Swallowtail Butterflies—and Parsley, Too

Photo: David Cappaert, Michigan State University

Like an bejeweled flower, the butterfly fluttered around my garden, never stopping to rest, moving from blossom to blossom until it gently drifted over the fence. I love watching butterflies flutter by, but feeding their caterpillars is another matter. I don’t want to sacrifice any of my garden plants to hungry mandibles. In at least one case, at least, I’ve discovered a compromise.

Black Swallowtails are some of the most beautiful butterflies found in Colorado. They’re large and black with a double row of yellow spots delineating their wings, and sapphire-blue sequins at the base of  their long, pointed tails. They’re the kind of butterfly that everyone oohs and aahs over. I’m no exception.

Over the last several months, since the weather finally warmed up, the adults that have emerged from their cocoons are searching for suitable plants on which to lay their eggs. “Suitable,” to this butterfly, means plants in the parsley family.

I grow parsley in my garden, but it’s for my kitchen, not the butterflies. I didn’t want to sacrifice any of my crop to hungry caterpillars. Yet, I wanted the swallowtails to visit my garden. What to do?

I did a little research, and came up with a solution that has everyone happy. It turns out that swallowtails like lovage even more than they like parsley.

lovage-home-lahLovage is a perennial herb with big celery-like leaves and a strong celery flavor. The leaves are used for teas and seasoning soups. It’s very easy to grow, needing average soil, full sun, and slightly moist soil. Plants get about two feet across and three feet high in my garden, where they survive on benign neglect. (If you fussed over them, I’m sure they’d grow much larger.) The only maintenance I do is to pull off  the dead leaves in early spring, and remove the uninspiring flower stalks before they spread seed all over the garden.tiger-swallowtail-larva-bf-lah-019r

I got my lovage as divisions from a gardening friend, but I could just as easily started them from seed. They’re growing in a remote corner of my veggie garden, between the raspberries and the strawberries.

Sure enough, the lovage acted as a butterfly magnet. They laid their tiny green eggs under the leaves, and totally ignored my Italian Flatleaf parsley. When the caterpillars hatched a couple of weeks later, they munched happily away, leaving the parsley to me.

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