Downy Soft Yellow Violet Wildflowers

Downy Yellow Violet photographed by Jeff Zablow at Raccoon Creek State Park, PA

Violets. We pay little or no attention to them as we hike across meadows and along trails. At best, we are cautious not to step on them, of course. We take our responsibility to support our environment, most seriously.

These violets though, the Viola Pubescens featured here, are found throughout the United States, with at least 7 species of Viola commonly found east of the Mississippi river.

Pretty little things, many with edible leaves, are classified as herbs, but these Spring blooming flowers are just part of the landscape. And what a landscape! Ohiopyle State Park in Pennsylvania’s sylvan Laurel Highlands.

Or is there more to it than that? The majority of Fritillary butterflies depend on violets. They deposit their eggs on plants growing near violets. The eggs hatch their caterpillars and the Fritillary caterpillars travel to the nearby violets and move into a leaf litter. Do they feed? No. That in itself is a whole other story. When Spring comes, the caterpillars who have survived then feed on violet leaves, like these Downy Yellows.

We remember that the Monarch caterpillar and other butterflies benefit from the protection gained from eating the glycoside molecules in Asclepia leaves. Fritillary butterflies also  enjoy this protection, due to the glycosides and other molecules present in the leaves of violets! I have to admit that I have seen some very beaten up fritillary butterflies, so it may well be that fritillaries don’t enjoy the same level of toxicity as Monarchs do. Something to ponder.

Those  of our followers who have large properties, especially those with treed lots, often have grassy perimeters around the trees that are populated by violet plants. May we suggest that you do not rake up the leaf litter in those areas, until well into late Spring? Removal of the leaf litter before late Spring may well destroy dozens or hundreds of Fritillary caterpillars, who have survived 20 degree Farenheit days and nights, awaiting the last weeks in April. If your rake catches them in November, you will miss out on the butterflies.


Danaus Plexippus Caterpillar Gorging on Butterflyweed Leaves, an Excellent Food

Monarch butterfly caterpillar photographed at Raccoon Creek State Park, PA

It’s July 24th at Raccoon Creek State Park in southwestern Pennsylvania. Because it’s just minutes after 9 A.M. the sun’s rays are just beginning to warm up this stand of wildflowers.

Our Danaus plexippus caterpillar has gorged on Butterflyweed leaves (Asclepias tuberosa) and remains satisfied and sluggish. The following day it may have moved to Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and continue nourishing itself with such excellent Monarch caterpillar food.

These milkweed plants provide the glycosides that add a whole new dimension to this species. Those glycosides aren’t digested by the caterpillar. Instead, they remain unchanged and stable. The metamorphosis from caterpillar to adult ends with those same glycosides present in the adult.

That’s why I have never seen a Monarch caterpillar that bears predator damage. I have great difficulty remembering having ever seen a Monarch butterfly that had wings or other body parts that showed the ravages of a predator.

I have seen birds attack Monarch adults . . . and spit them out as quickly as they have mouthed them. The birds appear to be repulsed by something about the Monarchs.

What is that something? The glycosides. It must be a very, very unpleasant taste.

So our caterpillar rests in plain sight of any and all predators. Soon it will descend down the stem and remain out of sight until much later in the day. Some days later it will work to fasten itself to a plant stalk and then . . .

Have a look at our image of a Monarch Chrysalis.

In 2010 we saw reduced numbers of Monarchs. 2011 brought an increased number. What can we expect of 2012?