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A Swallowtail Tale

By Emmy Ulmschneider, Master Gardener

During the summer, I love to sit out on the patio and watch butterflies in my garden. All day long, especially on these hot summer days, they bring color and movement to my garden from the smallest butterfly in North America, the Western Pygmy Blue, Brephidium exile, to one of the largest, the Black Swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes.

Last night, on my last walk through the garden, I saw a swallowtail that was in distress on a parsley plant. And sure enough on my first walk the following morning, I found her dead. I could tell by the condition of her worn and tattered wings that she had been in my garden for a while. So, I decided to look closer at the Black Swallowtail caterpillar host plants which I grow in my garden: Parsley, fennel, and celery; all members of the Apiaceae family. And as I hoped, I spotted a large Black Swallowtail caterpillar. I touched it gently, just enough to make the osmeterium, an orange-colored forked gland on the head to extend and release a strong smell. I wondered if these two, the caterpillar and the adult butterfly, were related.

As I continued walking, I spotted five male and female Black Swallowtails nectaring on various native and non-native plants. One of their favorite plants, judging by the time they spent on it is American Basket-flower, Centaurea americana. It gets the name, basket-flower, from the basket-like arrangement of bracts that form the base of the flower. This showy pink and white, spineless, thistle look alike also attracts native bees. A native Texas prairie annual, it is easy to sow from seed and germinates best in a wet spring. Collect and save the seeds from the seed head at the end of the season and broadcast them in an area you would like to have them in next year.

So, this Tale of Two Butterflies (A Swallowtail Tale) illustrates the importance we as gardeners have in providing the resources, within our yards, that our native fauna needs. Although the adult Black Swallowtail butterfly could nectar on a wide variety of plants, the caterpillar has a specific larval host plant family that it prefers. And these same caterpillar host plants are the ones I plant and value as culinary herbs or a vegetable for cooking or eating. It is a win-win situation for both of us when I choose to plant these plants!

If you are curious about the common butterfly species, their caterpillar host plants, and top nectar plants in our area, check out this North American Butterfly Association (NABA) publication originally compiled by leading naturalists in our area.

If you have questions, call the AgriLife office in Odessa at 498-4071 or in Midland at 686-4700. Additional information, and our blog for access to past articles, is available at Click on “Resources”.


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