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Chosen wild edibles

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are among the largest butterflies. Photo by Mike Moran.
Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are among the largest butterflies. Photo by Mike Moran.

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Adult butterflies are general nectar feeders but their kids require carefully chosen wild edibles. One Michigan butterfly is a predator with its larva feeding on aphids but the rest are vegetarians. At Ody Brook the adult Harvester perches on sunlit leaves at the edge of a forest opening we call the Woodcock Circle. When we claimed responsibility for biodiversity enhancement, this small clearing was used by American Woodcocks for their mating display. A five-acre neighboring field was annually planted with field corn. Soon that acreage was allowed to return to wildflowers, shrubs, and trees to increase wildlife survival and woodcocks moved there. 

Caterpillars require a specialized diet with some needing a specific plant Species, Genus, or plant Family. Most will die if not able to utilize a unique diet. Referring to host plants means larval food plants. Without the correct larval foods, we cannot expect to experience the variety and beauty of scale winged adults known as Lepidoptera flitting about yards. The adults visit a broad variety of flowers with sweet nectar. 

One of the first butterflies in spring to eclose from an overwintering pupa is the sky-blue Spring Azure that is the size of a quarter. It utilizes dogwood shrubs for egg laying and caterpillars feed on the shrub’s flowers. Other early fliers are the Eastern Comma and Mourning Cloak that are much larger and hibernate as adults. They can be found on the wing during sunny warm March days in the 50’s F. The orange and black colored commas have a silver crescent on the underside of the hindwing. Expect them in habitats with nearby nettles or elms as hosts. Mourning Cloaks seek willows and aspens. The hibernators lay eggs on carefully chosen hosts. After they grow through the larval stages and transform to adult flutterbys, they float on air through our yards. 

To encourage the well-known Monarch, milkweed is needed because that is the only host acceptable for their young. By allowing milkweed plants to thrive, expect the large orange butterflies to grace the neighborhood. Another orange butterfly that looks similar to the Monarch but is slightly smaller is the Viceroy. Its young depend on willows and aspens. 

During early June, the first Viceroy adult with black lined veins on orange wings takes flight in the vicinity of willows. The miniscule caterpillar that hatched from an egg in autumn anchored a willow leaf to the stem with silk so it would not fall. The leaf became a shelter for the 1/8-inch caterpillar for the winter. With new spring leaf growth, the larva progressed through life stages to flash its orange beauty. 

The large Red-spotted Purples raise young on aspens and wild cherries. Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are among the largest butterflies with brilliant yellow wings edged with yellow dots on black margins.  It has wide black stripes that get narrower from the head end toward the tail. Their larva host plant is a cherry tree. 

Many of the 150 species of Michigan butterflies prefer open sunlit habitats where wildflowers abound. Many plants die to the ground in fall but have roots that survive the cold months. Others produce seeds that become the next generation attracting butterflies to brighten our neighborhood landscape. 

All species of fritillaries require violet leaves as their host and feed under the cover of darkness. We see the adults in summer daylight but the caterpillars are almost never seen because they wait until after sunset to crawl from the ground to feed on leaves. 

We might think, “what’s for me?” when we hear wild edibles. There are many edibles for us but the focus here has been on host plants chosen for caterpillars. You are encouraged to help wildlife survive by allowing a portion of your yard to support native plants needed by butterfly larva. Welcome butterflies by avoiding use of pesticides and herbicides. Enjoy and learn butterflies firsthand by joining one or all of the four West Michigan Butterfly Association counts to help you recognize butterflies and their caterpillar nature niche host plants. Google the West Michigan Butterfly Association or contact Ranger Steve for butterfly outing details. Come enjoy Spicebush Swallowtails on sassafras or Pearl Crescents among asters as we carpool to several habitats.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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