One morning, vivid and unusual colors showed up in the moon carrot. I stopped for another look. Six enormous striped caterpillars were lounging in its curly foliage, which had obviously become their bed and breakfast.
My first thought was how gorgeous they were. The sight brought back good memories of childhood, of those endless summer days when I spent hours tracking the tiny creatures that lived in our backyard.
Next, though, came a vision of these particular caterpillars chomping their way through every plant on the berm. I put on my gardening gloves and gingerly dropped their chubby bodies into a cardboard box. First I took them in the house to show David. He was fascinated. Then I carried them to the alley and rolled them out into the weeds.
“Here,” I told them. “You can eat these.”
Back in the house, I googled “caterpillar black and green stripes with orange dots.” Amazingly, I got an immediate answer. If life went well for them, our chubby plant-eaters would turn into Black Eastern Swallowtails.
I showed David the picture. “I’ve seen those around,” I said. “They’re beautiful butterflies.”
But according to the website, they’re extremely picky eaters. The alley weeds are not on their diet. Moon carrot is. I put on my gloves again, searched through the weeds until I found all six, and returned them to their B & B.
Over the next few days, they disappeared one by one. From a bird’s point of view, they would make a scrumptious mouthful, but we hoped they’d instead gone off to pupate. Since it was so late in the season, they would build their chrysalises, wait out the winter as pupae, and emerge from this odd and wonderful sleep in May or June.
“That’ll be fun,” I told David. “Next spring we’ll have to watch for the butterflies.”
The next morning, I found a chrysalis glued to the inside half-wall of our little stone outbuilding. David wanted to see it, but his wheelchair doesn’t fit through the opening, and it’s hard for him to safely make the step down on foot. He asked me to take a picture.
“I’ll do it later today,” I said. “When the light’s better.”
He hesitated. “Would you take it soon? This sounds ridiculous, but I feel sort of urgent.”
So I took the camera outdoors and stepped into the little building. Near the top of the half-wall, a few inches above the chrysalis, a glossy black butterfly with dots of bright color clung to the wall.
It’s the mother, I thought, coming to check on her baby. I’d had no idea Black Eastern Swallowtails had such maternal sentiments.
Then, of course, I got it. The chrysalis a few inches below looked different now, smaller and crispier. The butterfly, slowly opening and closing her wings in the morning light, was much too big to have emerged from that tiny husk. But she had.
When I ran inside, David said, “You were gone a long time.” He was already smiling. As I held the camera out to show the image captured there, his eyes lit and he said, “I just had a feeling….”
I went out a few minutes later, and the butterfly had flown.