Odd Looking Caterpillar Becomes Beautiful Swallowtail Butterfly

Odd Looking Caterpillar Becomes Beautiful Swallowtail Butterfly

One of the things to do while stuck at home due to COVID-19 restrictions, is to look for caterpillars and butterflies in your landscape. I’ve noticed giant swallowtail butterflies (Papilio cresphontes) a little early this year. The giant swallowtail is one of the largest and most beautiful butterflies in our area. Its larval stage is known as the orangedog caterpillar. This unusual name comes from the fact that it feeds on young foliage of citrus trees.

Orangedog caterpillar. Photo credit: Donald Hall, University of Florida

The orangedog caterpillar is mostly brown with some white blotches, resembling bird droppings more than a caterpillar. When disturbed, it may try to scare you off by extruding two orange horns that produce a pungent odor hard to wash off.

I’ve had some minor feeding on citrus trees in my landscape from orangedog caterpillars. But I tolerate them. I’m not growing the citrus to sell. Sure the caterpillars eat a few leaves but my citrus trees have thousands of leaves. New leaves eventually replace the eaten ones. I leave the caterpillars alone. They eat a few leaves, develop into chrysalises and then emerge as beautiful giant swallowtail butterflies. The whole experience is a great life lesson for my two teenagers. And, we get to enjoy beautiful giant swallowtail butterflies flying around in our landscape and still get plenty of fruit from the citrus trees. It is a win, win, win.

In some cases, the caterpillars can cause widespread defoliation of citrus. A few orangedog caterpillars can defoliate small, potted citrus trees. Where you cannot tolerate their feeding habits, remove them from the plant. But consider relocating the caterpillars to another area. In addition to citrus, the orangedog caterpillars will use the herb fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and rue (Ruta graveolens) as a food source. Some butterfly gardens plant citrus trees to provide food for orangedog caterpillars so that they will have giant swallowtail butterflies. So you could plan ahead and grow some fennel, rue or find a butterfly garden in your area for the purpose of relocating the larvae.

Yellow giant swallowtail butterfly on pink flowers of garden phlox

Yellow giant swallowtail butterfly on pink garden phlox flowers. Photo credit: Larry Williams

The adult butterflies feed on nectar from many flowers, including azalea, bougainvillea, Japanese honeysuckle, goldenrod, dame’s rocket, bouncing Bet and swamp milkweed. Some plants in this list might be invasive.

Keep in mind that mature citrus trees can easily withstand the loss of a few leaves. If you find and allow a few orangedog caterpillars to feed on a few leaves of a mature citrus tree in your landscape, you and your neighbors might get to enjoy the spectacular giant swallowtail butterfly.

More information on the giant swallowtail butterfly is available online at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/in134.

Not Your Typical Coneflower – Cutleaf Coneflower Rudbeckia lacineata

Not Your Typical Coneflower – Cutleaf Coneflower Rudbeckia lacineata

Until plans were underway for our UF/IFAS Demonstration Butterfly Garden, I had never heard of Cutleaf Coneflower, Rudbeckia lacineata. Master Gardener Volunteer Jody Wood-Putnam included this gem in her garden design and introduced me and many of our visitors to a new garden favorite.
Although in the same genus as your common Black-eyed Susan’s (Rudbeckia fulgida or R. hirta) this perennial has very distinct differences. Rather than the low growing, hairy, oblong leaves of Black-eyed Susan, Cutleaf Coneflower has smooth pinnately lobed leaves with serrated edges. The leaves are still clump forming but form an almost bush-like shape. By mid to late summer, tall flower spikes emerge and are covered in bright yellow flowers bringing the overall height of the plant over 5 feet tall!
Cutleaf Coneflower is native to North America with several variations adapted to different regions including the Southeast and Florida. This perennial performs well in full sun to part shade and needs a lot of space. Mature plants can reach 3’ wide by 10’ tall and may require staking. The plant can spread through underground runners, so be sure to give it lots of space. In North Florida leaves may be evergreen if winter is mild. Cutleaf Coneflower is a good wildlife attractant providing nectar and pollen for many insects and if you leave the flowers on to mature the seed the is eaten by songbirds, including goldfinch.
To see this plant in person, stop by the UF/IFAS Demonstration Garden at 2728 E. 14th Street, Panama City, FL. If during normal business hours, check in for available seeds from our Pollinator Garden. 850-784-6105
More information about Cutleaf Coneflower see https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/rudbeckia-laciniata-var-humilis/
Planting a Butterfly Garden – Video

Planting a Butterfly Garden – Video

Each week, the editors scour the world wide web to find unique and informative content. This week’s selection is a video by Tennessee State University Extension Agent Joellen Dimond, in which she explains how to create a backyard butterfly garden!

Now is the time, get to it !

 

Attracting Wildlife to the Garden

Attracting Wildlife to the Garden

One of the incredible benefits of living in Florida is exposure to the biodiversity of our wildlife population. From ordinary squirrels and mockingbirds to the more exotic panthers and migratory tropical birds, it is rare one can step outside the house without seeing or hearing wildlife of some variety. One of the practices we “preach” here at Extension is to provide habitat for wildlife in our yards and gardens. While cities and neighborhoods are human-centric, we share these spaces with thousands of wild animals, birds, fish, and insects and should always consider them in our actions.

Attracting birds and butterflies are popular pastimes, and Extension faculty can provide a tremendous amount of information on their preferences and food sources. However, a few unsung critters deserve homes and space as well. Just yesterday, I took a call from a gentleman who was excited to discover a small colony of bats roosting in a tree on his property. He was looking for ways to encourage them to stay, because he realized the countless benefits they provide in free insect control. Many people are nervous around bats of because of their unpredictable, irregular night flight pattern and association with scary stories. However, an average Florida bat can eat 1,000 insects a night, keeping pest populations down, reducing mosquito-borne disease, and saving millions of dollars in crop damage.

In our demonstration garden today, I was delighted to walk up on a black racer sunning itself in the grass. These common garden snakes provide valuable pest control of rats and mice, and are not aggressive or venomous. The fear of snakes often comes from the surprise of finding one unexpectedly, so always be alert and observant when outdoors. Respect for these creatures and a basic working knowledge of common venomous and nonvenomous species can go a long way towards calming one’s nerves. An excellent resource for snake identification in north Florida is this online guide. Like many snakes, this particular snake had been in tall grass, so it is always wise to be cautious in those areas.

This black racer sunning in the grass must have gotten the message about utilizing habitat provided for wildlife! Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

To attract wildlife, learn about their life cycle and food sources, and provide shelter, water, and food for the species you are interested in attracting. Keep in mind that inviting wildlife may also draw their predators, but know that this is part of the larger cycle. Always keep safety in mind, and if necessary keep tall vegetation and deep water to a minimum in play areas frequented by young children. The benefits of providing food and shelter for wildlife are countless for human observers and wildlife alike.

What’s That Tree with the Purple Blooms?

What’s That Tree with the Purple Blooms?

Chaste tree.  The showy chaste tree makes an attractive specimen as the centerpiece of your landscape bed or in a large container on the deck. Easy-to-grow, drought resistant, and attractive to butterflies and bees, Vitex agnus-castus is a multi-stemmed small tree with fragrant, upwardly pointing lavender blooms and gray-green foliage. The chaste tree’s palmately divided leaves resemble those of the marijuana (Cannabis sativa) plant; its flowers can be mistaken for butterfly bush (Buddleia sp.); and the dry, darkened drupes can be used for seasoning, similar to black pepper, making it a conversation piece for those unfamiliar with the tree.

Vitex , with its sage-scented leaves that were once believed to have a sedative effect, has the common name “Chastetree” since Athenian women used the leaves in their beds to keep themselves chaste during the feasts of Ceres, a Roman festival held on April 12. In modern times, the tree is more often planted where beekeepers visit in order to promote excellent honey production or simply included in the landscape for the enjoyment of its showy, summer display of violet panicles.

Chaste tree is native to woodlands and dry areas of southern Europe and western Asia. It will thrive in almost any soil that has good drainage, prefers full sun or light shade, and can even tolerate moderate salt air. Vitex is a sprawling plant that grows 10-20 feet high and wide, that looks best unpruned. If pruning is desired to control the size, it should be done in the winter, since it is a deciduous tree and the blooms form on new wood. The chaste tree can take care of itself, but can be pushed to faster growth with light applications of fertilizer in spring and early summer and by mulching around the plant. There are no pests of major concern associated with this species, but, root rot can cause decline in soils that are kept too moist.

Florida Wildflowers: Butterfly Weed

Butterfly Weed – Photo courtesy Mary Salinas

Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, has been gaining in popularity in the perennials market as it attracts adult butterflies to feed on its nectar and monarch caterpillars to feed on its leaves. Gardeners are also turning to use more Florida native plants in their landscapes.

Independent or native nurseries tend to be the best source for plants but the supply can be quite limited. There are more sources for seed, though, online. Try to purchase seed from a local or Florida grower as those seeds will be better adapted to our climate.

Butterfly Weed – Photo courtesy Mary Salinas

When growing butterfly weed from seed, transplant your new plants into their garden spot when they are still quite young, 2-3” tall, as they will be more successful in getting them established. Choose your planting location wisely. Once you plant it in a particular area, don’t move it. They are finicky about being moved from spot to spot.

For more information:

Monarch Butterfly

Asclepias tuberosa Butterfly Weed, Indian Paintbrush

Florida Wildflower Foundation