This is a tale of two caterpillars: the Gulf Fritillary and the Tomato Hornworm. The former, I invited into my garden; the latter is an unwanted guest. To my eyes, both are beautiful, but I revere creepy crawly things more than most people.
The Gulf Fritillary grows up to be a beautiful orange butterfly; the tomato hornworm grows up to be a fairly attractive moth, if you are into browns and neutrals. But it’s what they eat at the kid’s table that defines their status in the garden.
While most gardeners plant passion vines for their flowers, this trait does nothing for me. To me the flowers look unnatural, like they belong on Mars or an old lady’s bathing cap. Proof that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I planted a passion vine specifically to entice female Gulf Fritillary butterflies, who taste the leaves with their feet, and if they pass the taste test, lay their eggs. The eggs hatch into orange caterpillars sporting black spikes. The caterpillars eat the leaves and, after a few molts, form a chrysalis that looks like a dead leaf. I saw one for the first time on a vine that attached itself to the window screen on the north side of the house. Meanwhile, a few feet away, tomato hornworms are busy munching away at my husband’s tomato plants. Their mothers sneaked into the garden under cover of darkness and laid their eggs on the underside of the leaves. It’s not that my husband likes killing things, but his love of tomatoes far outweighs my love of insects. I leave the squishing of caterpillars to him, while I sip my coffee and fret over my little orange and black babies. Will they be eaten by spiders or will wasps lay their eggs on their soft bodies? Will a butterfly emerge from the chrysalis or will it shrivel on the vine? Either way, it’s a jungle out there.
To hear a poignent requiem to the tomato hornworm, listen to Stanley Kunitz read his poem at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CkwAjQYfftg