One of the best things to happen to my garden was my native pipevine getting eaten to bits. That might seem like an odd statement for a gardener to make. A couple years ago I was outside grilling some turkey burgers and noticed that the lush, heart-shaped leaves of the pipevine growing along the deck railing were holey. At this point the damage wasn’t too obvious, but I quickly forgot about monitoring the burgers and shifted focus to figuring out what was munching on my plant. Following the tell-tale droppings along one stem, I flipped a leaf over to reveal a crazy-looking caterpillar. It was black with bright orange spots and was none to0 pleased with me for interrupting his dinner. Oh no—dinner! I thought, and quickly returned to what were now charcoal briquettes, not turkey burgers.
My husband quickly forgave the burnt meal when he came out to see my caterpillar discovery. We identified the guests as pipevine swallowtail larvae. Over the next week we watched as the army of caterpillars devoured the pipevine, not completely down to twigs, but pretty significantly. It was worth it to be a gracious host, though, especially when a month or so later the garden was filled with beautiful blue-black butterflies. The next year the pipevine plant returned unscathed, but regrettably we haven’t seen the caterpillars again.
The whole experience illustrated the importance of including host plants in my garden. The ones I do have are there simply by chance—plants I loved without knowing their secret ecological superpower. Sadly, I don’t have any milkweeds, the primary host plant of monarch butterflies. But after reading about several lesser-known native species in the recent article by Benjamin Vogt (Fine Gardening #200), I plan on changing that. Purple milkweed, with its brilliantly vibrant magenta blooms, is a new must-get plant for me, and I can’t wait to discover caterpillars hiding within its leaves. I also can’t wait to have another excuse for burning dinner, aside from my poor culinary skills.
—Danielle Sherry, executive editor