Swallowtail Surprise

Today’s Back Porch Nature: a surprise Swallowtail!
It was fluttering inside the Southwest corner of our screened porch, trying to get out. I have no idea where the chrysalis was hidden all winter, but it was somewhere among my Show ‘n’ Tell twigs and leaves and seeds and nests and other treasures.
If the porch was tidier, I’d probably find the telltale meconium stain from when the butterfly eclosed this morning.

Black Swallowtail, male.
If he was female, he’d have less yellow on top, but more blue.
I put him in a butterfly cage just long enough to show him to my family, and to get a picture for ID.

Today’s Black Swallowtail / Papilio polyxenes

As soon as I unzipped the cage, he flew out and up, then around the shed, and then over my neighbor’s roof.
They never stay long enough…

Host plants for Black Swallowtails are in the carrot family, so he probably spent his caterpillar summer on our parsley, or celery, or maybe the Golden Alexanders?
Right now, the Golden Alexanders is starting to bloom.
It’s a native perennial, it’s front-yard-pretty, and it spreads in a helpful (not aggressive) way, but last year I learned I’d need more vigorous Swallowtail hosts to take up the slack in summer and fall.

Golden Alexanders / Zizia aurea

“Host plants,” remember, are plants that “host” caterpillars. They are the *only* plants butterfly moms aim for when time to lay eggs.

Other host plants are culinary herbs like dill, fennel, cilantro, plus the exotic Queen Anne’s lace. Poison Hemlock, too, but we should cut that one down (while wearing gloves) and kill it asap.
Another host plant, though not in the carrot family, is common rue (Ruta graveolens). (Actually, we should wear gloves with this one too, as it can cause allergic reactions in the susceptible.)

But my favorite host plant, and the easiest and cheapest is…
a celery butt.

Your butt can make butterflies!
By which I mean the butt of your bunch of celery.
Just cut it off, put in a bowl of water, let it start roots, and then plant it in a pot or bed.
You won’t grow a new celery stalk, but you can grow butterflies, IF a female Black Swallowtail lands on it, tastes the celery, and lays an egg.

See my post about celery butts: “Instant Butterfly Garden, from Scraps.”

The only other host plant in our yard right now is the native “weed,” Southern chervil, which is just getting started. It magically appears in spring, gets fluffy, blooms tiny white flowers, sets seed, and then disappears in summer. Since it is a short-lived annual, I let it stay wherever I find it. (Chaerophyllum tainturieri)
You might have this in your yard right now, too.
Here’s what mine looks like right now, in late March:

Southern chervil

Today’s butterfly is another reason why it’s better to be a little messy.
When caterpillars are ready to pupate, many of them leave their host plants to make their chrysalis “off-site,” which could be halfway across the yard,
on a twig,
on a stalk,
on a pot.
Or in the porch!

P.S. Note the funnel weaver spider web in the pic above. Funnel spiders (Agelenopsis) sit in the neck of the funnel and wait for prey. I leave them alone, as they are interesting to watch, and they catch lots of bugs that would otherwise come inside the house. But I’m glad I caught my Swallowtail before the spider did.


My Celery Butt (and Carrot Butt) instant butterfly garden info, here.

Southern Chervil at Ladybird Johnson Wildflower database, here.

Golden Alexanders at the same database, here.

Black Swallowtail info at the Univ. of Florida Dept. of Entomology, here.

Butterflies of Tennessee: Field and Garden, by Rita Venable. I HIGHLY recommend this book. And if you see Rita’s name on a speaker’s schedule for an event, go! Her website is here.


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Joanna Brichetto is a naturalist and writer in Nashville, the hackberry-tree capital of the world.
She writes about everyday marvels amid everyday habitat loss at SidewalkNature.com and on Instagram (@Jo_Brichetto); and her essays have appeared in Creative NonfictionBrevity, Fourth Genre, Hippocampus, The Hopper, Flyway, The Common, City Creatures, The Fourth River, and other journals. An almanac of urban nature encounters is forthcoming.

2 thoughts on “Swallowtail Surprise

  1. I was happy to see you mention Queen Anne’s lace since it grows wild in our area. Lovely pics of the swallowtail. Sadly we don’t seem to be seeing as many butterflies lately. 🥴

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