At the beginning of September I noticed that my poor sad organic parsley that had fried in the hot St Louis summer was beginning to come away in the lovely early autumnal coolness and I was thinking that maybe we would get some eating out of the plants before winter set in. A couple of days later my neighbour knocked on the door to ask if I had seen my plants? And lo and behold, five greedy little parsley worms… or caterpillars… were rapidly munching their way through my finally-thriving parsley! At first I thought they were Monarch caterpillars, and was puzzled at them eating the parsley as I thought they only ate Swan Plants.
We decided to bring them inside and rescue them from all the birds that flock to our bird feeder. The easiest proposition seemed to just dig up the remaining parsley plant that they were still eating (one was already demolished by the end of the day, hungry guys!) and transplant them, roots and all, into a jug we had laying around. We put gauze over the jug in the evening or whenever we went out to stop them from going walkabout (one managed to sneak out, but we found him in the living room) and bought some fresh parsley at the farmer’s market to keep them going.
Just like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, these hungry little worms were voracious and chewed through all we could give them. Then suddenly, one evening we watched as one first of all scrunched up as much as he could, ejected all the frass (caterpillar excrement) he could, spun himself a little sling to rest on, and then shed his outer caterpillar skin to reveal a remarkable chrysalis hiding inside the skin. This soft shell soon hardened and one by one the other caterpillars followed suit, so that by the middle of September we had a little tree of rescued cocoons wherein all the caterpillars where now making a soupy butterfly-y mess.
We had read that they take a punt on their environment, that some turn brown in chrysalis form, and others remain green. We had also heard that it takes 2 – 3 weeks to make a butterfly from this stage. And we had googled images of the male and female markings for the beautiful Eastern Black Swallowtail Butterflies that our caterpillars were to become. What we are not sure about is what determines sex in these creatures – whether it is temperature, or whether the brown ones are always female, the green ones always male… time will tell.
Last week, a flurry of activity began over breakfast each day – the three green, male butterflies took turns in hatching out of their chrysalis shells and drying their wings at the top of the skewer tree we had made for them, before they flew off to make more caterpillars. This is the first beauty as he unfurled on Tuesday morning:
He fluttered to the floor not long after Akira left for work, so I chased him with a piece of paper and helped him find his way out the door. He flew off alone on his mission. The next two mornings I put the butterflies out onto the porch in one of our plants to allow them to take their time to leave. On Thursday it was a rainy morning, so I left the Rosemary bush in the lee of our doorway when I went out, on our return the butterfly was still here, and he stayed until late in the afternoon, when it was obviously dry enough for his wings. I had been chatting to Akira online about the fact that he was still here, so went over to see what he was up to – he gave a sudden (and possibly attacking) squirt of something in my direction and then took flight – off into the world.
All weekend we have been keeping a watchful eye on the remaining two brown chrysalis forms to see what will happen – so far, nothing. Perhaps they wait longer if they think the environment is likely to be drier and more inhospitable, perhaps it takes longer to cook females, perhaps they need a warmer temperature to hatch, maybe it has become too cool for them (we have had a drop in morning temperature in the past few days) so maybe they are going to winter over in our house? Who knows… we will keep you posted!!