Mothering a Moth

On our corner lot near Ravenna, my dad grew roses and dahlias, bamboo and the fragrant magnolias he remembered from his youth in China. My mom raised tree peonies, jasmine. We had a pond. From them, I learned to love gardening. Then I bought my own house. I tell people I planted every 'stick' on the place except for the western red cedar, coast sequoia, birch grove and the two grand fir flanking the driveway. They were there way before me and they are huge.

The ‘sticks’ I planted grew, too. The katsuras, Japanese maples, stewartias and styrax have developed large canopies that have shrouded the garden areas close to the house. From them, I learned to love gardening in the shade: hostas, hakonechloas, ferns and fuchsias.

I’ve found that having a diverse garden attracts a lot of wildlife: songbirds, hummingbirds, mason bees, honey bees, bumblebees, the occasional possum and snake. Insects, too. Some are beneficial, such as the pollinators. Others have a different kind of purpose. I find them all fascinating and beautiful in their own way.

One of my favorite shade perennials is the hardy Fuchsia. As much as I enjoy seeing their flowers, I especially like attracting and watching the wildlife that feed on their nectar, collect their pollen and munch on their leaves.

Munch on their leaves?! What?

As my brother Howard has reminded me, providing food for the larva of butterflies and moths is another way to attract the adult to our gardens, not only for us to view, but as a way to help perpetuate the species. Once, after a visit to a Monarch Butterfly migration site near Santa Barbara, California, my brother showed me his garden, which was predominantly Asclepias syriac, or Milkweed. Growing Milkweed is his effort to help the dwindling numbers of Monarch Butterfly by supplying host plants to feed its larva. "The Monarch Butterfly caterpillar ONLY eats Milkweed," he tells me.

Galfry Lye Fuchsia

One day last summer, while stocking hardy Fuchsia plants, I found a caterpillar munching the leaves of the Fuchsia ‘Galfry Lye’ (a very pretty plant, by the way, with pale, pinkish-white petals and a bright, reddish-violet inner corolla).

The caterpillar was large and somewhat menacing looking, greenish-brown with two huge spots that looked like eyes. A quick Google search told me it was the larva of the Elephant Hawk-moth. I'd never seen one before.

On the Wildlife Trusts website I found the following description: "The Elephant Hawk-moth is a medium-sized hawk-moth, on the wing from May to July and active at dusk. It is commonly found in parks and gardens, as well as woodland edges, rough grassland and sand dunes. The caterpillars are seen from July to September and are very characteristic: grayish-green or brown with two enormous black eyespots towards the head. When disturbed, they swell up to show these spots and scare-off predators."

Reading further, I learned it is not found in the Pacific Northwest but possibly wound up here from Canada where it may have been introduced from Europe. Willowherbs, Fuchsia and bedstraw are food for the caterpillars and the adults feed on nectar. The caterpillars pass the Winter as chrysalides, hiding under low vegetation or even in the soil.

I clipped the stem of the plant on which the caterpillar was feeding and took it home. I placed it in a glass terrarium bowl, into which I had added a little garden soil, along with the moss that was growing on it, and a few small branches from a crabapple tree, as décor (I can't leave anything unadorned).

I fed it Fuchsias from my garden. I did this for several days until I realized it had stopped feeding and had burrowed under the moss. It was pupating! A large brown chrysalis lay in the leaf debris. I kept it out on a sheltered porch during most of the winter, bringing it indoors during harder freezes, then back out for the remainder of the winter.

Moth chrysalis 

June 10, 2014: It had been 10 months. I'd looked in on him a few times and wasn’t sure the caterpillar had survived. I lifted the screen over the terrarium and was really surprised to find a beautiful moth had emerged and was drying its wings on the crabapple branch. The branch! A Google search revealed the emerging moth needs to rest on a high spot to let its wings unfurl and dry or it wouldn't be able to fly.

The moth was beautiful, iridescent green with deep pink markings, and white feet. I let it crawl on my hand and moved it to a pot of Zaluzianskya capensis (night phlox) in case it was hungry, as none of its favored nectar plants – Phygelius and Fuchsia – were in bloom. It rested there for a few moments and as dusk fell, it rose up into the sky and disappeared.

A feeling of empty nest overcame me. My baby had left home.

Then many thoughts occurred:

  • Oh, shoot. I've released a destructive insect.
  • Well, no. Not being a native insect (its range includes Britain, Ireland, China, India) it will never find a mate to continue its species.
  • It will be eaten by a bat.
  • It will live forever in my neighbor's huge mass of fragrant, nectar-rich Honeysuckle.
  • Someone will see it, freak out and spray it.
  • Or, someone else will find it amazing, beautiful and charming, and plant Fuchsias to coax a beautiful moth to their garden.

Perhaps we are becoming more knowledgeable, more selective, more compassionate to the other living creatures that inhabit our gardens and green spaces. Maybe we'll grow a few more host plants, like Fuchsias, to feed a caterpillar or two.