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July/August 2012

The phone call arrived with an apology. “I’m sorry to be calling so late, but I just had to tell you. Simon released a black swallowtail butterfly in your garden today.”

The caller was Chris Weber, a journalist who lives up the street with his wife Kate, and Simon, their 4-year-old son. The Webers have a condo in a high-rise, but that hasn’t kept them from growing vegetables in a nearby community garden and regularly prowling the neighborhood to see what’s going on nature-wise. Simon is a frequent visitor to my garden and a keen observer.

The butterfly saga began last August when a friend gave the Webers a green and black-striped swallowtail caterpillar she’d found in the community garden. They took it home in a plastic bag, gave it a temporary home in a recycled plastic food carryout container and finally moved it into a more appropriate insect cage. After a short period of chowing down on parsley, dill and carrot tops, the caterpillar — named “Spice” in honor of its diet — got busy with its metamorphosis. Within just a week or 10 days it had turned into a chrysalis, documented with a photo taken on Aug. 31. And there it sat, hunkered down in a warm, well-lit city apartment while the family kept vigil.

As winter moved into spring and still no change, the temperature on the anxiety thermometer started rising. “Simon kept hope all along that Spice would emerge,” said Chris, “But Kate and I had already talked to him quite a bit about heaven and it being a place where Spice could go and be happy flying around.” Still, this was not what a 4-year-old boy wants to hear. “Simon wept over the butterfly,” said Chris. Realizing how much more weeping would ensue if they had to toss a dead chrysalis into the garbage can kept him and Kate (like many parents) from doing anything at all. So they waited a little longer.

And then, on May 8, it happened. The butterfly woke up. “The transformation was just breathtaking, a small miracle,” reported Chris. Within the hour, Kate and Simon walked down to my front yard and let Spice fly free.
I was happy to have it and am glad that parsley abounds in my garden so that if the butterfly is female — and I think it was, judging from the photo (maybe change the name to Spice Girl?) — she will have plenty of good places to lay her eggs.

This is important. In our age of continued habitat destruction, it’s essential for home gardeners to do what they can to make up for the losses. Meeting the needs of the all-important insect pollinators is one practical way to help.
(For more on the subject of pollinators, see our story on page 28.)

As for the Webers, they are no doubt still rejoicing. “It was a great day in our family,” said Chris. You can be sure it will never be forgotten.

Carolyn Ulrich