Butterfly Bucket: Queens and Swallowtails

Argh. Black Swallowtail? Pipevine Swallowtail? Spicebush Swallowtail? I’ve read the descriptions of each and looked at a million photos. I surrender. Whatever you want to call it I thought it was a pretty little thing.

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At the end of each month the transmutational garden hosts a butterfly bucket list event. It is a great excuse to:

  • learn more about flowers that fly
  • go on a butterfly hunt yourself
  • slowly go mad trying to attach a name to what you find

Here’s a butterfly I can name with slightly more confidence (hopefully)

Queen Butterfly
Queen Butterfly

There is a little display of mistflowers and milkweeds growing in one of the demonstration gardens at the Mueller greenbelt. This week it is drawing in clouds of Queen butterflies and people. Mistflowers are fast becoming one of my favourite plants. Not only do they attract an amazing number and diversity of pollinators but they persevere.

I took the photo below last October. That’s a pretty long season of bloom. As far as I know there are three native varieties: Conoclinium betonicifolium, Conoclinium coelestinum and Conoclinium greggii. 

Queen Butterfly, open wings
Queen Butterfly, open wings

So knowing all this I was pretty surprised to learn today that the official host plants for Queen Butterflies are milkweeds — both for larvae and adult forms. Though milkweeds were included in the demonstration garden I was looking at, nearly all of the butterflies were clustering on the mistflowers.

I wonder why. Maybe I got the identification wrong, maybe the milkweeds were tapped out, perhaps the mistflowers had more nectar to offer at that particular time of day …

Any ideas on what might be going on here?

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31 thoughts on “Butterfly Bucket: Queens and Swallowtails

  1. Oh, I am terrible differentiating the various swallowtails–except for the obvious ones, like Giants and Tigers. That’s a beauty! I added some Blue Mistflowers last year and they didn’t fill in much. This summer they seem to be suddenly thriving and spreading. Must be the fencing I put around them to keep out the rabbits! Jeepers, I can’t fence in my entire garden! I love them, and I’ve heard that the butterflies love them, too. We don’t have Queens this far north. They do, indeed closely resemble Monarchs, especially from the side. Great photos!

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    1. I noticed nobody piped up with the answer so I reckon we are not alone in that swallowtail problem. =) Good to know your mistflowers are doing well — now I can hope for something similar here. Rabbits! What could be cuter! While I hear they can be a bit destructive I have to admit I would probably be the person in the neighbourhood who would give them a safe harbour — at least until the moment the neighbours got together to lynch me.

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  2. Well what a lovely collection….I have never seen the Queen butterfly but from the side it certainly can appear to be a monarch although it is clearly not when the wings are open…

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    1. Thank you, Donna. The Queen looks like a Monarch which looks like a Soldier which looks like a Viceroy. heh Yet, they are all subtly different. It has taken me quite a bit of practice (and a little less hair) but I am slowly getting better at identifying them in the field. The Queen is actually kind of easy. She has that white spot near the bottom of her closed wing. She is also much smaller than a Monarch and is a darker orange colour.

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  3. Thank you for the visit. I have three species of milkweed here.. common, swamp and butterfly weed and I have never seen a queen in the yard. I read that they do use it as a host but only certain kinds. I also have mistflower as a nectar plant… but I am see zero monarchs anywhere here in New York…Michelle

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    1. I love your blog! I was wondering if it was a particular milkweed that they seek. The ones growing in the garden are Asclepias tuberosa. I do see the butterflies visiting them but they seem to clearly prefer the mistflower.

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      1. I have looked and looked for Queen larval food and they say “milkweed” and then I found this.. ” Various milkweed including White Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias perennis), Pineland Milkweed (Asclepias humistrata), rarely Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

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        1. Well. Aren’t you just the sweetest person around! Thanks -so- much for making all that effort. I did some digging too and found out that butterflyweed doesn’t contain the toxin that Monarchs and Queens need for their protection so growing local native milkweeds really is the best policy. For Central Texas good choices are the green milkweed and the antelope horn. I don’t think we get enough rain to grow the ones you mention unfortunately. And here is a weird fact: if it is true that butterflyweed doesn’t supply cardenolides, then tropical milkweed (a rich source of cardenolides) becomes a far better choice for the garden if one can’t or won’t grow native plants. So much for the bad press it has been getting lately. It also explains why Queens and Monarchs often prefer the tropical milkweed to tuberosa. Another lesson in trusting wild things to make good choices.

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  4. A-ha…queens and monarchs are related…royal family, makes sense. We have more queens than monarchs out here. And mistflower / Conoclinium (Eupatorium) is quite the magnet, so are shallow puddles after a good hand-watering. Great pics again…

    Reminder to self – check out the Mueller greenbelt and plantings while in Austin later this week.

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    1. Oh! Welcome in advance to Austin. You -might- find the Mueller development area worth checking out. As far as I know they have a policy of promoting native and well adapted plants for landscaping and some of the home gardens really shine. The Mueller Greenbelt demonstration gardens (not the public park near the Thinkery but the area further south along Manor Road) had a catastrophic irrigation failure. The whole system had to be replaced this year. For whatever reason the landscaping company ripped out some of the most important shrubs and left others oddly pruned. I suspect most people might not be terribly impressed at its appearance at the moment. YMMV. The area to the east where the waterfalls and pond are situated is worth checking out for wildlife sightings though. It is a bit of a birding hot spot. I am so desperate for wild things that I go there a lot.

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  5. Beautiful pictures! The Queen Butterfly is lovely, but alas, one I’ve not had the privilege to see. I did get some pictures earlier this year of what I believe to be a Black Swallowtail but it was fluttering its wings so quickly it looks like a blur on the photos! I’ve also learned a lot about mistflowers! Great post. Thanks for joining in on this month’s Butterfly Bucket List.

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    1. The Queens are out in large numbers this week so maybe it is just a timing thing. Thanks for hosting this event. I am learning a lot and really enjoyed your post and the links in your comments section.

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  6. It was my understanding that the mistflowers are favorites for nectaring while the milkweed is the host for the cats so they can consume toxins and be less palatable to predators. Or, perhaps the two plants naturally occur together frequently so one is associated with the other?

    After getting a passalong I bought a second mistflower off a nursery sale table recently and the weather immediately snapped to the Sahara setting. I’m hoping they are tough as advertised because I saw a queen visiting the flower on this tiny struggling plant already. It sure seems to be the pollinator magnet it is advertised to be.

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    1. The butterfly description I read said that milkweed is supposed to be preferred as a nectar plant, too. My experience just doesn’t bear that out but my observations are pretty random. I see mistflowers growing in the wild with no support so I think they must be pretty tough once established but the one I planted over a year ago is looking awfully bedraggled and it never did seed out or spread. I will probably have to do some watering this week.

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      1. I hope you figure out what your black butterfly is because I saw one flitting around my garden beds yesterday. I didn’t rush out with my camera because it was 98 degrees and I decided the butterfly deserved to feed undisturbed given the heat. If it returns I’ll try to see if I can determine some sort of host plant or something to help differentiate and identify. Which, HA! Relying on me to get a butterfly ID nailed down is folly. Folly, I say! : )

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  7. So glad I’m not the only onw who has trouble with the black butterfly identification! As for the Queens on the mistflower plants, I just assumed it has yummy nectar. I notice more Queens and others on the C. greggii, than on the C coelestinum. Has that been your observation as well?

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    1. Until very recently (read: your post about blue mistflowers awhile ago I was unaware that there even were different kinds!) so I am a bad person to ask. But that is good info to know and makes intuitive sense to me.

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  8. Great pics! I always thought the adults fed mostly on flower nectar and the larvae on the milkweed plant. I also read that not all asclepias are equally attractive. A. syriaca is preferred over A. tuberosa around here. There may be regional differences?

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    1. I have heard that the nectar flow rate changes not only through the seasons but also throughout the day so that is a possibility.

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