Spicebush Swallowtails

New Spicebush Plant

Beautiful, fragrant flowers may attract butterflies with their enticing nectar. However, to truly have a successful butterfly garden, you need to invest in host plants. Host plants provide for the specific dietary needs of caterpillars. Monarchs need milkweed. Painted Ladies need thistles or mallows. Eastern Tiger Swallowtails need native trees such as wild black cherry, ash, tulip tree, and basswood. And, recently, I learned that Spicebush Swallowtails require either sassafrass or spicebush.

As I have small city plot, already overly shaded with towering pines, I wanted to add manageable shrubs to the environment. After researching host plants, I became intrigued by Lindera Benzoin, or spicebush. Spicebush is a native shrub. In addition to being the host plant to the utterly beautiful Spicebush Swallowtail, the plant has other beneficial properties. It is attractive and fragrant. It stays somewhat small – at the most it will reach 12 feet tall. But, in New England, it will likely stay around 6 feet. The female trees produce and edible berry that can be used a tea or spice. Even the twigs can be brewed into a tea.

I was able to purchase three Lindera Benzoin from Bigelow’s – a well regarded local nursery. The plants took well to the yard and are thriving. Although I did not have any expectations, I was both pleased to find 2 eggs and small caterpillar on the leaves. I brought the eggs and caterpillar indoors. I put them in a Mason jar covered with cheesecloth. I provided fresh spicebush leaves. The eggs quickly hatched and all three caterpillars ate and grew. At first, they were tiny – much too small to get anything other than a fuzzy image with my phone camera. But, slowly they increased in size, and I was able to appreciate their winsome nature. I find them to be disarmingly cute. They have a set of “false eyes”. These “eyes” are an example of mimicry. Potential predators will see the large eyes, and view the defenseless caterpillars as snakes, or other more threatening creatures.

The Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars soon outgrew their Mason jar. I moved them to their own mesh enclosure. I started giving them full leaf covered spicebush branches. In addition to food, the branches provided a climbing surface and, interestingly it allowed them to build their own homes. Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars will take a spicebush leaf and fold it over. Using a silk like material, they will bind the sides to create their own individual houses. This keeps them safe from predators.

The Spicebush Caterpillars continued to grow and change. They started off as a dull brownish color. Then, they took on a marvelously bright green hue. The false eyes popped in contrast. The black outlines around their false eyes and blue spots gave them a cartoonish appearance.

Now, the largest of the three is changing yet again. He is getting plump and long. And the brilliant green is giving way to a golden orange color. Any day, he will begin the process of pupation. Every step in their life cycle has been magical. Although, I look forward to seeing the the striking beauty of the black and blue Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly, I cherish the experience of observing these caterpillars.

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