We are taking a slight break from our current programing on trees, because I need to introduce the World's Cutest Caterpillar(TM). You've probably seen this species as a butterfly and they are lovely. But for me, it's their caterpillar form that is the show stopper. They look, and I'm not exaggerating, like a Pokemon.
Meet: The Spicebush Swallow Tail (Papilio troilus Linnaeus)
I want to intro him now because the next few trees and shrubs we mention will be hosts to these guys, and I want you to know why that's important. He is going to be our ambassador for planting and maintaining host species on our properties.
Why are host species important?
As you probably know butterflies go through multiple life cycles, one of which is their larval form- caterpillars. What you may not know is caterpillars have to eat very specific plants in order to live. (This, btw, is why milkweed is so important to Monarchs; it's their host species).
Butterflies usually have a much wider range of plants from which they can receive nectar, but without specific larval host species present in the environment, there are no caterpillars of that species and thus no butterflies.
Also of note: Caterpillars eat leaves. It's their only job really. So, if you put in a lot of effort to kill the caterpillars eating your plants, you won't have any butterflies. It's just part of the deal. So, plant a lot of them and enjoy seeing the caterpillars much on them.
Ok ok ok, Back to the Pokemon , er, I mean caterpillar. I feel like all the information you need to know on him is...I mean.. LOOK AT HIM! Big "eyes", goofy "smile", cute spots and a pudgy body?! He's the poster child for protecting caterpillars if I ever saw one.
(Photo: Full-grown fifth instar larva of the spicebush swallowtail, Papilio troilus L. Photograph by Jerry F. Butler, Entomology and Nematology Department, University of Florida.)
More on his lifecyle:
Once the eggs hatch the caterpillars emerge (the first instar looks like bird poo) and begin to eat, and eat, and eat the leaves of the host plant until they are large enough to shed a skin.
Once they have grown sufficiently and stored enough leaf energy, they pupate and form a chrysalis in which the transformation to a butterfly is completed. The adult butterfly emerges to feed on the nectar of flowers and find a mate and the whole process starts over.
Adults of this butterfly can feed on: Japanese honeysuckle (v. invasive), jewelweed, thistles, milkweed, azalea, dogbane, lantana (invasive), mimosa(invasive), purple Coneflower, wild Bergamot, and sweet pepperbush. But they'll never get the chance to do so unless we supply host plants for their larva.
Planting (or not cutting down) Northern Spicebush and Sassafras on your property will almost guarantee you the pleasure of seeing adults in your garden as well as their spectacular larvae. Go forth and plant, my friends.