In the beginning… How it all started

People often ask me why I am so obsessed with Monarch butterflies and caterpillars (their eyes tell me they think I’m bonkers). What got me started on all this? How did I become ‘The Crazy Butterfly Woman’?

My family and I moved to the Kapiti Coast of New Zealand late 2012, and I soon noticed the prevalence of Monarch butterflies here. Where we lived previously, we got very few. Here, I could sit on the deck and watch the Monarchs fluttering around the flower garden, looking for tasty nectar. They added beauty and delight to the garden, and I was struck by how big the butterflies were!

Before long, I was off to the local garden centre to get a couple of swan plants to encourage the butterflies. I had a vision at that time of my little plants growing into large bushes, visited by butterflies, and with cute stripy caterpillars and green and gold chrysalises hidden amongst the mass of leaves. Hmm… I soon learnt how naive I was!

The vision seemed feasible in the beginning – I had two lovely medium-sized caterpillars that seemed to appear from nowhere, but must have already been on the plants when I bought them and grown without my noticing. One of them formed its chrysalis on a nearby shrub (I never found the other one). In the time it took for that first butterfly to develop and emerge, the eggs that visiting butterflies had laid on the plants hatched, my two little plants were overrun with caterpillars, and I had bought four more plants, then another five. And my dreams of a butterfly garden with bushy, green swan plants were dashed.

My first butterfly
My first butterfly

I started to rotate the plants (they were eaten so quickly, most of them never made it out of their pots – the ones I planted out, I dug up again to save them from the hungry hordes). Rotating the plants involved letting the caterpillars have free rein on about half of the plants and keeping the others aside. This method generally worked OK, although, sadly, I did lose some caterpillars to hunger (I couldn’t find any more swan plants and the caterpillars wandered off in search of food and did not return).

I found out late in the season (March 2013) that caterpillars over a certain size (2cm long) can eat slices of raw pumpkin when swan plant leaves are in short supply. So my last few caterpillars ended up inside the house, with a diet of pumpkin and cut leaves, alongside several chrysalises that I’d rescued or simply moved in the hope of seeing the butterflies emerge.

'Rocky' checks out a dehlia
‘Rocky’ checks out a dehlia

I ended the season with 15 stalks that had once been swan plants (and they did not all recover), caterpillar poo on my desk, and empty chrysalises on my wall. Also, I had spent hours managing caterpillar feed, counting and hunting for lost caterpillars, nurturing plants, and staring through the viewfinder of my camera waiting for something to happen.

But I had laughed at caterpillars munching ferociously, jostling with each other as they fought over a leaf, and wriggling quickly across the hot concrete path. I had been transfixed watching butterflies emerge from their chrysalises, dry and test their wings, and take their first flight. And, to top it all, I had taken some pretty cool photographs.

One of my first movie stars
One of my first movie stars

So, instead of being put off, I was hooked. This season (2013/14), I upped the ante. I raised some swan plants from seed, so I wouldn’t run out of plants, and enclosed an area of our courtyard with windbreak mesh, to provide protection for my swan plants and the caterpillars and butterflies alike.

It’s not 100% finished yet, but my vision is of a garden filled with nectar flowers, lush green swan plants, and, of course, fluttering butterflies…. Wish me luck!