Metamorphosis is a subject that fascinates us here at Native Nurseries. We and our customers love to watch the process occur up close in the caterpillar raising cages we build and sell here at the nursery, and we’ve had some fun and interesting caterpillar events over the years.

There were the Luna Moths we raised from eggs a customer brought us. What a gorgeous creature! The majority of its days are spent as egg, caterpillar and cocoon. When it emerges as an adult moth it has only three more days to live. It does not even have a mouth since it does not eat! Imagine being allotted only three days to live as an adult. They are spent finding a mate and producing eggs . . . and flying . . . at least it gets to fly.

Then there was the Monarch caterpillar that chose the underside of our front counter as a good location to become a chrysalis. It later chose the morning of our Fall Butterfly Festival to emerge. You should have seen the look on the customer’s face as she pointed to the Monarch butterfly climbing Jody’s jeans as he rang up her butterfly purchases! We could not have planned that in a million years!

We had another metamorphosis moment a couple years ago on a Saturday morning. Donna noticed that an Imperial Moth had finally emerged from its cocoon. Unfortunately, by the time she noticed the moth had disappeared. We needed to find it so it could be released that night to look for a mate, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to locate because the Imperial Moth is yellow and purple and has a wing span of up to 5½ inches. Donna and Lilly searched high and low and finally even pulled everything out from under the table the pupa sat on for so long, but to no avail. The moth was gone.

The empty cocoon was pretty interesting in itself and we showed it to many customers who came in that day. Some of them helped us look again for the moth, but it was not to be found.

Later that afternoon Jody was again showing the empty cocoon to some customers and telling them about the missing moth. A young girl in the group took a short look around the room, went back to the bird room and within seconds pointed at the ceiling. “Well there it is,” were her words; but her tone clearly said, “Grownups . . . how helpless!” Yep, there it was—a beautiful, female imperial moth—on the back wall where it meets the ceiling behind the branches Brian used to decorate the bird room. Man, to have the eyes of a child again!

Caterpillars, butterflies and moths are such interesting creatures—some fly incredible distances, such as the Monarch in its migration to Mexico each winter. Even more amazing is the fact that they find their way to the same trees in the same small region every year, especially when you consider they’ve never made the trip before. They are several generations from the group who made the trip the previous year.

Some species can detect a potential mate from a long distance. The male Polyphemus Moth can sense a female from several miles away even though she releases only one billionth of a gram of pheromone (scent) per hour. It’s a pretty necessary talent I suppose, as short lived as some moths are!

Some are beautiful, some look like bird poop (Giant Swallowtail caterpillar) and some look very scary (Hickory Horned Devil). Some are more interesting than others—but they all have one incredibly interesting process in common—metamorphosis. And one of the most interesting stages of metamorphosis to witness is the beginning of pupation. This creature changes from a caterpillar into what looks like a sack of fluid or a dried up old leaf or a beautiful ornament complete with shiny, gold trim in a very short time, right before your eyes. The process actually starts hours (or days) earlier, but once the caterpillar’s skin splits, it sheds that skin in a very short time and then this shapeless, legless, blind blob has to step out of that skin (while hanging upside down no less), let that skin drop and then reattach itself to the small pad of silk it has attached to the substrate. Imagine a blind Olympic gymnast with no arms winning the gold! Is it any wonder we find the subject so fascinating?

Woodland Wildflowers

When all is barren in our deciduous woods in the winter months, small surprises emerge in the way of herbaceous wildflowers. Being at the southern-most range for these woodland plants makes our region unique. The remnants of a beech magnolia forest, if left undisturbed for a short period of time will reveal many of these surprises.

Under a thick carpet of leaf litter and organic matter in shade, the following native perennials can be easily grown:

Trout Lily (Erythronium umbilicatum) can form vast colonies if left undisturbed. The yellow nodding bloom emerges from fleshy foliage spotted with maroon splotches. This plant is rare in Florida but can be seen at the nature park in Chattahoochee and also at the recent acquisition of Wolfe Creek Preserve in Grady County, Georgia.

Bloodroot (Sanguinar Canadensis) was given the name of bloodroot because of the red-orange rhizomes which have been used medicinally in traditional mountain medicines. Small white flowers push up thorough the first emerging leaves. Bloodroot is slow growing but will re-seed.

Ginger Root or Little Brown Jug (Hexastylis arifolia) has heart shaped leaves and is evergreen. Growing low to the ground this native has a tiny brown bloom in the shape of an oul earthen jug.

Senecio aureus, another evergreen, can cover a shady area fairly rapidly and becomes a carpet of bright green with tall yellow blooms in spring.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyluum) and its relative Dragon’s Tongue (A. dracontium) seem to pop up instantaneously, sometimes over 2 feet tall. Jack hides slyly under his hood while the Dragon waves his long tongue at the world. Both produce bright red seeds which fall to the forest floor to become new plants.

Blue Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata) does best in dappled light or on the edge of the woods with a little morning sun. This true blue flower is very showy as a border or in small groupings. It will reseed if not mulched heavily. Blooming in early spring it can be quite stunning en mass.

Trillium underwoodii – Although not out of the ground for a long period of time, Trillum’s vibrant burgundy flowers and mottled green foliage can become a thick carpet in the late winter months. This threatened species in our area is becoming increasingly rare.

Indian Pink (Spigelia marilandica) emerges in late spring and presents its bright yellow stars upon scarlet red tubes for the ruby throated hummingbirds. Forming clumps of 18” foliage, this is a hardy perennial bringing attention to a shady woodland bed.

Columbine (Aquilegia Canadensis) prefers a limey soil and can tolerate less organic matter. Also red and yellow, the nodding blooms tower over delicate lacey foliage. It too welcomes back the hummingbirds in March.

All of these woodland plants combine well with our native ferns and can enliven a shaded area. Many can be seen in our nearby state parks or right here on the grounds of Native Nurseries.