When dill gives you a caterpillar, raise a butterfly.

I love putting together small, unusual flower arrangements all season long. I’ll start with forced forsythia branches, maybe some redbud branches and I’ll move on with the season to daffodils, magnolia branches, and then shoots of sedum, radish flowers, garlic scapes, calendula, marigolds, zinnias, and garlic chive flowers. It’s always a mix of the floral and the edible whenever I can manage it, and putting these arrangements together is a small creative exercise that brings me a little bit of peace and satisfaction. I never imagined that it would also make me confront a long-standing fear and provide us with an educational opportunity that has been thrilling! Allow me to explain.

You see a couple of weeks ago I brought in a particularly huge and beautiful flowering umbel – bouquet dill to be exact – and its yellow flowers looked gorgeous in my round and small purple vase. A couple of days after that, my sister-in-law noticed a tiny little caterpillar amidst the flowers. Oh dear. You see, as much as I take pleasure in a butterfly or moth, I have a bit of a fear of caterpillars. It all stems from a few traumatic instances in childhood – encountering an infestation of small, hairy caterpillars on a pine shrub, another infestation of green and brown inchworms on my aunt and uncle’s patio (think the snake pit in Indiana Jones but on a small scale of course), huge hairy caterpillars raining from the trees on a Girl Scout retreat landing in my hair, and the worst of them all, a 1.5 mile hike through a narrow wooded path that was, you guessed it, INFESTED with hairy caterpillars hell bent on defoliating the trees and shrubs and also ending up on me. And so I’ve been a bit squeamish and have avoided caterpillars as much as possible in my adult life, and in no way would I have willingly brought one in to my home on purpose, on a beautiful dill flower and put it in a vase on my table.

A swallowtail caterpillar at home on a dill flower.

A swallowtail caterpillar at home on a dill flower.
Photo © Diana Pappas

Well, can you guess what happened? I did my best to avoid looking at it, but the caterpillar doubled in size quite quickly, and then it doubled again. The dill flowers started to disappear, and little poppy seed-sized pellets began to appear on the table around the vase. “Dilly” was getting bigger, and not only that, Dilly was sure to become a beautiful swallowtail butterfly if he was plied with fronds of other plants in the dill family. I decided to take on my fear, and we decided to take on Dilly as a science experiment. We spread newspaper underneath the vase, and we supplied Dilly with fresh fronds of bronze fennel, carrot greens, parsley, cilantro flowers, and more of his favorite, dill, straight from the garden. I must say the arrangement looked beautiful, and it warmed my heart that Dilly seemed to appreciate his set-up.

Bronze fennel, carrot greens, cilantro flowers, parsley and dill fronds make up a buffet for a swallowtail caterpillar. Photo © Diana Pappas

Bronze fennel, carrot greens, cilantro flowers, parsley and dill fronds make up a buffet for a swallowtail caterpillar.
Photo © Diana Pappas

Doubling in size again and again, we got close up views of his gorgeous green, yellow, white and deep black markings, we watched as his front legs helped guide the dill fronds into his mouth and his back legs adeptly gripped the stem he was on. We even saw him poop! One day, the usually mobile and active Dilly was very still and we got a little worried. At this point he crossed the line from being a science experiment to more of a pet and my fear had faded away and been replaced by fascination at this amazing creature. We watched as his stillness broke and he shed his skin, and then he turned around and ate the evidence. WILD!

Dilly the swallowtail caterpillar sheds his skin on a carrot leaf. Photo © Diana Pappas

Dilly the swallowtail caterpillar sheds his skin on a carrot leaf.
Photo © Diana Pappas

After shedding his skin, Dilly proceeds to eat the evidence. Photo © Diana Pappas

After shedding his skin, Dilly proceeds to eat the evidence.
Photo © Diana Pappas

Days passed and he kept eating, pooping and growing until he was impressively robust and plump. He would be quite the feast for the many caterpillar-loving birds and wasps in our garden, we thought. Even with the many swallowtail butterflies flying around our backyard all summer, we could well imagine how difficult it must be for one of these caterpillars to make it to the butterfly stage without being eaten first.

Plump and robust, Dilly feeds on a bronze fennel frond from the garden. Photo © Diana Pappas

Plump and robust, Dilly feeds on a bronze fennel frond from the garden.
Photo © Diana Pappas

And then, yesterday, the eating stopped. He cleared out digestively, with lots of poops and even some vomit. As the minutes went by he stopped looking robust and plump and he began shrinking before our eyes, looking a bit dehydrated, his skin a little slack and saggy. His focus had now changed from growth to transformation.

Swallowtail caterpillar poops and vomit, a certain sign that he will begin making a chrysalis. Photo © Diana Pappas

Swallowtail caterpillar poops and vomit, a certain sign that he will begin making a chrysalis.
Photo © Diana Pappas

He went from branch to branch, looking for a stable place at the right angle – would it be a branch of dill, or a strong carrot flower stem? We transferred Dilly to a little terrarium and gave him the options of a couple of sturdy sticks as well, and he tried everything out. He finally settled on a dried lily stalk and took a rest, his search perhaps a little exhausting. Once recovered, we saw him bend back and shake his head back and forth and I thought things were looking concerning. “Dilly looks possessed! What is going on?” And then, we saw exactly what he was doing and let me tell you, we feel pretty privileged to have witnessed this. Dilly was securing himself to the stalk by the thinnest of threads, leaning back (in what looked like an extreme yoga pose) to wrap it around himself and secure it to the other side of the stalk. With total astonishment we marveled, “how does he know to do this?”

Dilly has picked his spot in which to make his transformation from caterpillar to butterfly. Here he can be observed fastening a safety harness to the dried lily stem. Photo © Diana Pappas

Dilly has picked his spot in which to make his transformation from caterpillar to butterfly. Here he can be observed fastening a safety harness to the dried lily stem.
Photo © Diana Pappas

He went back and forth to reinforce this safety harness, and once he was done he scrunched himself up and gradually let go of the stem, the grip of his strong lower legs no longer required. So now we say goodbye to Dilly the caterpillar and we welcome the next phase, that of the chrysalis. In time, we hope to see Dilly again, full of life and magically transformed into a beautiful swallowtail butterfly. We can’t wait to see what happens next and we will be sure to share the experience with you right here on The Oak and Feather.

UPDATE: Part Two of Dilly’s story has been published. Click here to read what happens. 

Reliant upon the thinnest of harnesses, Dilly lets go of the dried lily stem, leans back and begins his transformation. Photo © Diana Pappas

Reliant upon the thinnest of harnesses, Dilly lets go of the dried lily stem, leans back and begins his transformation.
Photo © Diana Pappas

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8 responses to “When dill gives you a caterpillar, raise a butterfly.

  1. What a great surprise, Diana! I love your detailed descriptions and the photographs are wonderful. That’s a beautiful caterpillar.
    Looking forward to part 2. : )

  2. Beautifully observed and recorded, we can’t wait to hear that the lovely swallowtail has ‘hatched’ for you after all this careful study and patience!

    • Thanks so much! I look forward to being in the UK next summer to get to know the British moths and butterflies (and even caterpillars!) a bit. Part two should come soon, any day now I think…

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