Tag Archives: Butterfly Bush


Ripe vessels of beauty promised –  for both the flowers, and pollinators attracted

Beginning in September and through the month of October is the best time of year to collect Common Milkweed seed pods. The packets are usually ripe, or near fully ripened, and many have already begun to split open.

An easy way to separate the floss from the seeds is gently pop open the pod and grab the tip of the floss at the tip of the pod. Hold the pod over a bowl and slide your fingers over the seeds. The seeds will fall away and you are left holding the floss. The floss stays relatively intact and is easier to discard, rather than floating everywhere, including your nose 🙂 To prevent skin irritation, always wash your hands after handling milkweed.

Either scatter your seeds now, or store in a paper, not plastic, bag. If you decide to plant now, choose a location that gets at least a half day of sun. Lightly scratch the surface where you intend to plant, sprinkle the seeds over the cultivated area, and cover with a 1/4 inch layer of soil.

If planning to plant in the spring, the seeds must experience a period of cold for at least six weeks. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator six to eight weeks prior to planting. This is called “cold stratification.”

Saturday I spent the afternoon looking for seeds for a special friend of a special milkweed I’d come across several years earlier. It blooms in a royal rich purplish magenta and is a mecca for many species of butterflies and bees. The mystery milkweed grows in a field where the farmer usually mows  before the milkweed has gone to seed. Not this year and I was able to collect a bunch!

Much to my surprise and delight, I found more than seeds! From across this grand meadow, I spied a solitary caterpillar. How extraordinary that he/she has been able to survive living in the wild this late into October and is only due to the wonderful late season warmth we have been experiencing. With temperatures expected to drop down in the 40s later this week, I gently carried the caterpillar back to my car and brought him home. He never stopped eating while transporting and he is continuing to chow down nearly nonstop. Perhaps he knows he is in a race against time.

Mid-October Monarch Sightings!

Monarch friend Alessandra shares her Monarch sighting from north Providence, Rhode Island.

And her friend Casey shares a photo from Woonsocket, RI. Many thanks to Alessandra and Casey for sending photos!

There were two at the EP lighthouse on Saturday and one in my garden on Sunday. My friend Lillian shares from her garden in the the Niles Beach area that she had 3 – 5 Monarchs last Monday and Tuesday, 1 – 3 Monarchs on Wednesday and Thursday. Hers, as was mine, as well as our RI friends, were all drinking nectar from Butterfly Bushes.

Monarch Friends at Point Pelee are still reporting hundreds migrating through, which portends a possible late wave along the Atlantic Coast as well.

Fundraising Update – We are in the final two weeks of fundraising to bring Beauty on the Wing to American Public Television. If you have thought about giving a contribution and have not yet done so, please consider making a tax deductible donation or becoming an underwriter to bring our Monarch Butterfly documentary Beauty on the Wing: Life Story of the Monarch Butterfly to PBS. To Learn More go here and to DONATE go hereThank you!

An added note – for any person or organization contributing over $1,000.00, your name will be at the beginning and end credits each and every time the documentary airs nationwide! For contributions of $5,000.00 or more, your organization’s logo will be featured in the credits. For more information, please feel free to contact me.

With gratitude and deep appreciation to the following for their generous contributions to Beauty on the Wing –

Lauren Mercadante, New England Biolabs, Jonathan and Sally Golding, James Masciarelli, Pete and Bobbi Kovner, Joeann Hart and Gordon Baird, Karrie Klaus (Boston), Sally Jackson, Marion Frost (Ipswich), Heidi and John Shiver (Pennsylvania), Marty and Russ Coleman, Joy Van Buskirk (Florida), Lillian and Craig Olmstead, Suki and Fil Agusti (Rockport), Janis Bell, Nina Groppo, Nubar Alexanian, Marguerite Matera, Claudia Bermudez, Thomas Hauck, Judith Foley (Woburn), Jane Paznik-Bondarin (New York), Paul Vassallo (Beverly), Stella Martin, Liv Hauck (California), Julia Williams Robinson (Minnesota), Cynthia Dunn, Diane Gustin, John Ronan, Karen Maslow, Fernando Arriaga (Mexico City), Holly Nipperus (Arizona), Kristina Gale (California), Maggie Debbie, Kate and Peter Van Demark (Rockport), Mia Nehme (Beverly), Chicki Hollet, Alice Gardner (Beverly), Therese Desmarais (Rockport), Jennie Meyer, Kathy Gerdon Archer (Beverly), Melissa Weigand (Salem), Duncan Todd (Lexington), Catherine Ryan, Linda Bouchard (Danvers), Elaine Mosesian, Paul Wegzyn (Ipswich), Catherine Bayliss, Alessandra Borges (Rhode Island), Jan Waldman (Swampscott), Carolyn Constable (Pennsylvania), Nancy Mattern (New Mexico), Ian Gardiner, Judy Arisman, Tom Schaefer, Margaret Thompson, Edward DeJesus (Maryland), Kim Tieger (Manchester), Mary Weissblum, Nancy Leavitt, Susan Pollack, Alice and David Gardner (Beverly), Kristina and Gene Martin, Gail and Thomas Pease (Beverly), Carol and Duncan Ballantyne (Beverly), Sharon Byrne Kashida, Eric Hutchins and Julia McMahon, C. Lovgren, Joan Keefe, Linda Kaplan, Mary Rhinelander

Welcome Oh Great Spangled Fritillary!

Great Spangled Fritillary Butterfly

Singularly beautiful—large and rounded with tawny orange wings checkered with black dots and dashes—when observed from above. When wings are folded, this fritillary shows a striking underwing pattern of spangled spots, bordered by a wide yellow band and outlined in iridescent crescents. Perhaps the Great Spangled Fritillary has graced your garden. I had never encountered this creature of extraordinary beauty until the summer after we planted violets dug from a wildly unkempt cemetery. They were native common violets (Viola sororia). I don’t recommend the common violet for a small garden, unless you desire a garden composed entirely of common violets. Please don’t misunderstand; I do not regret planting V. sororia because otherwise I may never have encountered the Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele). No, I am glad to have welcomed this beauty to our garden. There are, however, far better behaved violets that are of equal importance to the fritillary caterpillars and they would be a far better choice for the garden. Both native wildflowers Labrador violet (Viola labradorica) and Canada violet (Viola canadensis) naturalize readily, making rulier groundcovers than common violets, and are lovely when in bloom and when not in flower.

O wind, where have you been,

That you blow so sweet?

Among the violets

Which blossom at your feet.

The honeysuckle waits

For Summer and for heat

But violets in the chilly Spring

Make the turf so sweet.

—Christina Rossetti (1830—1894)

The Great Spangled Fritillary is found throughout New England and its range extends from southern British Columbia and central Alberta, east across southern Canada and the central US to the Atlantic seaboard. It is one of three Greater Fritillaries found in our region, along with the Aphrodite and Atlantis Fritillaries. The wingspan of the Great Spangled Fritillary measures approximately three inches, compared to that of several of the smaller fritillaries found in our area, the Silver-bordered Fritillary and Meadow Fritillary, which measure about half as much. Its habitat is woodland openings, meadows, prairies, and other open habitats where violets and nectar plants such as common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), spotted Joe-pye weed, and ox-eye daisy are found.

Great Spangled Fritillary

Kingdom: Anilmalia (Animal)

Phylum: Arthropoda (Arthropods)

Class: Insecta (Insects)

Order: Lepidoptera (Butterflies, skippers, and moths)

Superfamily: Papilionoidea (Butterflies, excluding skippers)

Family: Nymphalidae (Brush-footed butterflies)

Subfamily: Heliconians

Genus: Speyeria

Species: cybele

Ancient cultures valued violets for their medicinal and aromatic properties. In art and literature they symbolize a widely varying range of human experiences from new life in spring to death and dying, young love, and frailty. The genus Viola comprises some 400 to 500 species, distributed around the world. Viola, often called pansies, violets, and heartsease, have been traditionally used to create perfumes, dyes, insecticides, soaps, expectorants, and analgesics for labor pain. The flowers and leaves of the violet plant make a delicious and nutritious addition to a garden salad; the leaves are rich in a variety of powerful chemicals including flavenoids, saponins, and glycosides.

The Greater Fritillaries have a unique and highly evolved association with violet plants. In late summer or early fall, the female oviposits eggs close to the ground on twigs or foliage near to, not necessarily on, a clump of violet plants. Newly emerged caterpillars crawl to the nearby hostplant. Rather than feed on the foliage, they nestle into the leaf litter at the base of the plant and enter diapause. For northern butterflies this behavior is thought to be an adaptation to cold weather since undigested food particles in the gut of a diapausing caterpillar would form ice crystals, thereby killing the larvae (Cech and Tudor). Diapause in insects is a physiological state of dormancy in response to predictable periods of adverse environmental conditions—winter in the case of the Greater Fritillaries.

Great Spangled Fritillary Butterfly

In early spring, the awakening caterpillars, which are black with black protruding spines dotted red at the base, feed on freshly emerging violet shoots. The caterpillars pupate, and after metamorphosis, in late spring or early summer, the male Greater Fritillary butterflies begin to emerge, well before the females. Active courtship ensues once the females emerge. The females typically mate once, after which the males die off. The females live on during the summer in a temporary state of reproductive diapause, until ovipositing eggs in the late summer or early fall. Typically the Great Spangled Fritillaries that we encounter at this time of year are the females.

While photographing Great Spangled Fritillaries at high noon I noticed that the iridescence was quite apparent, although only showing for a fraction of a second. The photo below illustrates clearly the structural iridescent scales (or “spangles”). What the photo does not show is that the large whitish-looking spots also have iridescent hues of pearly pinkish-bluish-greenish.

Great Spangled Fritillary Butterfly

Iridescence in Butterfly Wings

Butterflies, moths, and skippers are members of the insect order Lepidoptera; the name is derived from Greek lepidos for “scales” and ptera for “wings.” Their scaled wings distinguish them as a group from all other insects. Unrivalled in the living world, their wings are adorned with myriad patterns and solid colors in the full spectrum of the rainbow, as well as pure iridescent hues of blue, green, and violet.

The foundation of the Lepidoptera wing consists of a colorless, translucent membrane supported by a framework of tubular veins, radiating from the base of the wing to the outer margin. They are covered with thousands of overlapping scales, arranged very much like overlapping shingles on a roof. Like miniature canoe paddles, the scales are attached to the wings by their “handles.” So small that they feel like and are a similar size to the silky granules of face powder, their purpose is multi-fold. Scales protect and act as an aid to the aerodynamics of the entire wing structure, help regulate Lepidoptera temperature, and are the cells from which color and patterns originate. This color and patterning are used for sexual signaling and as a means of eluding birds and other would-be predators.

There are two fundamental mechanisms by which color is produced on the wings of Lepidoptera. Ordinary color is due to organic pigments present that absorb certain wavelengths and reflect others. Extraordinary iridescence on butterfly wings is caused by the interference of light waves due to multiple reflections within the physical structure of the individual scales. Iridescent scales are composed of many microscopic thin layers; each scale has its own color, from pigment present and from the diffraction of light on the surface (the surface of iridescent scales are intricately corrugated and grooved). The iridescent effect is created much like a prism and is called structural coloration. When viewed under a microscope, the iridescent scales of some species of butterflies have a similar appearance to that of the tiered layers of a pine tree. Sometimes structural color and pigmented color occur simultaneously and a secondary color is created in the usual way color is added. For example, when blue iridescent color is produced from the structure of a scale that also contains yellow pigment, the resulting color is iridescent green.

When Lepidoptera with iridescent scales fly, the surface of their wings continually change from brilliant hues to the underlying relatively duller scales of the wings, as the angle of light striking the wing changes. The ability of the Lepidoptera to rapidly change colors and patterns is one of their defense mechanisms against predators. Along with their undulating pattern of flight and the figure-eight movement of their wings, the effect is of ethereal flashes of light disappearing and reappearing.

Excerpt from Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities! Chapter 15 ~ Flowers of the Air, pages 130-131.