For the past year, I’ve been raising butterflies with my two young girls. It started with a simple act, as most transformations do. It was spring, and my backyard was vibrating with new life; wispy feathers of green had emerged on the cypress tree, orange blossoms and jasmine perfumed the air, and butterflies shimmied amongst blooming milkweed, zinnias and lantana, all brilliant bursts of orange, fuchsia and red. There in our backyard garden a discovery was made – a tiny monarch caterpillar sitting upon on a single milkweed leaf. We snipped the milkweed low on its stem and carefully placed it, with its petite inhabitant, in a jar of water inside a butterfly house my eldest had received for her birthday. Then we watched.
Our new friend, dressed jovially in stripes of yellow, black and white, was a hungry fellow by nature. Several times a day we’d bring him leafy sprigs of fresh milkweed and observe with wonder as he munched them down to bare, nubby sticks. Some nights, before going to bed, I’d creep back into the garden by moonlight and gather yet another handful of milkweed to sustain the caterpillar through the night. He grew big and fat right before our eyes. And then, one day, he became very still and the tireless eating ceased. After a long rest, our caterpillar formed a J shape, hanging from the top of the butterfly house. Did he know, as he hung upside down from a patch of thread, that magic was at work?
When we weren’t looking, the caterpillar spun its brilliant green chrysalis, punctuated by a single golden ring. This mysterious cocoon eventually turned transparent and we caught a glimpse of the patterned orange and black wings of the transformed creature within. Days later, like a miracle, our friend emerged a butterfly in all its magnificent glory. Fluid pumped into his wings, and patiently he waited for them to harden. Soon, he was ready to fly.
Together with my girls, we released the monarch back into the garden from which he came. He flew away with our affectionate blessings and joyful cheers, now something entirely different and wholly transformed. Did he remember who he once was as he tested his new wings and sipped from the flowers in the garden where he began?
After that day, my girls and I became experts at finding tiny baby monarch caterpillars, as well as caterpillar eggs, on the milkweed around our garden pond. We watched dozens of caterpillars transform in a temporary home on our back porch, catching new glimpses of the process along the way.
One morning, I witnessed a caterpillar shimmy into its cozy cocoon, wiggling and writhing as it wrapped itself from the bottom up, dropping its facemask as it reached the very top. It was hard, patient work. And so was emerging from the chrysalis, as we observed time and time again that spring. Did the caterpillars know a magical reward awaited them during their moments of tremendous exertion and faith?
By summer, we set to work creating a full butterfly garden with the hopes of attracting more varieties. We visited a local native plant nursery and brought home a selection of nectar plants to attract the butterflies, and host plants to provide food for the larvae. We planted more milkweed, tropical sage, cassia, blue porterweed, lantana, pentas, fennel, tickseed, sunshine mimosa and purple passionflower.
More butterflies quickly found our garden. And soon we discovered orange, spiky caterpillars on the passionflower vine, which transformed into beautiful Gulf Fritillaries on our back porch. We birthed pale yellow Sulphurs from larvae found on the cassia bush. And in the warmth of our tropical climate, we have continuous monarchs season after season. It seems there is almost always at least one caterpillar, in some stage of its life cycle, in residence on our porch. Do they know how many others are undergoing the same work of extraordinary transformation as they complete their natural cycle?
As our common passion for these winged beauties has grown, so has our garden. To attract cooler weather butterflies in our mild Florida winter, I planted snapdragons for Common Buckeyes and false nettle for Red Admirals. There’s now cudweed for the Painted Ladies and parsley for the Swallowtails. We created a mud bath to help the butterflies get the minerals and salt they need, which are not all available in flower nectar. A ceramic saucer, full of moistened garden soil and composted cow manure (1:1 ratio) sits in a sunny spot where we can watch the butterflies “puddle.”
On occasion I’ll set out fruit attractants as well – a special treat for our delicate friends. When I have any overripe fruit, such as mushy bananas and strawberries, or extra orange slices, I pile it in a saucer out in the butterfly garden, making a simple butterfly feeder. Do they know that as they take in my offerings of nourishment, they are feeding my soul?
I have come now to understand why I love raising butterflies – it is a living metaphor for life. Observing these magnificent creatures as they individually undergo what is both an ordinary and extraordinary transformation is a reminder that life itself is a series of small rebirths and big changes that are both commonplace and significant at the same time. Birth, childhood, becoming a parent, aging, death. The struggles and the triumphs; the arrivals and the departures; the new and the old.
In their short and magical life cycles, butterflies have much to teach us.
May we know that, when we’re hanging from a thread, magic is often at work.
May we wait patiently until we are ready to fly.
May we remember who we once were when we’ve morphed into something new.
May we recognize that tremendous exertions and leaps of faith will be met with great rewards.
May we accept transformation as part of our natural lifecycle and know we are never, ever alone.
Elizabeth Sniegocki is a writer and advocate of simple, mindful living. She makes her nest in Sarasota, Florida, where she writes, gardens, cooks, crafts and nurtures two sweet little chicks. Elizabeth blogs about natural living, mothering, homesteading and her community at A Natural Nester.