rains. We’re still well below the “normal” amount of rainfall for the year, but that boost seems to have redeemed the prairie. Somehow, when everything appeared dead, some plants must have been living and growing, preparing to take advantage of whatever water might find its way to their roots. When it came, they burst into flower.

First it was the compass plants, Silphium laciniatum. From the bloom, they could easily be mistaken for a sunflower, but if you look at the foliage, you can see a base of large leaves, while the sunflowers have leaves up the stem. This is one of my favorite native wildflowers, and one day I’ll dedicate a post just to this awesome perennial with a taproot which is often said to reach fifteen feet.

Next come the sunflowers, Helianthus annuus. There is no more cheerful face to be seen on the prairie, and once again this year she has proven herself able to “keep a good face” in spite of the most fearsome drought. The hills burst into brilliant yellow bloom. If you don’t know this flower, she is the same species as the iconic giant greystripe sunflower, but the greystripe was developed in Russia from annuus stock. If you see a greystripe, it is one which has traveled the world and come home. The homebodies exhibit a habit more like a bush, with many blooms reaching out in all directions from the stem.

Annuus has peaked, but her day isn’t done yet. She’s just making room for her sister, the Maximilian sunflower, Helianthus maximiliani. She comes a bit later than annuus, and a little smaller, but just as cheerful.

You’ll notice that all our friends du jour are yellow. Other colors are present, but yellow predominates at this time of the year. Who pollinates yellow flowers? It turns out, according to the Xerces Society, that bees are the primary pollinator. They also tell us that the European honeybee is not the best pollinator of sunflowers. The honeybees tend to specialize in either nectar or pollen gathering, which leads to little crossing from male to female plants. The native leafcutter bees, bumblebees, and sweat bees not only cross from male to female plants, but it appears that they harass the honeybees into doing the same, thereby increasing pollination on both counts.

Let me not neglect the monarch butterflies, Danaus plexippus. They have been scanty in number this year. The lepidopterists’ grapevine has indicated that they were farther north, in places they don’t normally go, even into Canada. I wonder what force told them to go where there might be more hope of finding the nectar which sustains them? Here in Kansas, I’m not sure I saw a single one, until the last week or so. I saw three in one tree one day, and a few singles on other days since, but not enough to establish a pattern of migration. Today a neighbor reported a tree in the area which was filled with them, perhaps a thousand. It is a relief to me, that even after such a dry and desolate season, the migration continues. I wish them godspeed on their long journey to Mexico, and hope that their mountain habitat has not come to a worse fate than their prairie home.

Monarchs and Homesickness

“We have to stumble though so much dirt and humbug before we reach home. And we have no one to guide us. Our only guide is homesickness.”-Hermann Hesse

Rob Breszny, my favorite astrologer, used that quote once in a horoscope for my sign (Capricorn). I knew immediately exactly what it meant, though I’m not sure what it feels like to be at home, to know where home is. I’ve been in the current home for seven years now, and it’s been nearly two since I committed to stop thinking “I hate this house,” every time I have to mop the kitchen because I forgot to prop open the sink drain with a kebab skewer before I put in a load of laundry; or a hanging lamp unexpectedly explodes into flames, falling dramatically to the floor; or we discover another hole left in the drywall in the laundry room, right next to a newly cracked pipe on a frigid January day. That’s not even accounting for the complications of having one’s livelihood tied up with one’s home; when there are potholes in the parking lot, the hotel inspector makes a surprise visit, when I’m struck by fear every time a customer comes to the door. What’s wrong with the room now?

That choice not to harbor bitterness and dissatisfaction has changed my life. I don’t want to be here forever, but I can still enjoy the time I’m here. It’s up to me, and maybe this place is gradually becoming my home, for now. Maybe my desire to be somewhere else is fading. Come to think of it, it’s been a while since I’ve had that dream of wanting to go home, but not knowing where I lived.

One thing that ties me like a string to this place is learning about the other inhabitants here, that is, in the the backyard, this town, the prairie. Many of the weeds in the backyard are familiar to my eye, but over the years I’ve begun to learn their names. Some are natives, some are aliens who’ve managed to make a life for themselves here. Shepherd’s purse, prostrate verbena, malva, hedge mustard. Lambsquarters is exceptionally nutritious, Queen Anne’s lace is also called wild carrot, because it is of the same species (Daucus carota) as cultivated carrot. Here is where I met the Woodhouse’s toad, the wheelbug, and the American lady butterfly (for whom I always sing a chorus of “American Woman.”) I’m no longer certain that I would leave, if offered the chance.

Here is where I’ve taken notice of the monarch butterfly migration. You have to be paying attention to catch it. It’s been going on this past week, but it’s not like a bird migration, where you could watch large numbers of birds flying together in a flock. The monarchs appear to be behaving quite usually, fluttering about, sometimes higher, sometimes lower, but if you watch one as long as you can see it, you will always notice that the first place you spot it is north of the last. It could just happen to be going south, but if you keep watching, you might spot another in five or ten minutes, also going south. Keep your eye open, there’s probably another, maybe high in the sky. You’ll think it’s a bird at first, until you notice the fluttering flight, and it will be going from north to south. They don’t fly together, they don’t appear to communicate at all. Do they plan their move? I think not. Something pulls them, and they ride it like the wind.

The longest distance covered by a tagged monarch in a day was 175 miles. From the US, they fly 2,500 miles or more to Mexico. It is not believed that any individual makes the migration more than once; they overwinter, find a mate, fly north, lay eggs, and die. The next generation might not live through the summer; it could be two or three generations before fall triggers the southerly flight again. Monarchs raised in captivity migrate if released in the fall, at least as many as nine generations after the last free butterfly in their lineage.

What makes a monarch migrate? I think of it as homesickness, like something telling you there is a place where you belong, and it isn’t here. It pulls you by the chest, like a string pulls a kite. You may never have seen your home, but you’ll know when you get there, and you won’t be alone. Are you there right now? If not, let homesickness be your guide.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

This lovely butterfly, Papilio glaucus, visited a stand of echinacea and drank deeply of her nectar. In fact, there were two, who enjoyed the flowers for quite some time. The other was actually even more spectacular, with a row of brilliant blue dots along the lower edge of her hindwing. (It is appropriate to refer to her in the feminine, as the female of the species sports this blue row, while the male is only yellow and black, like the one we see here.) This is said to be one of the more common of the larger butterflies here in the Flint Hills, though I don’t see them nearly as often as I’d like. But echinacea’s wiles attract many types of butterflies, including the flirtatious American lady, and the declining regal fritillary, so I’ll make a note to save some of the seeds, come fall, and plant them widely.

I always imagine that butterflies and fairies have a special mutual affinity. Perhaps those of you readers who visit the fairy realm might ask them what they have to say about the tiger swallowtail?

Thanks to Pat Larkin forĀ  the wonderful photograph.

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