Early Autumn Butterflies in My Garden


Tiger Swallowtail in Joe-Pye Weed
Tiger Swallowtail sipping nectar from Joe-Pye Weed.

Nature Journal – September 24th

It’s late in the season, but autumn butterflies filled my garden. I saw two big beautiful butterflies this past week. And one very hungry caterpillar.

I spend many hours in my garden now that the daytime temperatures have cooled down. I am weeding and making plans for next year.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are common and widespread in the east. Their large size and dramatic color are eye-catching.

This Tiger Swallowtail is sipping nectar on a spent Zinna blossom. I am surprised there is any nectar left. The flower looks done. Zinnias are favorites of butterflies. If you want an annual that can take hot, dry conditions and bloom all summer and attract many species of butterflies, Zinnias are rock stars. More on Swallowtail Butterflies.

Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes Tharos) in my back garden.
Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes Tharos) in my back garden.

Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes Tharos)

At least I think this is Pearl Crescent. Scientists have split species into so many similar species that it is hard to tell who is who sometimes. If you can only see the differences on a microscopic level, I am hesitant about whether it is separate from a close look-a-like.

The Pearl Crescent is just one example. Are the Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes Tharos), Silvery Checkerspot (Chlosyne nycteis), Northern (Phyciodes selenis), Tawny Checkerspots  (Phyciodes batesii) or Harris’ Checkerspot (Chlosyne harrisii) really all that different? It seems the main difference between the species is the amount of black pigment on the wings.

New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae) in my back garden.
New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae) in my back garden.

Autumn Asters Attract Autumn Butterflies

The asters are beginning to bloom in my garden. As many aster species are their hostplants.  I have a large New England Aster ready to burst into bloom.

Pearl Crescents are common in the east. And they are known for wide variations in appearance. Most Checkerspots and Crescent (Family Nympahalinae; Tribe: Melitaeini) butterflies enter autumn hibernation as half-grown larvae. Once the day-length and correct number of cold days have been reached, the larvae will un-thaw and continue its’ growth cycle.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterfly larvae muching on Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) leaf in my back garden.
Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterfly larvae munching on Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) leaf in my back garden.

Monarch Caterpillar (Danaus plexippus)

The Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) was in glorious bloom this summer. It took many years of failure to get a plant established. It was worth because this beauty showed up. A late stage instar (caterpillar/larvae) of the Monarch Butterfly munches on a Butterfly Weed leaf.

Plants of the Milkweed family are the hostplants of Milkweed butterfly. The butterflies are called Milkweed butterflies because the plants are their main hostplants. The adult  butterflies get their awful taste from eating the leaves and flowers of milkweed plants as a caterpillar. An adult Monarch is poisonous only if it ate a poisonous plant when it was a caterpillar.  In adult Monarchs, the wings and abdomen store more poisons than the rest of the body.

butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) in bloom in my back garden.

The Milkweed plants in my garden allow butterflies to spend their entire lifecycle in my garden. With both hostplants and nectar sources in my garden I see adult butterflies, eggs, and caterpillars.

Monarch butterflies overwinter as adults – in central Mexico. So this last stage larvae (caterpillar) will probably metamorphosis into an adult soon and fly south. Cape May State Park on the most southern tip of New Jersey is a great place to watch thousands of Monarch leave the mainland of the North America and cross the Atlantic Ocean and arrive in central Mexico.

Attracting Autumn Butterflies

It only takes planting the right native plants and providing certain features to attract a wide assortment of butterflies to your garden. During the pandemic, I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t have my gardens to enjoy.

Citizen Science: Monarch Watch on MonarchWatch.org 

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The Butterfly House at Tyler Arboretum

The 6 Butterfly Families and Identifying Butterflies

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