The Littlest Giant

If you’ve been following the story of my caterpillars, you know that I’ve been awaiting the emergence of multiple butterfly species from their cozy little chrysalises.

giantswallowb05-30-11.jpgAnd yesterday, to my delight, I found a freshly-emerged Giant Swallowtail, wings still damp and slightly droopy. I let it dry for awhile inside the hotel until it looked a little more ready to venture into the world. Then I let it crawl onto my finger, and together we headed into the garden to find it a perfect flower for a little nectar. A Purple Coneflower seemed just the spot.


What a cute and dainty thing — this is by far the smallest Giant Swallowtail I’ve ever seen! I’m going to estimate it at about 4 inches wing-to-wing (the largest ones are over 6 inches wing-to-wing).

giantswallowi05-30-11.jpgDon’t be fooled by the pictures — it might look big in the images, but it’s resting on small blooms.



Being small doesn’t make it any less than absolutely perfect.


After a few minutes, I watched the butterfly take its first flight. And just like that, it was gone!

Our latest Gulf Fritillary emerged the day before the littlest Giant.


Do you see the red stain on the mesh? That’s liquid metabolic waste, or meconium, leftover from the pupal stage — the new butterfly expels it after leaving the chrysalis. I’ll have to clean the mesh with care — I don’t want to accidentally wash off one of the other chrysalises inside the caterpillar hotel.


Moments shared with a butterfly are priceless.


We still have lots of chrysalises and hungry caterpillars in the hotel. It’s a good thing I have no immediate vacation plans. The Two-Tailed Swallowtails haven’t yet emerged — I fully expect them not to do so for a few months, at least. How surprisingly different butterfly species can be!

Enter the Skeksis

Poor little bald cardinal, photographed during an unfortunate, yet temporary, loss of head feathers.

GSmoltingb05-27-11.jpgI feel a little guilty for posting such embarrassing photos, but it’s so fascinating. He’s our little Skeksis. I did feel bad for him, though, when another male cardinal showed up next to him in full gorgeous plumage.


Don’t worry, Mr. Cardinal — your feathers will grow back soon!

Raising Two Swallowtail Species from Egg to Chrysalis

Raising caterpillars has become a favorite side hobby of mine. I grow native host plants for many different species of butterflies to lay their eggs on, and most of the time, the caterpillars are on their own in the garden. But some butterflies only lay a few eggs at most, and I like to give the caterpillars a safe area where they can eat and grow, and grow and eat, without fear of becoming another animal’s lunch.

twotailedcat04-26-11.jpgHere in Central Texas, some of the best known butterflies are those in the Swallowtail family — they are large, beautiful, and quite mesmerizing as they flutter around the garden or into the woodlands. Two of my favorite species use the same host plant, the Wafer Ash, or Hop Tree (Ptelea trifoliata). They are the Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes), seen at the end of this post, and the Two-Tailed Swallowtail (Papilio multicaudata), the latter bearing a remarkable resemblance to the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.

In the above picture and next several photos, you can see the different stages of the Two-Tailed Swallowtail caterpillars. Caterpillar growth stages are called instars. The Two-Tailed’s fifth instar stage is its final one.


When the caterpillar is young, it looks a little like bird droppings, as do many other caterpillars in the Swallowtail family.



But in the transition to fifth instar, the caterpillar changes dramatically to a beautiful lime green color, with eye spots and a black band.

twotailedcatb04-26-11.jpgThis early fifth-instar caterpillar is showing its osmeterium, a defensive response of a Swallowtail caterpillars when they feel threatened. I discourage anyone from deliberately stressing a Swallowtail caterpillar to make it show its osmeterium. This caterpillar only showed its osmeterium because I was nudging it to move to fresh foliage. You can tell the caterpillar is an early fifth instar because evidence of its once-white saddle is still visible on its back — in time the saddle area will be as green as the rest of the caterpillar.


Another early fifth instar shows its somewhat mottled coloration as it transitions to full green.

A late fifth instar turns brown, and then the quest is on for an ideal, secluded chrysalis spot.

twotailedcatfeet05-03-11.jpgIts nifty feet will transport the caterpillar quickly. I never tire of watching the movements of a caterpillar.


The Two-Tailed Swallowtail can take many months before it emerges from its chrysalis. So don’t hold your breath for a photo any time soon! But I look forward to that follow-up post.

Moving on to the Giant Swallowtail, I get to start first with the eggs this time. A Giant Swallowtail egg is a tiny orange sphere that darkens with time. There are two in the image below. Guess which one hatched first.

raisingcaterpillarseggs05-07-11.jpgNote the foliage setup at this point — I collected the leaves with eggs and placed the petioles in a little floral water tube, making sure there were plenty of extra leaves to fill the space in the hole. The advantage to this is that the eggs and tiny caterpillars get their own area in the Caterpillar Hotel — the larger Swallowtail caterpillars would eat the eggs (and baby caterpillars) if they ran across them on their leaves, so it’s best to keep the “nursery” leaves out of their reach.

tinygiantswall05-09-11.jpgWhen the baby caterpillar emerges from the egg, it consumes the remaining shell before getting its first taste of the host plant. Can you see the tiny caterpillar as well as the second egg?

giantswallcatsb05-22-11.jpgAlmost two weeks later, the first caterpillar is about 1/2-inch long, and the second egg’s caterpillar is now the tiny one — both officially are looking like bird poop. They are just a few days apart in age. FYI, even though I grouped them for the photo, it’s best to keep young caterpillars separated if you can. They sometimes don’t play nicely if they happen upon one another.


A slightly larger Giant Swallowtail really exhibits that bird poop look.

The final instar means its time to go to chrysalis.

Up to the top of the hotel the caterpillar climbs. The hotel is getting as crowded as if it were SXSW in Austin.

2chrysalisl05-22-11.jpgHere are the two species’ chrysalises side by side. Remarkably different, eh?

And as another comparison, here are the Giant and Two-Tailed caterpillars side by side.


Note the difference in coloration, particularly at the end of the caterpillars. The Giant has two large areas of white, while the Two-Tailed primarily has just the saddle on its back.

We have one more species in the hotel right now — not a swallowtail, but a Gulf Fritillary.

gulffritchrys05-22-11.jpgNormally we have many, many Gulf Fritillary caterpillars on the Passionvine, but I happened to be out by the vine when I saw a hunting wasp getting really close to this one. I had to save the little guy, and within a day it went to chrysalis in the hotel.

The Caterpillar Hotel is simply a collapsible mesh laundry hamper. There are some very nice butterfly tents on the market, including ones with side openings, but the laundry basket was only $10 and thus much more reasonable for the budget-minded.


If you look inside, you can see the different methods I’ve experimented with for keeping the foliage fresh. Aside from using the floral water tube for small caterpillars and eggs on single leaves or leaflets, I like sticking leaf stalks and branches directly into damp soil. The leaves stay fresh, it’s easy to add water or replace foliage, and the caterpillars can crawl safely over the surface.

I can’t recommend the jar of water with a plastic wrap cover (held by a rubber band with foliage stalks or branches poking through a hole in the center). If the hole rips too wide, a caterpillar could fall into the water. I almost had two caterpillars drown when they got zealous in their foliage feasting and fell into the water — luckily I saw them in time (barely) and they survived (and are in chrysalis stage as I write this). Needless to say, I don’t use the jar method anymore. I also don’t like to place leaves in a bowl with little caterpillars — the leaves dry out too fast. Floral water tubes and damp soil in a planter are it for me now!

I’ll continue to play nanny to the young caterpillars, protect the chrysalises, and patiently wait for new butterflies to emerge in the Caterpillar Hotel.


Someday, if all goes well, I’ll have giant Giants (like the one above) and Two-Tails with two tails to introduce to the world!

Striking Artichoke Flowers and Rain Visit the Garden

I was out working in the garden this afternoon when I was happily driven back inside by RAIN! 

mxredbud05-17-11.jpgI stopped to do my happy rain dance, then I figured I might as well take a moment to finish the blog post I started yesterday. So…

I grew artichokes… again. I didn’t manage to eat them… again. I missed that window between “not ready to be harvested” and “you blew it, the ideal picking time is over.” I can’t remember what was going on– maybe Earth Week (busy at my son’s school) — but whatever it was, the artichokes declined to postpone their harvest date for me. However, sometimes such vegetable garden tragedies can lead to something good.

In this case, I discovered that artichokes left to flower produce a gigantic lavender bloom worthy of their prehistoric-looking foliage.

GSartichokeflowerb05-17-11.jpgIt’s giant, it’s purple, it’s spectacular, and it’s in my garden! The bees love it. They dig deep past the petals to reach the pollen, and their cute little bee butts stick out. I wish I’d caught a picture.

GSmonarchonmistflower05-17-11.jpgA lone male monarch stopped by — I was glad to be able to offer it nectar beverages, as its wings were not in the best of shape. It looked like the wings had been that way since emerging from the chrysalis. Poor thing, that must make flying long distances a challenge.


Above, the monarch rests on Purple Coneflower, which are the tallest they ever been, not that you can tell from the picture. But I know this to be true — third year’s a charm!

The hummingbirds are busy, busy. They are in full feisty mode, with the males going at each other to lay claim on the feeders, while the females sneak in for a drink.


We hung a new feeder on the patio — it’s so pleasant to sit and relax and have the hummers come hang out with us.


We’ve had numerous fledglings visiting the feeders. This young male cardinal is rather mottled-looking as it transitions to its bright red colors.

cardinal05-17-11.jpgSee its dark beak? Baby cardinals’ beaks start out dark, then become orange as they get a little older.

Our baby owl has fledged, by the way. We knew that Screech Owls fledge soon after they appear at a cavity’s entrance, but that didn’t stop us from hoping our little cutie would hang around for awhile. Here’s the last picture I took of it on the day it fledged.

GSscreechowlbaby05-17-11.jpgFly well, little Screech Owl!

Frogzilla Lurks

Any insects visiting our pond for a drink better best beware — if they choose their landing spot poorly, they’ll probably become lunch. Our pond, lovely though it is, is home to several amphibious lurkers, and these frogs are quite patient as they wait for their next meal.

bullfroga05-17-11.jpgFrogzilla is our largest bullfrog, and she’s clever, oh so clever. She decided that rather than attempt to catch insects by floating in the pond with the other frogs, she’d instead lay claim to the waterfall.


I wouldn’t mind this so much, except suddenly our songbirds are at risk for being on the menu. The waterfall is a favorite drinking and bathing spot for our birds.


Depending on where she chooses to rest, she is well camouflaged. Sometimes I don’t notice her myself, unless I venture too close and she suddenly jumps into the pond.

bullfrogc05-17-11.jpgWhen she’s back in the hot-tub pond, she takes advantage of special observation spots.



Frogzilla might be a little scary in the aquatic world, but you can tell she’s been a favorite photographic subject of mine. Do you see the leopard frog with her in the photo above?


I’m so glad I’m not bite-sized.


Our Baby Owl

Like expectant grandparents, we’ve been eagerly keeping an eye on our owl house for two months or so. We’ve had an owl watching us almost every day, and I even went so far as to complain about how she didn’t ever do anything except watch us every day.


Because she never seemed to move, we couldn’t really predict whether she had a baby in the box with her. We also never noticed a second owl around, no matter how hard we tried to search for it. We were starting to think we’d built a bachelor(ette) pad instead of an owl nursery.

As it turns out, our resident owl was, in fact, taking care of her young. Today we got our first real glimpse of her baby.


The little one was definitely skittish, so I took my time approaching it for its first photo op.


It’s already sporting some tufts. From what I’ve read, we should expect it to fledge fairly quickly.


Could there be another baby or two in the nesting box? Whoooo knows? But we’ll be on the lookout!

Almost Entirely Not Garden-Related

Our puppy Grover (3 years old now) had a special reunion today with his (real) mother and brother. Mary, the black and white dog in the middle, gave birth to an astonishing 13 puppies in December 2008, all of which were utterly adorable and quite assorted in appearance. We were the lucky fosterers and then adopters of our delightful Grover, who clearly gets his build from his mama (the dog one). His brother Tank looks much different but is just as sweet as his mom and Grover.


How this post IS garden-related is that without Mary, we wouldn’t have Grover poop in our yard and our plants wouldn’t regularly get trampled by Grover wrestling in play with our two other dogs. Plus, clearly in the picture above, the dogs are on grass, and grass happens to be a plant type. Garden enough for me!

Gardens on Tour, 2011

This last weekend I had the pleasure of visiting the five homes highlighted on this year’s Gardens on Tour, an annual event sponsored by the Wildflower Center. Native plants and sustainability are always a primary factor in selecting the gardens for this tour, but I found myself as much inspired by the creative use of stone as I was by the different plants and other garden features.

Fellow Austin garden blogger Caroline of Shovel-Ready Garden joined me for the tour. Our first stop was at a Westlake Hills home that overlooks Austin’s green, rolling hills. The most notable feature was out front, a striking combination of the aptly-named Mexican Feathergrass, various agaves, and Salvia leucantha. Caroline remarked that she wanted to run through all that Feathergrass — I knew the feeling, loving the way the wispy grass caught both the breeze and the sunlight.

I was quite fond of the single clump growing out of a large boulder.


Our next stop proved to be a favorite for many a gardener. The homestyle offices of Tait Moring and their surrounding gardens top a mostly-natural 17-acre property. The landscaped areas offered so many clever and beautiful ideas that I’m certain I missed a lot. I liked that much of the cedar (Ashe Juniper) and rock used in the landscaping was collected directly from the larger property.

The unique stonework on the raised beds was just a taste of things to come.


This tank pond was a brilliant transition point from one level to another, and I love the combination of the stone exterior with the tank pond inside.


As you walk up to one of the lawn areas, two container-topped pedestals stand like sentries.


In selecting plants, the landscape designers used a combination of natives and non-natives, always experimenting to see what grows well.

GoT7b05-07-11.jpgAmong the greenery, this stone bench really stands out, as far as seats go.

I have always wanted a bubbling rock and am ever on the lookout for a rock that seems “just right.” Of course, drilling equipment would be handy, too.


If I could line my whole yard with a stone wall like this one, I would. Masterful placement of large and small rocks, fossils, glass, and stone art create a handsome partition.

On the other side, a window of sorts adds fantastic interest.


To get from one side to the other, you must pass under a cedar arch that provides the perfect overhead framing to a simple but tall cedar gate.


Loved it. Want it.

Moving on to Stratford Drive, another arch, this one more horn-like, commands the attention of visitors as they approach the property.


The archway leads visitors to the front of a dreamy, modern multi-story LEED-certified home set on a very rocky and unforgiving hillside.

A native-lined stream flows along the front of the house. Near its end is a beautiful metal gate, the design of which is repeated in other areas of the complex architecture.

Here is a view of the back of the house, which gets a fantastic view of the Austin cityscape, as seen in the gate photo above.

Note the very long rain chain that hangs from the jutting balcony.

The homeowners hired two design companies for much of their work, requesting sustainable landscape practices and a majority of native plants.


Two giant tanks collect roof water at the Stratford home. This tank was so big, I kept envisioning the opening scene of that old TV show, Petticoat Junction, where three young ladies take a dip in the town’s water tank, hanging their petticoats off the side. No petticoats here, though.

GoT4c05-07-11.jpgThe designers used different types of stone to create both formal and more naturalistic pathways. I loved the look of these stairs that descend the steep slope, but I’m curious what it’s like to walk on them fresh after a rain. My tuckus still aches after all these years since the last time I fell on stone steps.

GoT5c05-07-11.jpgDespite the obvious expense put toward the “natural elegance” of the property, I appreciated the presence of achievable touches that budget-bound folks like me can consider. This lovely container garden set upon a rock and wood pedestal is something I’m going to work on.

GoT6c05-07-11.jpgAnd though a pool isn’t something one can really call sustainable, I feel obligated to show a picture of the multi-tiered pool — a hot tub at the top feeds the waterfall which drips into the pool which flows into an additional level below (unseen in this picture). Wow.

Over at the Eanes Circle garden, visitors walked along river rock pathways that had the look but not the function of a dry streambed.


GoT2d05-07-11.jpgI found myself drawn to the Purple Coneflowers up front, along with the areas of Goldenrod, Buffalo Grass, and fading Bluebonnets, which had gone to seed but will be gorgeous again next year, I’m sure.

In the front, a rather large rock sat atop a tiled patio. As much as I love the use of rock in a garden, I confess that this one had me rather confused.

GoT3d05-07-11.jpgBelow the center hole is a small pond of sorts, but you can only see it if you look down upon it from above. The pump in there wasn’t strong enough to send the water upward out of the boulder as a fountain, but perhaps the pump was on a low setting, or maybe that wasn’t the intention at all. The wildlife gardener in me feared for any animal that made any sort of attempt to get to the water, assuming it might actually discover it — without an escape route built into the pond, the animal would likely drown. So, great potential for the unique and interesting rock, but as is, it didn’t work for me.

The final garden on the tour, with the exception of the Wildflower Center itself, was the Monroe house. Its dry streambed aids in drainage from the house, with dual bridges to the side doors — a steel grate as one, the other of stone.


Stone steps lead down the slope to the backyard, where a custom light arches over an outdoor table.


Two large tanks stand ready to collect rainwater. That’s a lot of water for the lower shaded garden — since most of the garden is upslope from the tanks, I’m curious how much of the water actually gets used.

Up at the front, Berkeley Sedges provide a lovely mounding alternative to a lawn. I definitely want to figure out a way to use sedges in my front yard — I love how they look.

GoT4e05-07-11.jpgThere’s that whimsy that always finds its way into Austin gardens! This one definitely qualifies as “different.”

Caroline, I’m so glad for your company on this tour, and to all the homeowners and the Wildflower Center, thanks for making this possible. I am much inspired!

Meet the Crimson Patch

 We’ve been raising caterpillars again. With the severe lack of rain, I’m feeling concerned about Texas butterflies this year — we’ve had a definite drop in butterfly numbers, and it doesn’t help that wasps have been plentiful and on a very big caterpillar hunt lately. So the Caterpillar Hotel is back in business!


A Crimson Patch Caterpillar rests on a Flame Acanthus leaf.

At last month’s Austin Butterfly Forum meeting, the subject of the evening was the very same — raising caterpillars. Some members kindly brought caterpillars in for show and tell, and they offered to share the caterpillars with those who had the proper host plants at home. That’s how we came to have Crimson Patch caterpillars to raise — we have plenty of Flame Acanthus, their host plant. I don’t know whether these beautiful butterflies have visited our garden before — we often see the similar Bordered Patch butterflies (seen in the Caterpillar Hotel link above), but the Crimson Patch (Chlosyne janais) is recently extending its range into Central Texas. It is more commonly found in South Texas. Regardless, I hope these young ones will stay.


Crimson Patch caterpillars are relatively small; they are whitish-gray in color with black spines. As small as they are, they can quickly be lost as they wander off to form their chrysalis or to molt as they develop. Our first two caterpillars formed yellow chrysalises — the one above has a “clear” area on the chrysalis, but the butterfly emerged just fine. We have another chrysalis that is more white-gray in color — such variations are normal.


It only took about 8 days for our first Crimsons to emerge from their chrysalises. The shells left behind were just as beautiful as the newly formed ones.

And here is the adult Crimson Patch, still drying its wings after we moved it to a Texas Lantana for nearby nectar.


The dorsal hindwings sport the spots for which the Crimson Patch gets its name, though the patches are more red-orange than actual crimson in color (in contrast to the “spots,” the Bordered Patch’s red-orange color extends as a band across the upperside).


We’re looking forward to releasing the next set of Crimson Patch butterflies soon. Do stay tuned for some other very special caterpillars in our Caterpillar Hotel!

Wildlife Spotted… and Spotted Wildlife

Say what?!!

screech05-11.jpgThat owl up there is driving us crazy, though I’m sure it would say the same about us. All day long it sticks its head out of the nesting-box hole and does NOTHING. Nothing except occasionally stick its head out farther to see what we’re up to in the yard (which usually is us sticking our heads around trees to see what the owl is doing). Just go ahead and show us some baby owlets or bring in a rat or make an eerie screech owl noise or something, would you? We’re so happy our screech owl is here, but it’s just weird that it hangs out of the hole all day long.

GSfrog05-02-11.jpgThat being said, I have a feeling I’ve been unnecessarily blaming our frogs for causing the odd shortage of our once-abundant toads. Most likely I should be blaming the screech owl. After all, we’ve apparently set up a rather nice buffet table for the owl, which watches over the pond from its vantage point up in the nesting box. The male toads come out at night, innocently croaking loudly to attract a potential mate, and it’s just possible that their call instead acts like a beacon to bring the silent predator from above right to them.

Check out who this green frog is watching — someone better be careful!

Of course, it’s entirely possible the pond frogs really are to blame — they are certainly not above cannibalizing (toads are actually frogs, you know, and frogs will eat frogs). It appears we have created the ultimate frog haven in our hot-tub pond. The frogs spread themselves out across the water (so as to not get too close to their hungry neighbor, I assume), and then they wait for whatever moving morsel dares to venture close. I’m still trying to determine the species we have — at the very least, we have both American Bullfrogs and Southern Leopard frogs, but the markings are odd on a couple of them.

And they are all getting big. The largest bullfrog is getting downright scary (cue “Jaws” music).


bullfrogd05-02-11.jpgI still have to get in the pond to get acorns and such out of it — my spring cleaning is way overdue — don’t I look forward to it with Gigantic Freaka-Frogazoid there joining me! I’m just kidding — I love frogs.

checkeredgarter04-30-11.jpgOf course, also on the toad hunt might be this Checkered Garter Snake — it has a perfect waiting spot among the pond rocks. Our garden habitat is an ecosystem at work, that’s for sure. All the same, I suggest all toads immediately head to our front-yard pond. It’s smaller, but a little toad-safer for the time being. 

Here’s one toad we found alive and well — hop and hide, little one! Hop and hide!



Nearby, a cardinal flew in for a seed and a close-up. Blue Jays splash in the birdbaths, hummingbirds dance in sync together, doves play follow-the-leader… and still our screech owl sits in its nesting-box hole.

All around town, the wildlife and native plants are doing their best to handle drought conditions. Check out this beauty seen at McKinney Roughs — it’s a Great Purple Hairstreak.

greatpurple05-02-11.jpgDon’t see any purple on it? That’s because there isn’t any. By the way, this little beauty’s host plant is Mistletoe — consider it a plus side to the parasitic plant.

This next image is of a beautiful little Southern Emerald Moth — however, its wings were up instead of laying flat, and it didn’t seem able to fly, poor thing. This is the second time I’ve seen this moth in the same condition at the same locale, Hornsby Bend.

southernemeraldb04-30-11.jpgThe Retamas (also called Jerusalem Thorn) lining the ponds at Hornsby Bend are in full bloom right now. These airy-yet-thorny native Texas plants tend to spread when they get plenty of water, but the bees and birds sure love them. It’s understandable. Beautiful yellow blooms and thorns for protection — sounds great to me.

retama04-30-11.jpgBees, generally speaking, do love the color yellow. Bees visiting Prickly Pear blossoms go a little crazy with it — they act almost drunk.

pricklypearb04-23-11.jpgBut the winner of the bee-attracting flowers right now is the blooming century plant down at Natural Gardener.

centurya04-30-11.jpgI think several hives of honeybees came to visit.


Too bad I couldn’t climb up there to get a closer look. To put the height in perspective, take a look at this:


Time to get back out in the garden while the temperatures are still pleasant with our temporary cold front — hopefully more wildlife will join me!