Written by Maria Gaura
SANTA CRUZ (November 2009) - The Pipevine Swallowtail, a cobalt-streaked butterfly with orange-and-white speckled underwings, once thrived in Santa Cruz County. But the local population of these beautiful creatures blinked out 100 years ago, not to be seen again for nearly five generations.
Now, they’re back – at least a few of them are – and living in a lush, two-acre garden adjacent to the Pasatiempo golf course. And if a group of local gardeners is successful, this little band of insect pioneers may soon venture out of its sanctuary to become a free-living, Santa Cruz native species once again.
What the gardeners – and the butterflies - need are volunteers willing to plant their yards with California Pipevines - a native plant that the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly co-evolved with, and requires for its survival.
Pipevine Swallowtails, photo courtesy of David Klemp
“What we’re trying to do is organize neighborhoods where 15 or 20 people will put a plant or two in their yards,” said Martha Benedict, a Santa Cruz herbalist who has worked for a decade to sustain the Pasatiempo colony.
“If you get a number of plants scattered over an area the size of a football field, the butterflies have a chance to spread out,” Benedict said. “It’s much better than having 20 plants in one yard.”
Two years ago, Benedict partnered with the Monterey Bay Master Gardeners to help take her Butterfly Project to the next level – an attempt to re-establish the butterfly throughout a swath of its former range.
Supported by a grant from the Newman’s Own Foundation, the Master Gardeners hired Cabrillo College’s Horticulture Department to propagate Aristolochea californica - California Pipevines - for a campaign of clustered, strategic plantings. The Master Gardeners plant some of the vines themselves, and distribute the rest to neighborhood groups.
KNOCKING ON DOORS
In 2008, Master Gardener Rina Weingold was among the first to organize her neighbors.
“I literally canvassed my neighborhood, I went from house to house to house,” Weingold said. “Some said yes, some said no, some didn’t really respond. But I got about twelve households to plant them, and now we’re waiting for the plants to get big enough to support some larvae.”
Weingold’s Walnut Street garden, located on the city’s upper West Side, overflows with fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs. Her pipevines trail over fences, creep up a trellis and intertwine with a lush Concord grape.
Pipevines drape over a footbridge railing
A NICE LITTLE GUY
“This vine is a nice little guy, it’s got no tendrils, so it won’t damage a building or fence,” Weingold said. “You don’t have to feed them, and you don’t have to water them much, they’re mostly just happy to do their thing.
“It’s not a showy plant until it blooms,” Weingold said. “And then you see the flowers and think Wow! What are those strange-looking things?”
While many of her neighbors’ transplants appear to be thriving, it will be awhile before Weingold’s group receives a delivery of butterfly larvae from Benedict’s backyard hatchery. “I’m thinking it’ll take a minimum of three years for the plants to be fully established,” Benedict said.
Once they’ve unfurled from the chrysalis, Pipevine Swallowtail butterflies feed on the nectar of a variety of flowering plants. But the female will only lay her eggs on a California Pipevine, and the caterpillars eat only pipevine leaves.
“The females are very persnickety about where they lay their eggs,” Benedict said. “If they don’t find an acceptable plant, they’ll just fly off in search, and die somewhere.”
In addition to a handful of neighborhoods, the Master Gardeners have so far placed pipevines in a field at New Brighton Beach State Park, at Holy Cross Cemetery in Live Oak and in the Life Lab garden at Gateway School, near Lighthouse Field. Plans are afoot to place them in other state and county parks.
In 2008, Cabrillo Horticulture grew 150 plants for the Butterfly Project, this year it produced 170. Next year, Benedict expects to receive 300 plants, and the Master Gardeners are lining up volunteers to adopt them.
Fallen chrysalis cases are suspended on threads
THE LOST TRIBE
Benedict, a professional herbalist, learned of the lost tribe of Santa Cruz butterflies from a friend, native plant expert Randy Morgan, who she said pinpointed the date of the species' disappearance by reading nineteenth-century natural history texts.
The disappearance of the butterflies coincided roughly with the clear-cutting of the forests in Santa Cruz and the San Lorenzo Valley, where pipevines once grew in profusion. While the forests eventually came back on their own, the pipevines and butterflies were not so successful.
The butterflies aren’t considered endangered, however, as wild populations still survive in the Russian River area, along the American River in Sacramento, near the city of Redding and in other locations.
In the early '90s, Benedict planted a few pipevines among the thickets of native plants in her creekside garden, and occasionally thought of the missing butterflies. Then, about twelve years ago, while poking around a Guerneville plant nursery, she and husband David Klemp were directed to an untamed area out back where a stand of pipevine was covered with hungry caterpillars.
VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLARS
“They said ‘Take all you want! They just eat everything’,” Benedict said. “They didn’t have to tell me twice.”
Benedict and Klemp packed about 40 caterpillars and a supply of pipevine leaves into a couple of large yogurt containers, and sped home. That split-second decision has turned into a decade-long labor of love and, possibly, into a second chance for a nearly-forgotten species.
Over the years, Benedict and Klemp have learned to raise butterflies by trial and error, collecting the tiny egg clusters and feeding and sheltering the caterpillars in mesh cages stacked on their back porch.
The butterflies are released when they hatch, and flutter into the garden to feed on nectar, find a mate, and lay their eggs on a juicy pipevine leaf. The species is exquisitely sensitive to pesticides, Benedict said, and will die or develop deformities with even minimal exposure.
Some years, Benedict and Klemp release as many as 600 butterflies from their rearing cages. Some years only a few score survive.
Martha Benedict in her garden
A STRANGE TRANSFORMATION
In November, as winter approaches, the butterflies are long gone, and the caterpillars have attached themselves to the ceiling of the mesh cages and transformed into chrysalises.
“When they form the chrysalis, they dissolve into a liquid enzyme state,” Benedict says, with wonder in her voice. “They live as a liquid enzyme, and then … re-form as a butterfly. Talk about science fiction.”