If you plant it, they will come

Mar 4, 2017

Credit Glimmer721

Kevin Costner’s character Ray in the movie Field of Dreams listened to a mysterious voice telling him, “If you build it, they will come.” Against others’ advice, he sacrificed a cornfield to construct a baseball diamond in the middle of Iowa farm country. If you’ve watched this film, you know the end of the story. Shoeless Joe Jackson, members of the banned 1919 Black Sox team, and others show up to play some spirited games.

I loved the concept behind that story. When you listen to good advice and prepare, exciting adventures begin. In my case, the result isn’t nearly so mystical, but it’s certainly as rewarding. I listened to a biologist friend who is particularly knowledgeable about butterflies. She told me to garden not only to produce food but also to support this species. I’ve written before about adding dill and fennel to my garden. This year, I took that a step further.

I planted fennel and dill amongst my zinnias, larkspur, Indian blanket, bachelor buttons, and marigolds. Over the summer months, an occasional visitor would ask about that that ferny-looking stuff that smells like licorice.

“Oh, that’s fennel.”

I’ve also had a couple of friends who remarked on the dill thriving in my flowerbed.

“Yes, that’s dill. No, I’m not making pickles. I’m growing butterflies.”

Butterflies? 

Yes, butterflies. Specifically, black swallowtails. Each spring we see these stunning black-winged creatures with blue and yellow accents sipping nectar from blooming lilacs and later from our summer blossoms. By following my girlfriend’s advice and planting to attract these brilliant colored guests, I’ve seen scores of funny looking green caterpillars this summer. They’re each marked with details every bit as vibrant as those sported by their parents. 

If gardeners provide enough host plants, adult female s will lay yellow eggs on the leaves. After several weeks’ incubation under warm sunrays, these tiny deposits hatch into segmented creatures dressed in vivid green adorned by yellow, black, and white stripes, dots, and dashes. This developmental stage camouflages the pillow-like caterpillars from hungry bird eyes, but humans easily spot their summer visitors munching lacy leaves. If you don’t see them on the plants, you’ll know they are digesting away by their healthy poopers dotting the soil and landscaping rocks beneath your greenery.

In years past, I was happy to see two or three of these ugly bugs in clown dress each summer. After adding additional fennel and dill, I’m tied up for several minutes each morning counting growing numbers of pillowy bugs chomping through the foliage. Two days ago, I counted better than two score of these potential butterflies gobbling fennel fronds.

I’ve discovered blessing often require patience, so I hope to see these little guys transition into the pupa stage. Despite research, I’m not sure how this works. I don’t know how these insects move from their feasting grounds to the site where they morph into a neutral colored chrysalis. I suspect this is going to be a live and learn lesson. I don’t know if I will see them emerge as butterflies this fall or next spring. What I do know is that I’ll ignore my husband’s requests to trim the fennel.

If every egg that made it to the caterpillar stage survives the transition to butterfly, my front flowerbed will be a brilliant colored sight next spring. All that fennel and dill should multiply as well, so we may have a record book black swallowtail swarm come summer 2016.