The Dances of Summer

Dog Days they’re called, 40 days in July and August when sultry days and nights get man and plants down. The garden is looking tired and I’m tired of looking at the garden.

Until butterflies arrive. They spice up the garden with dances that can mesmerize me. Sometimes there’s only a single flutterer languidly weaving in and around shafts of sunshine, disappearing into shady nooks, emerging, and sailing to a sunshine-flicked blossom for a drink of nectar.

Our Invitation. . .

Our Invitation. . .

Or maybe it’s a spirited pas de deux mating dance full of fluttering and teasing, accepting, rejecting, closing in, separating, and by some canny instinct just missing the gleaming spider webs laid throughout the garden to trip the unwary.

When rivals enter, the choreography picks up and it can be difficult to follow moves by a troupe of three or four fast-fluttering, hovering males maneuvering for favors from the prima ballerina who may dance until she is exhausted. If she is lucky, she may steal a moment on a blossom off-stage while rivals distract each other.

We’ve read volumes about creating butterfly gardens but we never got beyond reading. Designing one? That would take much too much planning. Serendipity propelled our plot into a one-acre butterfly garden that tells me, by the arrival of certain species, whether summer is waxing or waning.

Years ago we had cautioned our builder not to remove any trees. He must have known we were serious because he would, on occasion, apologetically tell us he would have to take out a certain tree that was preventing him from finishing our house.

A little extreme, yes, but we learned soon enough that these native trees and shrubs are the bulwark of caterpillar lives. Wild cherry, tulip poplar, redbay, red maple, oak, spicebush, second-growth residents of our plot, are host plants for the larvae of butterflies and moths.

Black swallowtail caterpillars, sometimes called parsley worms, enjoying golden alexander

Black swallowtail caterpillars, sometimes called parsley worms, enjoying golden alexander

So are parsley, fennel, dill and rue. Coincidentally, each summer I resolve to experiment with growing and using fresh herbs when I cook. Since my cooking skills have never risen much above the It’s-five-thirty-and-I-still-don’t-know-what-we’re-having-for-dinner-tonight level, this resolution is quite a leap of faith for me. Happily, my faith has never been tested. The voracious caterpillars annihilate my herbs long before I recall ever making those resolutions. Aw shucks, maybe next year.

As a must-have-it-all gardener, by coincidence, I have managed to scatter a schmorgasbord of delights throughout the garden for the dancers: native shrubs and perennials like phlox, Joepyeweed and sweet pepper bush and non-natives like lantana and butterfly bush. As one plant finishes blooming, another may be in its prime of bloom, or just beginning to bloom, so the butterflies dance all summer.

Here are pictures of some of the dancers in our garden. Rarely can I catch their airborne choreography — they are too quick–so I usually have to be content with snatching moments of stillness.

buttpala2Summer would not be summer if we did not see palamedes swallowtails wandering through our garden. One year there were so many we would meet them fluttering on our paths. Their host plant is the redbay, or swamp redbay, which grows along the banks of our canal. It’s a handsome bay, though its leaves are often blighted by insect galls, which is why it has never been marketed. Native phlox is one of their favorite nectar plants. Note the female’s ragged wing.

buttpalapursA male palamedes in hot pursuit.

buttpala3Three male palamedes hovering. The female is out of range of the camera. 

butttigmaleThis male eastern tiger swallowtail is a repeat visitor to Joepyeweed, a tall native plant of moist sites. Its large showy flower heads are composed of many small blossoms that open over time. Once they begin to open, the word goes out and Joepyeweed becomes a fast-food stop, not just for swallowtails, but for an amazing variety of nectar-sipping insects.

butttigblkFemale eastern tiger swallowtails have two morphs, a light and a dark. For several days I have seen this female feeding on dwarf butterfly bushes called ‘Lilac Chip,’ one of the recently introduced Lo and Behold series. They are seedless and rebloom until frost without deadheading. I trim them occasionally to keep them looking fresh. So far they are staying around two feet, but they are young.

buttbuck3Sweet pepperbush, a native plant of moist areas that does well in gardens, buzzes with activity during its long bloom period. Its heavenly scent fills the air and bumblebees, wasps and butterflies flock to it. Here a buckeye butterfly is nestled in its blooms.

buttbeeEvery (small) inch of this bumblebee is focused on its task, mining for nectar, probing each blossom in the panicle row by row with the speed and efficiency of an assembly-line worker. (As an aside, occasionally I have discovered bumblebees playing hooky inside a folded rose of sharon bloom. Napping, perhaps?)

buttwaspI watched these wasps linked together cavorting through the sweet pepperbush like giddy kids. I doubt they have efficiency on their minds. I had to snap them quickly in repose; they were off in a minute.

buttfieryskipInadvertently I disturbed this fiery skipper loafing on a hydrangea leaf more than once. Since he regularly returned to the same leaf despite the bother, he gave me ample time to photograph him. I wouldn’t consider his coloring “fiery,” but for a skipper he is a show-off. Skippers are the drab guys of the butterfly world, known for antennae that end in pointed, curved clubs. 

buttredsptpurThe beautiful red-spotted purple butterfly is a member of the Admirals group of brush-footed butterflies, though it is not purple and in this photo the red spots on the forewing are inconspicuous. Its larva feeds mostly on wild cherry, which grows in our woods. We’ve only seen singles each summer, no mating dances, and only for a day or two, often on our driveway as pictured, though one year, late, I spotted one on goldenrod.

buttsilvspotskipThe silver spotted skipper foraging on Lo and Behold butterfly bushes is another of the brightest skippers we see in our garden.

buttsilvspotskip3Here he is hanging upside down like a bat. What big eyes you have. . .

buttimperialmothNo, I am not responsible for pinning this Imperial moth; the photograph is from Wikimedia. Two weeks ago I accidentally disturbed one resting under groundcover at the edge of the woods when I was thinning brush. In terror it took flight, flying so fast and so erratically, I could follow it only with my eyes. Though it was a blur of dusty brown and muted yellow, I knew by its large size and pale coloring that it was a female Imperial moth. The moral of the story: butterflies and moths like an untidy garden; don’t fuss. 

buttargiopThere is one final dance in the garden, and sometimes it is played out by an argiope spider. An orb weaver and cousin to Charlotte, this female spider spins large webs with a bold signature of zigzags in the center. When an intruder blunders into her web, she pounces, paralyzes, and packages it in silk as shown here. Butterflies included, sans wings. Mostly, though, the argiope catches insects we are not so fond of, so she is a garden good guy. And, contrary to rumor, she probably does not eat the much smaller male after mating.

butttigmvertBy cold weather the dancers will be gone, but I know their offspring are safe from the elements somewhere in the garden, waiting to emerge as new dancers next summer.

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