On a nature walk at Congaree National Park my third-grade companions spotted several green caterpillars crawling along the boardwalk railings. The youngsters knew caterpillars chewed leaves and they started looking for the food source. It happened to be right overhead. The red maple trees, Acer rubrum, were in autumn color but caterpillar cutwork had created intriguing “see through” leaf designs.
These vegetarians had green bodies with small black spines and a round red-orange head. The markings, measurements and menu helped us identify the caterpillar as the green striped mapleworm, the larva of the rosy maple moth, Dryocampa rubicunda, a stunning yellow and pink winged moth with a furry yellow body native to the eastern United States.
Further along the boardwalk among a stand of beech trees, we encountered an inchworm looping along the handrail. Inchworms, aka cankerworms, loopers, measuring worms and span-worms represent over a thousand species of geometer moth. The size of the caterpillar is no clue to the amount of foliage these miniature mouths can consume in a forest. Beech, oak, elm and maple trees are but a few hosts of these forest surveyors.
Observing creatures dependent on a host tree leaf brings awareness to the importance of including trees when planting butterfly and moth gardens.
The Congaree National Park trees host a varied population of caterpillar species. Your home landscape and child’s school grounds can do the same.
Consider shade trees that can be planted as food sources for the larval stage of the adult butterflies and moths.
Tulip poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera, tops my list. Years ago I planted a tulip poplar twig from the Arbor Day Foundation and today the towering tree is visited by Ms. Eastern Tiger Swallowtails at egg laying time to deposit glistening green beads on leaves.
My river birch cools the house in summer while the leaves play host to tiger swallowtail and mourning cloak larvae.
You can find the spicebush butterfly’s green caterpillar, with its snakelike head and large black eyespot and the Imperial moth larva, on sassafras tree leaves.
The fast growing hackberry, Celtis occidentalis, and its cousin the sugarberry, Celtis laevigata, are hosts to a handful of butterfly larvae, including hackberry emperor, question mark, mourning cloak, snout butterfly, and tawny emperor.
Royal walnut moth larvae, called the hickory horned devil, feed on hickory, walnut, pecan, sumac and sweet gum.
The lovely and large sea-foam green luna moth deposits eggs on beeches, cherries, hickories, pecan, persimmon, sweet gum and willows.
Tour the forested areas of the metropolitan area to view host plant Lepidopteran gardens.
The trees of W. Gordon Belser Arboretum offer 10 acres of upscale dining for caterpillars. The tree-lined trails at Sesquicentennial State Park are a butterfly larvae buffet.
Visitors to USC’s Historic Horseshoe can take a self-guided tour of the trees using a leaflet from the visitor’s center at McKissick Museum. The downtown campus trees matriculate and graduate more moths and butterflies than students each year.
Trees also are the backbone of the 12 theme gardens at the Carolina Children’s Garden, a two-acre public garden at Clemson University Sandhill Research and Education Center in northeast Columbia.
Arlene Marturano is an educator, consultant, master gardener, and freelance writer. Read more of Marturano’s garden writings at suite101.com and www.scgardenlearning.com