Tag Archives: butterflies

Stay upside down, and be silent!

DIVAN

I’m a slave of the moon. Speak only moon to me.
Speak of candles and of sweetness or don’t speak at all.
Speak of gains not losses, and if
you don’t know how, never mind. Say nothing.
I went crazy last night. Love saw me and said,
“I’m here. Don’t shout! Don’t tear your clothes! Be still!”
I said, “Oh, love. It’s not that I fear. It’s something more!”
“That something more is no more. Don’t say a word!
I’m going to whisper secrets in your ear.
Just nod your head and say nothing.
A moon, being made of soul, appeared on the path of love.
Ah, how delicious it is, a journey on the heart’s path! Don’t speak!”
I said, “Oh, my heart, what moon is this?” Love pointed and said,
“This one’s not right for you. Pass by in silence!”
I said, “Could this be an angel’s face? Could it be human?”
“It’s neither human nor angel. Hush!”
I said, “What is it? Tell me! You’ve turned me upside down!”
“Stay upside down, and be silent!”
You’re seated in this house filled with images and illusions.
Get up! Don’t say a word! Just pack your bags and leave!
I said, “Oh, my love. Be like a father to me.
Isn’t this the face of God?”
“It is. But by your father’s soul,
Hush! Be silent! Don’t say a word!”

-Rumi
1207-1273
translated by J.W. Clinton

For a couple of weeks now I’ve been trying to put into words how it was for me, releasing Monarch butterflies who had emerged from their chrysalises two or three hours before. It was the most exciting thing yet to happen in my garden, that’s for sure. I had an rush of adrenaline stretching over the several days it took for all four caterpillars to finish their metamorphosis into creatures exquisite and huge. They were huge by comparison with the tiny pods from which they’d unpacked themselves, and their delicate design and bold colors were revealed in all their glory by being seen close-up and still in their mesh cage, waiting for their wings to dry.

I watched them as they hung and dried. When the time was right, I followed the Monarch website instructions: Move your finger toward the head of the butterfly, and it will climb on. Lift it out… I got a phone video with one hand while carrying the first Monarch to a flower I chose because it was both a known Monarch favorite nectar source, and purple to contrast with the insect’s colors.

That one was fully dry and not hungry yet; it wouldn’t step off my hand onto the blossom, but as soon as a breeze came by, it flew. I looked down and the second butterfly was climbing out of the cage and fluttering away. As one friend said, “It’s like being present at a moment of creation.” Indeed. And that was a little much to take, the reason for my intense feelings, and why this Rumi poem resonates with me. An insect, a moon, a grain of sand… anything might bring you there.

The next chrysalis wasn’t due to open until the afternoon; I deadheaded coneflowers nearby and met with this mantis, who I think was probably the same one I had encountered a few days before. I was friendly and he looked at me; I took his picture in full daylight. Then my neighbor stopped her car in the street and said out the window, “Isn’t it a little hot to be working out here?” I checked the thermometer and it was 93°; okay, I will go indoors for a while. Once in the house, I felt something on my head, and brushed it off… the mantis! Hey, fella, I know you like me, but you belong outside… So I gently carried him out, with my bare hands this time, being so comfortable/familiar with the creature. 🙂

The third butterfly’s wings were still a little damp when I released it in the afternoon; that same neighbor had come over for a cool drink in the cooler indoors, and she stayed to watch. And before the Monarch was dry enough to fly far, the little girl next door was able to come and get close to the action. I was really happy that it worked out for me to share at least a little bit of this wildlife event with other humans.

Following Rumi’s imagery, on my path in just one week’s time I have had encounters with 1) the moon and the mantis,  2) newborn butterflies walking on my hands and 3) a mantis who likes me. Somewhere inside I was going crazy and shouting, and also trying to listen to that voice saying, Hush!

This whole experience certainly jolted me out of my waiting doldrums. A word from another friend helped calm me down: She told me that mantises eat butterflies, and I laughed as I guessed the mantis “mind” as he looked so friendly-like at me: This large shape carries the scent of those juicy Monarchs I like, but I don’t see how to get my mouth around it….

At least one of the butterflies hung around the garden for a few days, giving me more opportunities for picture-taking, and to say a more leisurely good-bye. These were the babies I’d collected as eggs and raised for more than a month; I’d invested a lot of time in collecting milkweed leaves for them and cleaning their cage. It seems now a small price for the reward, though I could wish my responses were more like quiet joy and not so emotionally exhausting.

More recently, a building inspector was here and needed to write a note for the contractor, so I invited her to sit at my kitchen table, from which she immediately saw my garden and calmly gushed over it. I told her about the joy my garden gives to me, and about the Monarchs, too. She said, “It’s like the first garden….” Well, yes. Isn’t this the face of God?

Laddie and the cats.

People who try to help out the butterflies by “raising” them in a protected location call the caterpillars cats. It took me a while to get used to this when I would browse the extensive Monarch Butterfly Garden website. After my experience last fall of losing the one caterpillar that I know hatched out on one of my milkweed plants, I had thought that if I found another this year, I’d try to feed it indoors.

But why not collect the eggs and protect even them from the beginning? The website tells you how to do that, too, and I did. Again, the Monarchs seem to prefer the Narrowleaf Milkweed; I found most, if not all, of the white oval eggs on those narrow leaves that had been ravaged by aphids. I cut pieces of leaf with eggs stuck on them and let them incubate in a plastic storage container. (I did remove the aphid that can be seen in the picture.) The first ones hatched in about four days, just about the time that my grandson Laddie arrived with his father from Colorado.

We had to use a magnifying glass to be able to see the caterpillars at first. Once I thought they had all died, because they were so small it was hard to see that they had any color, or that they were chewing. But within a couple of days they were big enough to see without the glass; by that time I had moved them into a mesh cage I’d hastily ordered, and I arranged a stem from the showy milkweed in a bowl with a florist’s frog so that the leaves I was feeding them wouldn’t dry out so fast. From the first I encouraged them to leave the narrow half-dead leaves and move on to the fat and nutritious ones I brought in.

How do you encourage a teensy caterpillar? I carefully laid each drying leaf upside down on a fresh leaf, and the next morning they were making holes in the showy milkweed leaves. Well, two or three of them were. I haven’t been able to keep track of these microscopic specimens and it appears that most of them didn’t make it. Even now, I think the active ones are mostly hidden on the undersides of the leaves, but if I look hard I can see a head on the edge of a ragged hole and a mouth making the hole bigger.

I will feel lucky if one or more of them gets to the stage where it spins a chrysalis. That almost happened with two other caterpillars I found on my Italian parsley. They didn’t look like Monarch cats, and I checked online to find that they weren’t the other butterfly I see around here, Painted Lady. I put them in a jar with more parsley and one of them did attach to a thick parsley stem I put in there for that purpose, but then he dried up. The other one kept trying out one or another place to hang, but he eventually lay on the bottom in the dead bug position. So.

Nearly invisible caterpillars aren’t very exciting to a five-year-old, so Laddie didn’t pay too much attention to the lives of insects; Soldier and Laddie and I, and some other friends and in-laws had many kinds of fun over a long weekend. They helped me pick beans, fix a toilet, wash the dirt and spiderwebs off my collection of outdoor trucks, and replace a taillight on my car. Bowling and hiking didn’t get photographed.

Meanwhile more caterpillars were busy in the garden; a very few newly-hatched green ones were sticking their heads out of beans, and one was found on a basil leaf — but Soldier and I studied the bean leaves a long time trying hard to discover what is turning many into skeletons. Eventually I saw one cucumber beetle, and one tiny insect I’d never seen before.

The bean crop is not affected so far; my second picking was 8 1/2 pounds, much of which I gave to neighbors. When Soldier and Laddie arrived, I was able to feed them quite a bit: first, steamed green beans slathered with basil pesto; then Turkish Green Beans. Laddie eats like a teenager, and his father said all the boys are like that. He had three helpings of everything, breakfast and dinner. I made a peach cobbler for them, too.

Maybe some of you recognized the parsley-eating caterpillar; finally tonight I caught my breath and looked it up online, to find that it is the caterpillar of the Black Swallowtail, a butterfly I don’t think I’ve ever seen. What do you know, they eat umbellifers! I hope that more than two of that butterfly’s cats were there in the vegetable box, and are now in the chrysalis stage. I’ll hope to see one next year.

Les papillons et les fleurs.

When I got home from church this afternoon I baked a cheese tart from Trader Joe’s and ate it outdoors, and as the sun did not go behind a cloud, I read the Heritage Farm Companion and did some Spanish lessons. The Companion is a little magazine for members of the Seed Savers Exchange, an organization that I’ve loved for more than 25 years, though I’ve never participated by contributing seeds that I save.

Today I learned two interesting things from that issue: 1) People are growing rice in Vermont, and 2) Hoverflies/syrphid flies are attracted to the flowers of sweet alyssum; they also eat aphids, so planting alyssum as a companion to whatever you want to protect from aphids — in my case that would be milkweed, and several other plants — can be very helpful. This photo showing how that might look I found online, from the Regenstein Fruit and Vegetable Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Before my garden makeover, I had alyssum everywhere, but I haven’t let it grow since I re-landscaped. Alyssum used to sprout up everywhere, but now I see that situation as benign, whereas the aphids are a plague. Maybe there is a connection?

Three different people had been watching over my garden while I was in DC greeting the new grandson. Plus I have automatic irrigation, and drought-tolerant plants. So I should not have been surprised that it looked great, even better, when I got back — all the plants were bigger, and various things were in bloom, like the coreopsis that I had only set out the day before I departed.

Several times in the last week I’ve been able to sit in the warm garden, usually in the early afternoon. The morning is often overcast and around 55°; dinner times a cool marine breeze often drives us indoors. Today after I finished my tart I glanced behind me and saw that the toadflax is finally in full bloom. It looks pretty weedy most of the year, and even now 🙂 but the flowers are so cheery… I’d say it never looks better than today.

And what do you know – I just found a photo in my files of a hoverfly on toadflax. I also have a shot of one sipping at lavender, and lately they are really busy with the lamb’s ears; that actually seems to be their favorite flower around here. Come to think of it, there are blooming lamb’s ears right next to the aphid-infested milkweed… ? …but the hoverflies are mostly in the front yard… ? I need to think about this some more.

Cabbage white butterflies were dancing all over the garden the whole time I was out there. I assumed it was a kind of mating dance. I tried taking still shots, and even a video of their choreography. Against the blue sky, where one loses all perspective, they look like some crazy white birds. I read that “A male finds another butterfly of the same species by sight, then determines its sex by flying close to detect chemical pheromones—a process that often makes them look like they’re dancing around each other in the air.”

I could never get close enough to get any good pictures, still or moving, but here is a video I found of cabbage whites mating. Butterflies are so delicate and fairy-like, they make me feel that I am a character in a folk-tale where anything magical might happen. Even the name butterfly is charming, yes? Did you ever read my post about the words for butterfly in different languages? In French it is papillon. And in Spanish, mariposa. Those are beautiful, too! The Germans call them the fantastic schmetterling, which gives me almost as much joy to say, as it does to see a butterfly schmettering from flower to flower.

A year or so ago I decided to study Spanish. In much of California it’s kind of crazy not to know Spanish, but I chose French in high school, and several other languages since then. I’ve had close friends who were Spanish majors, and four of my children studied Spanish for two or more years. When I started doing 5-minute lessons on my phone using the Duolingo app I discovered that I already knew quite a lot. It’s been more like play than work, because are no humans to see my work, no shame in goofing up. I get points for doing the lessons no matter how many times I get something wrong. For six months I managed to do at least one five-minute lesson per day.

When I was at Kate’s for three weeks I didn’t have any gardening or housework or church work to do, and I was able to do so many Spanish lessons one day that my brain grew weary. It occurred to me that there would be no harm in checking out the French course, to brush up on my French; in my youth I studied it first and the longest, so it’s probably stuck deep in the recesses of my mind… While mom and babies were napping, I did quite a few French lessons, and they were even more fun than Spanish. On Duolingo the first lessons of a language are short so you whip right through them — especially if they are ones you did when you were 13!

So the next day what did I do? Turkish! I’ve had very little Turkish instruction, but I did spend six months total in that country, living with Turks, and it has been pure delight to do Turkish lessons. You may ask, what about my work, now that I am home again? It is mostly not stuff that anyone else cares if I do or not. And I’m still in a kind of limbo about my remodeling project, which makes it hard for me to know just what thing is the Next Thing. So I behave as though the maid is going to show up soon, and I am a woman of leisure with nothing more important to do than to read about seeds and learn a useless language.

And it is Sunday afternoon!

The hospitable coneflowers.

The white echinacea were covered in blooms when I got home from my three weeks away. These flowers make striking backdrops for butterflies especially, and a Painted Lady was giving me lots of photographic opportunities yesterday. I’m sharing several pictures because each one highlights a different aspect of the exquisite form; the light changed slightly, the insect opened its wings wider…

The hairs on its body, and the translucence of the wings, the white tip at the ends of the antennae  — I couldn’t see these things at all in the glare of midday, but only later in the dimness of evening, in the digital image.

I’ve seen a few other critters on these flowers, but they were mostly in too big a hurry for me to study them with my camera. In the back yard, the narrowleaf milkweed that briefly hosted a single Monarch caterpillar last summer are so colonized by aphids that I can’t imagine any butterfly finding a good place to land, if she did want to try that place again. It was a little later in the season summer that the Monarch events happened last year; maybe there’s time for me to get rid of the aphids somehow, and hope that they’ve left some nourishment in the leaves for caterpillars…

My Golden Guide to Insects tells me that “The painted lady or thistle butterfly is reported to be the most widely distributed of all known butterflies.” And this may be because the many and varied plants the larvae feed on are also common — including sunflowers. That means, when those butterflies are ready, they can just flutter southward a few feet to find a spot on my nutritious and healthy Delta Sunflowers to lay their eggs. Until then, girls, you are welcome to drink at my hospitable coneflowers.