Join the Butterfly Brigade!

September 7, 2016

 A tiger swallowtail on native sunflowers at the Tennessee River Gardens. Christine Bock Hunt says the reason we see so many of them is they have the sense to lay their eggs on several kinds of plants, not just one.

 

If you want to learn about butterflies, Christine Bock Hunt wants you. She needs volunteers to help her restore the butterfly garden at the Tennessee River Gardens.  

 

But if you don't have that kind of time, you just want to see more butterflies in your own yard, Christine wants to help you with that, too. The fact of the matter is, Christine is just crazy about butterflies. 

 

"Crazy about" is another way to say "likes a lot"; but when a woman rushes from work to "feed the caterpillars" during her lunch hour, when she likes to see larval life forms devouring her parsley, when she in fact places twigs strategically here and there to help them crawl to new plants to denude, I think we've got a pretty strong case for leaving the C word in there.  

 

Then of course there's all the leaping around waving butterfly nets, which for whatever reason has Crazy written all over it. 

 

"You see how this is folded over?" says Christine, pointing out a crumpled leaf. "This is what the caterpillar does to protect himself. He makes a little tent." She beams on the wriggling invertebrates like a proud mother. "When they get bigger, they're adorable." 

 

It's Sunday morning, and Christine is taking an early lunch hour from her job as lead horticulturalist at the Tennessee Aquarium to show The Dade Planet over the butterfly garden at the gated nature preserve in Lookout Valley. It was at its peak about 12 years ago, she explains, when it was tended lovingly by a couple who lived on the grounds. Then the man died, the woman moved away and the garden went into decline.  

 

Still, the butterflies continued coming back year after year, and now Christine is spending her off-days restoring the garden to its former glory. She could use some help, and one of the reasons for this interview is: volunteer recruitment. 

 

Here's Christine's pitch: The Tennessee River Gardens, a lovely 50-acre riverside wildflower and wildlife refuge, aspires to be open one day to the public, but for right now it is members-only, its members nonprofit and educational organizations rather than individuals. So really the easiest way for an individual to see it is to volunteer there.  

 

Volunteering for the nonprofit gardens qualifies as community service hours for master

 gardeners and other groups, and volunteers can also use the spot for fishing and canoeing.  "It's really fun to work out here," says Christine. "If a person volunteers here, they would not just be doing gardening but they would be learning about butterflies." 

 

It is, in fact, impossible to walk through the Tennessee Gardens' butterfly area without learning a great deal about butterflies. The area consists of outdoor flower gardens surrounding the enclosed "Butterfly Pavilion." This latter is basically a screen house, open to the air but with enough shelter to protect the butterflies and especially caterpillars from predators. "Most of them get eaten by birds. That's part of life," say Ms Bock. "We're just trying to reverse that a little." 

 

Flowers of all kinds grow in the gardens outside the butterfly house, everything from wildflowers to an ultra-hybridized pink hydrangea, zinnias and coneflowers and lantanas jumbled in with milkweed and passion vine. (This is the name of the weed that produces passionflowers, those scary purple tentacly flowers that look like something from Star Trek.) 

 

Christine explains that the plants are not really all that random. "If you are trying to attract butterflies to your yard, you have to have the food that they lay their eggs on," she said. "You can't just have flowers. You have to have the right larval plants."

  

Inside the butterfly house, that botanical theme is continued, and Christine (as if to perpetuate our crazy-woman theme) goes through a The-Mad-Ophelia litany of flowers, not rosemary for remembrance but pawpaws for the zebra swallowtail, spicebush for the spicebush swallowtail (also sassafras), nettle for the red admiral. She says of plants not: "It has a lovely pink flower" but: "It grows the most beautiful butterfly."  "There are people who hate violets," she says. "Well, you should see the pretty butterfly that lays its eggs on violets—the variegated fritillary." 

 

Most butterflies will lay their eggs on only one kind of plant, such as Monarchs on milkweed. Christine says the reason that in our area we see so many of the big yellow-and-black butterflies, tiger swallowtails, is that they've learned to lay their eggs on several of the native plants here as opposed to one.  

 

Mama butterflies are also particular about egg placement, she says. "They'll lay one egg per leaf because they want their babies to have plenty of food," says Christine 

 

A butterfly egg (above) in about a week hatches into a caterpillar (below), says Christine, after which the caterpillar eats for a week to 10 days before it makes a chrysalis (below, right) and hangs inside it for another 10 days or so, except for in cold weather when the chrysalis will overwinter. When adult butterflies hatch from the chrysalises, she says, they mate in pretty short order and the whole process starts over again.  

 

In the butterfly house, all the life cycles are going on simultaneously, with eggs on some leaves, caterpillars on others, chrysalises in the upper corners and a black swallowtail flitting gracefully overhead until The Planet inadvertently springs it, which Christine says is no big deal. "Most of the time, we let them lay eggs and then we let them out," she says. 

 

The butterfly garden is a seriously educational place, and again, if you'd like to help Christine restore it, she'd love to hear from you. Email her at cjb2@tnaqua.org. 

 

But if  you just want to see more butterflies at home, Christine encourages you to help them out by making your yard hospitable to them. A member of the North American Butterfly Association who regularly does butterfly counts in Dade County, she worries that modern insecticides, especially "neonics"—systemic nicotine poisons used extensively by nurseries that make the plant itself poison to insects—are decimating local butterfly populations.  "We went to areas that were full of flowers and we thought that there should have been lots of butterflies and there were none," she says

You can attract butterflies by cultivating plants they lay eggs on, the ones mentioned in this article plus pipevine, parsley, buddleia, butterfly weed, thistle, fennel, milkweed—you can get a list from Christine, or look it up online. 

 

"A person doesn't have to do it on as big a level that we're doing it here," says Christine. "They can have maybe a few flowers--everybody likes flowers." 

 

Another tip: Not everything has to be neat. "You have to have a little messy corner," says Christine. A lot of butterfly plants are, after all, weeds. Woods at the edge of your yard help in this regard, she says, and so do deep ditches with wildflowers growing in them. "People mow the dang ditches and they try to make everything clean," she says. "But butterflies need to have those flowers for nectar." 

 

Dade's got some great ditches, she says; let's keep it that way. 

 

 

And along that same line, enough with the autumn leaf purge already. Those piles of dead foliage typically contain any number of chrysalises waiting to turn into spring butterflies. "That's part of the cycle, the leaves falling down and decomposing and it's good for the soil, but it also has a lot of these chrysalises in it," says Christine. "So people who rake everything clean and burn it, yah! Please! Put it in a bag and give it to me."   

 

For those really serious about sheltering butterflies, it is possible to buy small netted hampers, such as the one Christine exhibits inside the butterfly pavilion below, that you can put larvae in and bring inside your home to nurture, though she warns they grow more slowly in the air conditioning. 

 

But caterpillars inside, on purpose, is a level of butterfly-crazy beyond which The Planet declines to go; so perhaps this is a good place to end our discussion.

  

Again, Christine Bock Hunt may be reached at  cjb2@tnaqua.org. 

 

  

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