CrrriticScience SaysShut Up And Dig

The Butterfly Effect

gail eichelberger12 comments625 views
Spread the love


This was a hard image to get, as all of the new fritillaries were whirling around like … well, butterflies!

For weeks, my garden has been ALIVE with the beating of orange wings! I have Gulf Fritillaries coming at me from every corner of my garden – I think the other day I counted more than 20 – and more are emerging from cocoons every day!

chomp chomp chomp poop poop chomp oops there goes my exoskeleton chomp chomp poop

I am an ardent collector of passiflora species, and my Passifloras ‘Lavender Lady and edulis are completely chewed up right now, looking shabby and horrid. Why? Because THESE monsters have been chomping on the leaves and getting fat! And they are pooping up a storm. It is hard to imagine how much these babies poop, but I guess when you think about the fact that all they do is eat and molt, the volume of … that stuff … makes perfect sense. It is unseasonably warm (although we in Southern California know that climate change is real – I guess this is just the weather we have now!) so I wonder if that is what is causing this extreme butterfly phenomenon – I have never, in 15 years of growing these vines, seen this much action on them!

I think the Monarch has a great publicity team behind it. Everyone is so concerned about planting the right milkweed so the monarchs will be able to find their way to the traditional monarch fiesta zone in Mexico that they forget about the other beautiful butterflies. There are over 2000 species of butterflies to tempt! Why should all the love go only to the monarchs? I mean I love a monarch, sure, but what about Admirals and Emperors? Snouts and Ladies? Yes, plant milkweed – but plant other things as well! I plant fennel specifically for the Anise Swallowtail – there are native plants that host the larvae, but I can’t harvest fennel seeds from a Tauschia! And I think life without passionflowers, exotic beasts that they are, would be a sad thing, not only because I would miss the incredible floral sculptures that are their blossoms, but also – the dance of the fritillaries is a magical thing to witness.

Once, I was lucky enough to be caught in a “butterfly storm” in the deciduous jungle of the Yucatan, near Merida. I don’t know if I will have a memory that will surpass it – the wonder, the the breathless thrill, the feeling that your heartbeat was being echoed by the tiny wings swirling, diving, and flitting around you … I wish I had the words to impart the glory of that moment. The butterflies were in their element, doing what butterflies do – and we can only witness it by tiptoeing into their worlds and then tiptoeing back out again, stepping very lightly. Let us hope that their native landscape will be preserved, so that we won’t have to argue about what to plant and what they eat and when to plant what they eat. If habitat is preserved, those issues will vanish.

the chrysalis – or pupa- hanging on for dear life from a thread attached to the hook that holds the hinge to my back gate. THAT is determination. And strand silk – they should build bridges from that stuff!

I am NOT anti-native nor am I against feeding wildlife with the native offerings we have, but I find the strong party line is “Natives Only” – and those of us who have been in the trenches for years, gardening organically, planting to attract beneficials and pollinators, know that nature is not that black and white. Life will out. Life adapts. Nature is flexible. The instar of  a butterfly will eat other than a native food source. If that wasn’t the case, evolution wouldn’t really work, as flexibility and adaptability are key for the “survival of the fittest”.  And survival, adaptability, and evolution is what the insect world is particularly good at.

Regular readers of mine know that I am ambivalent about the turning back the clock and trying to re-create native habitats in urban landscapes. So much pressure on the gardener to fix something that they did not break. Climate change has not been caused by people planting the wrong milkweed, or passionflowers attracting a butterfly whose native range has long expanded. Eradication of native landscapes isn’t the fault of the ornamental gardener (GASP!), so I hope we can all take a breath and enjoy the butterflies, no matter what leaf carried them in.

Posted by

Ivette Soler
on September 30, 2015 at 1:13 am, in the category CRRRITIC, Gardening on the Planet, Real Gardens.


  1. Wonderful post, Ivette! I especially agree with you when you say that there’s a lot of “pressure on the gardener to fix something that they did not break”. So often it seems to me that whenever a problem arises, whether it’s native v. non-native, food sources for pollinators or “invasive” plants, the home gardener gets blamed for the problem and taxed with the onus of correcting it. And so many people seem convinced that they have the only correct solution, without allowing for the myriad of variables in nature that occur, not only as a matter of course, but from location to location in the country. Everyone needs to take a step back, a deep breath and a long, considered pause before reacting to things.

  2. I totally agree with you, Susan – let’s all think first. So many times I feel the pressure to fall in line with an orthodoxy that may not be the answer to everything. I think we need to question whatever claims to be “The Answer To Everything”. Usually that answer is propaganda of some sort. One of the things I love about the garden world and gardening itself is that it can exist outside of the world of the hard and fast rules because gardening is subtle and different for everyone, everywhere they garden. Gardening can function outside of the marketplace, outside of orthodoxy and dogma – it can be a thing that a person discovers for themselves. We can cultivate our own relationships with nature, we can collaborate with nature on our terms. I think it is a sacred relationship, a spirituality, and I tend to look upon those who want to impose boundaries on that personal space with suspicion. I’m all for taking a breath and thinking, and moving forward from your instincts and your personal relationship with your garden. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post!

  3. It’s pretty awe-inspiring, isn’t it Laura? Seeing such a transformation right in front of you? And I think it is an apt metaphor for what we see in our seasonal process as gardeners. Sigh – butterflies! Just amazing!

  4. As for sharing the blame for climate change, I beg to differ. We are all behaving in ways which contribute to it, but we are what blogger RobertScribbler calls “captive consumers”. We can’t escape contributing because our civilization is set up to produce the appearance of wealth, but it’s based on production which borrow from the future. I hadn’t even heard of global warming until I was 50, at the turn of the century, while reading science blogs on the web. I certainly didn’t hear it from TV news or the local newspaper (remember those?).

  5. You and I think very similarly Kermit! I am part of a culture that is set up to consume. I consume, hopefully with a thought to ethics and the impact I have on the planet. But my organic gardening habits are not contributing to climate change. My mixed native, drought tolerant garden isn’t breaking our ecosystem. I refuse to be told that I can’t plant something I know works because of an agenda that I find bordering on horticultural xenophobia. Natives, YES – but natives ONLY? I have to say no.

  6. Professor Tallamy’s study is contradicted by hundreds of studies, which find that insects are equally likely to eat non-native plants as native plants. A meta-analysis of hundreds of studies of insect-plant interactions published by Annual Review of Entomology reports these findings: “Herbivore densities are lower on invasive plants than on native plants, but there is no evidence that invasive plants overall suffer from less damage inflicted by native herbivores.” Martijn Bezemer, et. al., “Response to Native Insect Communities to Invasive Plants,” Annual Review of Entomology, January 2014.

  7. Marcia – sorry, but I am not entirely won over by Tallamy. I have read just as many studies that refute his findings, although I tend to lean towards supporting a robust native community. Tallamy’s work can inspire many to do great things, but it also inspires people to unplant areas that are thriving ecosystems, albeit non-native ones, in favor of a native ideal that is tied to a point in the past that is long gone. I, too, plant natives – but I plant well adapted exotics as well, happily so. It is just like the air conditioner that you use. You use it. And all the natives you plant will not make up for the fact that you use your ac and drive a car. Just the fact that we are planting with thought and purpose, and grappling with these issues, is a huge leap – I will not ask the gardening population to take on the onus of saving the world through planting only natives. It is a publicity stunt. Natives are a buzzword, a way to sell plants – and it works. It is fashion – and it isn’t bad! But we should recognize it for what it is. I do think that we are making significant progress in understanding our place in the environmental scheme of things, and all of the things we choose to do to make this world better should be applauded. But we should also know that sometimes, we are being caught up in a marketing campaign. Again – I am not saying that natives are bad – I am saying that eschewing all other plants that are non-invasive and well-adapted to your region in favor of natives only is not the way I myself choose to plant, because I believe that nature if far more flexible and adaptive than we are being led to believe. Btw – just because a thing is “in fashion” or “the flavor of the moment” doesn’t mean it is bad. Think of the culinary fad with kale! Kale is delicious and good for you, but you can’t eat only kale. Lots of other foods are nutritious, even though kale is being touted as THE superfood. But I applaud your gardening – I am always on the side of the gardener, as long as they aren’t planting invasives or using pesticides, herbicides, and synthetics! (haha I guess that was ALOT of caveats there!) Thank you for your comment! Good one!

  8. This, indeed, is an interesting topic. I’m not sure that I understand the whole “marketing campaign” thesis. And, I’m sure there is good data to back up the thought that native plants attract those insects that co-evolved with them. Just because I see one species of butterfly flourishing in my garden does not mean I’m host to a healthy biodiverse community.

  9. Personally, I think more biodiversity creates more biodiversity. Natives can be invasive as well – it isn’t just exotic aliens that behave like thugs. Well adapted plants are good things, and a badly behaving native is not welcome in my gardens. I’m totally with you on a happily mixed-up garden!

  10. Thanks for considering Conciliation Marcia! Just thinking about how we work forward from where we are, rather than trying to turn back time and climate, is where I stand. And realizing that we, as people on this planet, are a part of nature as well (although the havoc we wreak seems to deny this). Nature is destructive and catastrophic, and wipes out species all on her own, before we were introduced as the dominant species on this planet. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t strive to make the best choices for our planet – whenever I bring up this point someone inevitably says “oh well should we all just throw up our hands and just do whatever!” No, not if we feel a moral and ethical responsibility to our planet. But we are also enlivened by endeavors that fall outside of the wild and native – I, for one, am delighted by gardens that are blatantly artificial and formal. It is a unique expression. I would never do that in my home, but I love the art and impulse of it. To limit the gardener’s expression of passion to a purely native palette would be sad to me. But a native palette is crucial to our moving forward and understanding our stewardship of the planet’s landscape. I hope this makes sense! The marketing of natives seems fairly obvious to me – natives are all the rage. Nurseries are doing a very brisk business in natives and people are reading articles about natives in their Sunday papers. It has an effect. It isn’t a bad thing – the trend could be hybrid tea roses – yikes!!!

Leave a Response