Any of us who like to garden in Florida know that we have to contend with an amazing array of diseases and pests that try to rob us of our precious harvest. It takes knowledge, hard work and vigilance to stay on top of things and win the fight to get a decent crop most years. Sometimes, it simply comes down to Mother Nature’s boom or bust whims but when it all comes together it can be as satisfying as a walk-off home run in the championship game. For those that preserve their harvest by canning or freezing the satisfaction carries through the year every time we add to the table with home-grown food.
Most of the time, the sight of insect damage on our tender new plants gets our hackles up but every now and then the naturalist inside can take over and provide us with a lesson to treasure. Sometimes the sacrifice of our green thumb efforts is worth the payoff in pure wonder at nature’s treasures. If you grow any parsley or carrots you will likely encounter one of our special local species of butterflies. It will come in the form of a 2-inch long, black and green-striped caterpillar with bright gold dots all over. If you look closer, upon its appearance, you will likely notice others of various sizes. The small ones will look different. They typically have a characteristic color pattern that resembles a bird dropping (no kidding). This is common in many swallowtail caterpillars (family Papilionidae) during their early instars. This is great camouflage when they are most vulnerable to predation. As they mature, other defense mechanisms develop that you will experience if you try to pick one up. When agitated, the caterpillar will start to jerk and if you continued to “bother” it, a shocking thing will occur. A forked, bright orange organ, called an osmeterium, will pop out right behind the head capsule. Almost immediately you should smell a pungent aroma, intended to discourage predators. It is an amazing feature that is also present in the caterpillars of other swallowtails.
Black swallowtail butterflies lay their eggs on plants in the carrot family, such as parsley, dill, fennel, carrots and Queen Anne’s lace. The odd thing is that none of these plants are native but it seems that there are some native plants in this family that black swallowtails would have used prior to European settlement. If you want to watch these beautiful caterpillars turn into beautiful butterflies simply grow some parsley or carrots outdoors for the adult butterflies to lay their eggs on. When they grace you with their presence you will have no ill feelings regarding the sacrifice of your parsley or carrot tops in exchange for the experience. All in all, a small price to pay for something truly priceless from nature.