A gentle flutter in your balcony

A gentle flutter in your balcony

To watch caterpillars grow, moult, pupate and butterflies emerge and take flight, is a rewarding experience your garden can easily provide you.

My first encounter with an army of caterpillars was many years back when I had just ventured into gardening. A dozen caterpillars were munching away the leaves of the curry leaf plant to their heart’s content. It was a young plant and I was worried that it would get destroyed. On an impulse, I snipped the branches and threw them away. A few weeks later, I saw a bright green caterpillar on the crepe jasmine plant. It too was devouring leaf after leaf and its droppings covered the ground. It froze the moment I touched the branch, its haunting blue eyes stared back at me and vanished into the wrinkle of its head. The guilt of throwing away the caterpillars from the curry leaf was already tormenting me. I decided to leave them alone and learn more about them.

The Internet informed me that this particular caterpillar was called an Oleander Hawk Moth and it prefers the oleander or the crepe jasmine to lay its egg. The caterpillars feed on the leaves and when it is time to pupate, the skin turns into a combination of black and orangish brown. It then reaches the ground and starts to pupate among the dry leaves. I kept observing the caterpillar for the next few days until it changed colour. I was at peace that I didn’t break the branch away. The next time I saw a green caterpillar on the curry leaf plant, I left it alone. I knew from experience that the leaves would spring back to life in a matter of days.

Most butterflies are attracted to colourful flowers. However, surprisingly, some prefer overripe and rotting fruits, bird droppings, animal dung, or even dead animals. But, for a caterpillar to grow and satiate its voracious hunger, butterflies lay their eggs on specific plants called food plants. In order to attract butterflies, I also needed to grow food plants. I started with ixora, pentas, lantana, hamelia patens, marigold, cosmos, periwinkles, porcelain flower, etc. These are sunlight requiring plants. The butterflies not only feed on the nectar, but they also bask on them to receive sunlight.

The crowning moment of growing a garden happened when I watched three butterflies emerge out of their pupa on consecutive days — the male and female of the Common Mormon Swallowtail and a Common Rose.

A whole ecosystem

A lime plant in the backyard regularly hosts the Common Mormon caterpillars. But, the Common Rose required the plant of genus Aristolochia for its larvae to feed. A retired professor, whom I had met serendipitously during one of my walks, gave me the seed pods of the Aristolochia Grandiflora vine to me.

Aristolochia Grandiflora is a perennial vine that spreads across compound walls and fences. Its duck or pelican-shaped flower stinks and so does its seeds. Growing a vine is a bit tricky. As you already know, not all seeds turn into plants and after a series of trial and error, a sapling showed up. Four months later, the vine outgrew the small trellis and soon enough, a couple of Common Rose caterpillars appeared on the vine. I was thrilled. At first, there were about eight of them. Over the days, the numbers dwindled and only one of them reached the pupal stage. I love how a caterpillar looks like a zombie the day before it starts building the pupa. The next morning I found a pink pupa, suspended by a silk girdle. As the days drew near for the butterfly to emerge, the pupa started turning transparent. Nineteen days later, on a sunny morning, the colourful Common Rose flew out.

It is a rewarding experience, to watch caterpillars grow, moult and pupate, before the butterflies emerge and take flight. In the last few years, apart from growing food plants like lime, curry leaf and crepe jasmine, I’ve also grown passiflora, kalanchoe, ginger lilies and custard plants, which are the hosts for butterflies such as Tawny Coaster, Red Pierrot, Grass Demon and Tailed Jay. Bamboos attract skippers and browns. The Common Baron hosts on the mango tree, while it feeds on the ripe guavas. We have now seen nearly 80 varieties of butterflies flutter through the garden.

A garden is not just a collection of plants. It is an ecosystem, which also attracts birds, bees, wasps, insects and moths. The choice of the plants depends on the choice of colours you want to see and the sounds you would like to hear.

Until next time, cheers from the hydrangeas!

Motley Garden is your monthly pot-pourri of observations and lessons from gardening and nature.

The author is a botanical artist from Bengaluru. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram as @neelavanam