The Celery and the Swallowtail

A few weeks ago I was at work, sorting through trays of medicinal herbs to put out for sale, when I was aghast to find a speck of bird poop upon my lovage. (Lovage, if you’re unaware, is a close sister of celery and an herb that I came to know in France. I’m quite enamored of it, both ornamentally and edibly.)

I make some sweet love to lovage in an Alpine valley.

I went to blow away the speck when I suddenly realized it to be a speck with two heads and sixteen legs. Sixteen legs! Two heads!! I also noticed rather quickly the negative space that was gazing at me from where the two-headed monster had been working at my beloved lovage, cutting and devouring the tender, blessed green of the new, nearly lacy leaves.

Beasts with multiple heads and over a dozen legs often turn out to be mere babes with only one voracious mouth. They have six legs, thin as hair, made up of remarkably minuscule segments: the coxa, the trochanter; a femur, tibia, and tarsus. Their other leggish bits, prolegs, are fleshy pegs that aren’t true limbs, being without the several joints that provide their actual locomotion. These bizarre little creatures are caterpillars.

wee swallowtail caterpillar

Pooperpillar on a celery leaf

I had a hunch that this limbed bit of scat could be the larva of a black swallowtail and rounded up my coworkers for second opinions. One did a bit of research and confirmed that this was indeed the newly hatched son or daughter of one of those gorgeous fliers. (As opposed to the monarch which, in flight, resembles a drunken Mardi Gras queen, the swallowtail’s wings are long and wide enough to catch the air and ride it with a gliding grace; a paper airplane with an intellect.)

We have both lovage and rue (also beloved by the caterpillars, as are any of the other relatives in the Apiaceae family) growing in a little herb garden off the parking lot, so we plucked away the caterpillars–at least six more siblings were found after the discovery of the first–and placed them among the silver leaves of these more mature plants. They could easily handle the bottomless horde, seeing them through to the moment they sauntered off to shed their last caterpillar skin and begin their chemically driven metamorphosis.

swalllowtail LIFE

Caterpillars are lessons in masquerade and sneakiness, so I wasn’t entirely worried when I couldn’t tell where the little, but growing, fecal imitators were. After awhile I could find only one, growing plump and bright, clinging to and gobbling down a slender fringe of rue.

These swallowtails were in the great outdoors, full of air and sun and predators. I could have brought them—at least some, at least one—home, as I did last summer when I brought a wisp of a monarch to my desk to raise in glass. It’s a blessing to bestow when you keep a caterpillar safe. As I searched for the tiny, munching swallowtails I felt a pit, regretting my lack of saving grace and mourning their possible deaths.

Lovage, mulberries, milkweeds; we are surrounded by plants that churn with nectar, that are green and growing with shelters and nurseries and stalking grounds. They are wonderlands of birth and death, carnage and chlorophyll. Everybody’s got to eat, from the caterpillar mawing away at newborn foliage to the soldier bug that spears the young swallowtail’s skin and sucks it to a dry death. I could experiment with hating the soldier bug for stealing away an ecological marvel like a swallowtail, but, of course, the soldier bug is just as much as a marvel, perhaps more of one,  for it is generally an impressive and efficient predator and also one of the main enemies of the gypsy moth, infamous for the defoliation of the oak and aspen forests of the United States.

Anyway, I’m waxing a bit much and should really be getting ready for work. The moral of my story: whenever you see some scat on a relative of the carrot, take a good hard look before you wash it away with the hose. It may be a two-headed gift.

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5 responses

  1. What a wonderful find! I know so little about what kinds of moths and butterflies come of the caterpillars I find, but I imagine they all turn out to be beautiful and helpful. It helps my conscience talk me into not destroying them as they’ve destroyed my garden.

    • Hey Dena! Yes, lots of caterpillars grow up to by lovely and helpful. This discovery really helped to reinforce the fact that it is Always good to do my homework before giving a liberal squish. It’s wonderful to encourage the population of such a striking and useful insect!

  2. Pingback: Fifth and Sixth | spokes and petals

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