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Butterflies and Violets
Previously Published In The Violet Gazette, Summer 2000, V1-3, P5 

Elizabeth Scott is an AVS officer, Research and Events Coordinator and Associate Editor of The Violet Gazette,
She writes independently about violets and other topics from her home in Bronx, New York.

Image of Silver Washed Fritillary Butterfly
Great Spangled Fritillary Butterfly

             It is sad to see the end of violets and other spring flowers for the year, but today, June 10, I had a vivid reminder that summer too has its beauties: I saw a Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly. You may know some flowers called Fritillaries, but there is also a group of butterflies called Fritillaries, and the name for both comes from a Latin word meaning dice box, as one species of the flowers and most Fritillary butterflies are spotted. Since you are familiar with problems of odd forms and colors in violets, I will not mention here similar problems with butterfly identification. I will only tell you that you can recognize the typical Fritillary butterfly by its spangles, that is, although the upper side is orange with dark markings, the under side of the wing, especially the hind wing, has big silver spots that you can see when the butterfly is in flight or, at rest with its wings up. They are fast flyers, and the same color as a Monarch on top although the dark markings are splotches rather than lines and they are a little smaller. The wing shape is more rounded, and when you see those spangles you know it's not a Monarch. Various Fritillary species can be seen across the U.S. from June through August, and once you have recognized a Fritillary you will realize how easy it is to know them by their silver spots.

             Now, why am I going on about butterflies in the Violet Gazette? It is because the violet is the food plant for Fritillary butterflies. The adult butterfly takes nectar from milkweed, coneflowers, thistles and many other things, but the eggs of Fritillaries are laid on violets and the larvae feed on the leaves. The eggs are laid at the end of summer; the tiny larvae hatch out and spend the winter under the leaf litter and begin to feed in spring when the violet leaves come back. The larvae are very hairy, spiny, black or dark brown caterpillars, some with orange stripes at the base of the spines. The caterpillars feed only at night on the lower side of the leaves and hide during the day on the ground so they are not often seen, therefore, if something is chewing on your violets, it might not be bad slugs but good Fritillary caterpillars! When the caterpillar is ready to pupate, it drops off the violet plant and attaches the chrysalis to a rock or log or piece of bark nearby. You may find it difficult to locate and identify violets, but think of this little butterfly who is not much bigger than a violet leaf, and has never seen a violet but who can unerringly find one to lay her eggs on. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies (p. 552), describes an even more remarkable feat:.

Image of Snail With Violets
Land Snail With Violets

             "In the Colorado foothills during August and September, females lay eggs under mountain mahogany bushes and other places where violets have long since dried up and will not reappear until the next year. The females may smell the violets' dormant roots."

             When rudely asked about your "weeds" explain that what you have is a "butterfly garden," and even people shocked at the idea of violets in the lawn might be converted. Most butterfly gardens concentrate on large, colorful nectar plants, however, without food plants for the caterpillars there can be no butterflies. Most Fritillary species are reasonably common, but the largest and most beautiful of all, the Regal Fritillary, is endangered and almost extinct in some parts of its range, with only two populations left in existence east of Illinois.

             So plant those violets, spread those violets! You will be adding a double measure of beauty to the world, first with the violets and then again with the butterflies.

© 2000 Elizabeth Scott
For The American Violet Society
All Rights Reserved

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