More swallowtails on the way

I found a swallowtail chrysalis on the bronze fennel they’ve devoured all summer.

swallowtail butterfly chrysalis

About one inch long, the length from the end of my thumb to the knuckle, it is held off the fennel stalk by two thin threads. I keep an eye on it every day.

It’s worth remembering to look carefully as you clean up the garden in late summer and early fall. I’m relieved I didn’t throw this into the compost pile. Instead, it remains at the end of my front walk, where I pass by it several times a day. Dragonflies perch above it, perhaps, like me, anticipating the big show.

blue dragonfly, species unknown

Backyard Blooms: Plants in flower this week

I’m taking a break this week, but here’s what’s blooming in my garden right now:

Stokesia laevis 'Peachie's Pick'

Stokesia laevis ‘Peachie’s Pick’ (‘Peachie’s Pick’ Stokes’ aster).

I’m not desperately keen on asters, but I like this one very much. Drought-tolerant, unbothered by insects or disease, it grows about 18 inches high and stays where it is put. It likes full sun or partial shade and asks virtually nothing of the gardener, although a little deadheading here and there improves its blooming.

An easy plant for the novice gardener, and a butterfly-friendly one at that.

The buffet is open

This little fellow, I am pretty sure, is Papilio polyxenes, the Black Swallowtail butterfly larva. k Swallowtail

caterpillar on rue 2

He’s feasting on rue,  Ruta graveolens. I grow lots of it in my garden because it is a favorite food source of these breathtaking insects.

Learn more at

My very hungry caterpillar(s)

(an homage to Eric Carle)

At some point last summer, a butterfly lay an egg on a leaf.

One morning, when I wasn’t watching, out of the egg came a tiny and very hungry caterpillar. Then his brother hatched. And his sister. And his other sister…

They started to look for some food.

On Monday they ate through one Rosa ‘Gertrude Jekyll.’ But they were still hungry.

very hungry caterpillars

On Tuesday, they ate through some gardenias. But they were still hungry.

gardenia 1

On Wednesday, they ate through three 6-foot Osmanthus. But they were still hungry.

osmanthus 3

On Thursday, they ate through a Heuchera. But they were still hungry.

heuchera 2

You know the rest of the story.

We all love butterflies. We want them to fill our gardens and delight our children and ourselves. But if we want them, we had better accept that we must also have caterpillars. As depressed as the chewed-up foliage leaves me, I won’t reach for any sprays. Soon they will be big, fat, sleepy caterpillars and I can pass some time with my kids finding cocoons. I grow several plants that are favorite hosts of different butterfly species: rue (Ruta graveolens), favored by the Old World swallowtail;  bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), favored by the Anise swallowtail; butterfly bush (Buddleja), Senna marilandica, Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum) and others. When caterpillar season is over I will cut off the decimated foliage, and wait for the butterflies to emerge.

Pollen season

I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but here in central North Carolina, it’s pollen season.

We skipped from winter to summer last week, and now that the oak leaves are filling out, pollen strings are everywhere. Even in my header.

Every morning I come out of the house to find a very fine layer of pollen on everything.

pollen car

Sedum ‘Postman’s Pride’ has a sickly greenish tinge.

pollen sedum

Venturing outside means becoming a pollen sponge. Any exposed surface, whether hands, hair, or clothing, collects the stuff and tracks it indoors. Walking through the garden, my feet turn yellow. I understand that people everywhere cope with pollen. My question is: Is it common, elsewhere in the world, to have visibility reduced because the pollen is so thick? I looked out the window the other day and could actually see clouds of it, raining down.

Rain fell briefly overnight. We get very excited about rain this time of year, because it washes everything clean, if only for a few minutes.

Pollen washing off my neighbor’s driveway.

Thomas Leo Ogren wrote a fantastic book called Allergy-Free Gardening: The Revolutionary Guide to Healthy Landscaping in which he argues that the landscaping and horticulture industries (and by extension, the gardening public) have contributed to an increase in allergy problems in recent years by promoting and overplanting male varieties of plants, which don’t have messy fruits but do produce copious amounts of pollen. Ogren conducted an astonishing amount of research on the pollen-producing habits of a wide variety of plants: the duration of pollen release; the shape of the flowers; the shape, stickiness, and weight of the pollen granules themselves. All his research culminated in his developing a scale called OPALS (Ogren Plant Allergy Scale), that ranks plants by their likelihood of triggering an allergic reaction in an individual.

Ogren also discusses the value of “right plant, right place,” in reducing the need for insecticides and herbicides, many of which can trigger allergies. The book is a fascinating read and one that can help individual gardeners tailor their own environments to ameliorate their symptoms. For myself, I learned to try to select female varieties of trees and shrubs when possible. I’ve decided what OPALS ranking I can live with in my own garden, and picked up some cultural practices than can limit my exposure to certain high-pollen producers. A bonus for those who select shrubs and perennials for their low OPALS values: Many of them, not coincidentally, are attractive to bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies.

Here is a link to Ogren’s website and further information about reducing allergy problems via smart gardening practices.