As part of Amy Greenwell’s 100th Birthday celebration, the Friends planted three crown flowers, Calotropis gigantea, behind Amy’s old pug kennels. They are thriving and even beginning to blossom. These large shrubs, native from India to the East Indies, were planted for the express purpose of attracting monarchs to the Garden and feeding monarch caterpillars. Monarchs have not been regular visitors to our Garden because they need host plants in the milkweed family on which to lay their eggs. These host plants have been missing, but no longer!
To jump start this process, Maile Melrose transported a few hungry caterpillars from her milkweed plant in Kealakekua to the Garden earlier this month. She is happy to report that the caterpillars, after some initial hesitation (the underside of crown flower leaves are wooly!), dove right in and started to chew. Yes, crown flowers are tasty!
These caterpillars are quite striking with their yellow, cream and black stripes and pairs of black soft tentacle-like structures at each end. They certainly make no attempt at camouflage, probably because they absorb toxic substances from their host plants, which should make them poisonous to birds*. Time will tell if our resident flock of garden chickens learns to avoid eating these caterpillars. Maile has noticed that not every caterpillar seems to be surviving, but this experiment has only just begun. If chicken wire cages need to be built to keep chickens or other greedy birds away, this will happen.
Maile has been snapping pictures of her caterpillars. Imagine her delight when she spied monarch butterflies hovering overhead and landing on the crown flower leaves. They could only have been doing one thing – laying eggs!
This experiment is a very unscientific beginning to what will grow to be an all out effort to give butterflies what they need to survive – Host Plants!! As Peter Van Dyke has suggested, the Friends can learn a great deal about butterfly propagation using common and unendangered species. The monarch has been in Hawaii since at least 1852, an import from North America. The Passion Vine Butterfly, commonly known as the Gulf Fritillary, first was recorded in Hawai`i in 1977. It already visits the garden, attracted to our white flowered native Plumbago zeylanica called `Ilie`e. We can easily plant some passion flower vines and see what happens next!
*Hawai`i’s Butterflies & Moths, An Identification Guide to Easily Observed Species,
Dean Jamieson & Jim Denny, Mutual Publishing, 2001. Mahalo!
Words and photos by Maile Melrose