In our garden, it is ladies first.

We are neither sexist nor old-fashioned, but are simply making entomological observations. Last week, we found out that lady luck was with us when we saw the first caterpillar, an American lady, in the garden happily munching on a leaf planted especially for it.

Nothing could have made us happier, since our garden was created not for food or for ornamentation, but for butterflies. Over the last year, the butterfly garden at Felix Neck has undergone (if you’ll pardon the pun) a metamorphosis. Through the fall and winter, and with a big push in the spring, the garden was enlarged, enhanced, redesigned and replanted. Every plant was chosen with care and after much research for its affinity to butterflies and hummingbirds — as food for them, or as a larval host plant.

With this caterpillar sighting, we knew that we did something right!

The American lady caterpillar is black with bands of yellow-green stripes and orange or red spots between the bands. You can’t miss its black branched spines, protecting it from all foes.

This caterpillar is a picky eater, preferring plants in the sunflower family, such as thistle, everlasting and pussy toes. We found it voraciously feeding and living in a nest of pearly everlasting leaves tied with its own silk. It is to be expected that once this caterpillar gets its fill of food, it will form a chrysalis on this plant and wait for the next stage.

Then, this caterpillar will become a lady-in-waiting. It may take a few weeks (and we will be watching) for the caterpillar to change into an American lady butterfly.

This patriotically named butterfly isn’t red, white and blue, but is brown, orange, and white. A medium-sized butterfly, it rests with its wings down, but in flight you can see two eyespots on the underside of its wings. Contrast this to the painted lady butterfly, which has four to five eyespots.

The American lady changes its diet as an adult, forsaking its childhood favorites. Look for the butterfly flitting among asters, goldenrods, marigolds, milkweed, vetch and dogbane, among others throughout the season. Although it generally has a two-week lifecycle, the American lady can survive over winter in the South and occasionally this far north.

American lady butterflies are members of the brush-footed, or Nymphialidae family. These butterflies are also called four-footed butterflies because they only use four legs for locomotion. The other two legs are shorter and cannot be used for walking. They do, however, have a function. These specially adapted legs have sensitive bristles that allow the butterfly to smell and even taste with their feet.

This lady is no tramp, and will stay put, continuing the cycle by laying eggs on the chosen host plant. Then the cycle above starts anew.

So as our success goes to show, if you choose your plantings in your garden correctly, you too can play host to a host of interesting native residents — and even attract the ladies.


Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.