From Pest to a Beautiful Garden Visitor


One morning while walking the garden, I noticed what looked like bird poop on one of my lemon tree leaves. My eagle eyes usually don’t miss even the smallest of changes to my garden! When I leaned in to get a closer look, I realized that it wasn’t poop at all, but a small caterpillar.

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Now, I had just planted this tree not more than a month ago, so I knew that it wasn’t established yet. I couldn’t allow it to be attacked in its weakened state, but I didn’t want to just squish this guy without knowing what it was and if it would have friends or not. So I snapped a quick photo and went in do some research on the interwebs. The Google was able to help me. Thank you the Google.

It turns out that, while they are an invasive species and can do some serious damage to your citrus trees, they are the larval stage of the giant swallowtail butterfly. One of the largest species in North America. I decided to not dispatch of the intruder, but instead bring her inside to be raised in captivity until it has metamorphosed into her full potential.

A possibly foolish endeavor because it can only serve to harm my lemon and orange tree in the future. Regardless, my interest was piqued beyond the risks. The caterpillar has an interesting defensive mechanism where when threatened it pokes out these little red antlers that emit a foul smell and taste. It smells like rancid butter.

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Gross right? Yet fascinating. So I put it in my cage built for odd insects and fed it clippings from my Satsuma orange tree (which needed pruning anyways). After a week or two, it formed its chrysalis and then one morning I peeked in and saw this…

Swallowtail

My little girl was all grown up and ready to be released. Here she is right before taking flight to go lay more eggs on my lemon tree and start the process all over again.

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It may have been foolish to do this, but I like to maintain the policy that all creatures are welcome in my garden. Watching her take flight and flutter around the yard made it all worth it. Now whenever I see a giant swallowtail dancing around my waterfall, I can’t help but wonder if it’s this little girl saying hello and thank you. I can’t get too mad when I’ve created a little oasis and have to share it with these little visitors. Even when they are considered pests. They add depth and richness to the whole gardening experience and now that I know what to look for on my citrus leaves, I feel that I can keep a handle on any future invasions.

I’ve found that when we try to control nature, we only end up poisoning ourselves in the process. My laid back attitude towards pests may have caused me to lose some of my crops but the ones I keep are free from any and all pesticides, so I feel its a positive trade off.

Here’s a good example. I’ve been growing millet for the past two years as an alternative to wheat. I find it delicious and nutty and it pops like little itty bitty popcorn when fried in olive oil. Scrumptious! This year, however, my entire crop has been decimated by this fella.

Bill the Parakeet
Bill the Parakeet

I call him Bill after the parakeet in Kurt Vonnegut’s book Breakfast of Champions. He has single handedly eaten all of my millet and left me none. But, when I see him taking his morning baths in the waterfall the cuteness factor goes through the roof and I forgive his gluttony. He, like the swallowtail, adds to the beauty of my little paradise. It’s the attention I put into these plants and landscaping that brings all the fauna to the yard. When I first bought the house, I only had stray cats and dust. Now while I write this, I can hear a chorus of bird song coming in from the window. That and the weird noises that the pig is making right now.


0 Replies to “From Pest to a Beautiful Garden Visitor”

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed your write-up, a lovely attitude of course and totally agree. What a most beautiful butterfly eventually. I’ve done this in the past but so far only got moths, mind you beautiful moths and interesting too.

    1. Dear Agnes,

      It’s always good to find a kindred spirit! There’s always a fine line that is walked when it comes to “pests” in the garden. Pests imply that you are taking ownership of your land instead of sharing it with all the critters that are drawn to your little oasis. If it pleases and draws you, then it pleases and draws them as well. I try my best to walk that line on the side of humility and gentleness. Except with gophers. It’s personal with them;)

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