My obsession with butterflies and moths has grown over the past few months. It began out of a need to identify and showcase the caterpillars that had invaded my community garden in Harlem and to pair them with their adult butterfly or moth stage. I also wanted other gardeners to understand the reasons why I grew particular 'weedy' plants and did not share their habit of cutting back and clearing every plant in our winter clean-up sessions.

However, my fascination with butterflies and moths dates back to my early childhood when masses of Urania leilus moths floated on the air in search of food and breeding grounds. We called them 'police butterflies' for their black coloring with highlights of blue, green and white. As kids we often found hundreds of these day-flying moths along roads and sidewalks as many were damaged or perished during their migration across the Caribbean and South America. Sadly, the phenomenon has become much less common in recent years. 

I've absorbed lepidoptera information and started a little painting project. Unlike the abstract paintings 'field paintings' of the past 2+ decades, I rekindled a practice from my childhood: an exercise in seeing and reproducing details. I studied my many photographs of butterflies and moths and also looked at tons of images online. I wanted to give each painting a level of realism and render the subjects with their approximate wingspans and each in a size relative to other species. After a few hours of painting I found myself enjoying the focus on symmetry and detail. Now, a few months later, I have amassed a small collection of paintings.

You can find various versions of these paintings on Etsy under the shop name NaturalArtScapes.

Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus)

Monarch (Danaus plexippus)

These small paintings were made with acrylic and permanent  ink  on wood. They are meant to free stand or can be easily hung.

Anise Swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon)

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)

Two Monarchs

 California Sister (Limenitis bredowii)

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)

This swallowtail is depicted on Buddleia davidii, a non-native species. Buddleia is considered an invasive weed by some gardeners. I've even heard it referred to as junk food for butterflies. I like it. I always have since I noticed it attracts hoards of butterflies. I am also fond of buddleia because I remember it growing as far south as in my mother's garden when I was a child in Trinidad. Very strange, knowing what I know now of this plant's growing range. But, I dare say that my mom was a miracle worker and grew all sorts of unusual plants. There is a Hydrangea macrophylla growing in her garden today.

Red Admiral, Red Spotted Purple and Buckeye

Other butterflies depicted include a Sulfur, Cabbage White, Painted Lady and a Fritillary. My personal favorite is one of the least colorful and not a butterfly. It is the Sphinx Moth. I will soon add the Mourning Cloak butterfly and Dog Face to my collection.

These and other lovely visitors are regulars in my Harlem garden. I have created a haven for them with attractive plants for food and habitat. They add a bit of magic to the garden and to a home.


THE MOON  (excerpt) - Robert Louis Stevenson


The moon has a face like the clock in the hall; 

She shines on thieves on the garden wall,

On streets and fields and harbour quays, 

And birdies asleep in the forks of the trees."

Mysterious, night-blooming vine in the morning glory family, Ipomea alba was a highlight among tomatoes, butternut squash, peppers and herbs in my little vegetable garden in Harlem. I grew a few plants from seeds collected the previous fall and last summer I was rewarded with an abundance of blossoms. Here are a few more reasons to love the moon.


 Large, medium green heart-shaped leaves soak up the sun's energy to prepare for stages to come.


Young tightly wrapped flowers emerge from curious purple tentacled sepals, elongating with each spiral.





  'Heavenly' is the word that best describes moonflower. The large tubular flowers can be 5"-6" in diameter. They are pure white with hints of green and subtle petal venation. 


 Soft evening perfume float on the wing as you walk along West 146 Street in Harlem.


Moonflowers are intoxicating to insects that detect the strong fragrance from far away. Markings on the soft petals guide them towards the long tunnels that lead to nourishing nectar. I have not seen them but bats also love the scent of moonflower and are regular pollinators.


The extremely long proboscis of the sphinx moth is well suited for retrieving nectar which is located at the base of the long throats of moonflowers. The compatible morphology and physiology of both species ensures pollination.


Flowers fade just after one night of radiance but still look lovely with pink flushes.


Beautiful beads of fruit appear and grow more bulbous as they mature.


Delicate skins enclose pale creamy seeds that resemble pebbles and are almost as hard. Ideally pods should be left on the vine until seeds are mature and rattle when shaken. However, frost damages seeds. Be vigilant and harvest mature pods to dry indoors before frost hits. 


Each seed hold the sparks for a new pant. The temperatures and moisture of late Spring are perfectly combined to trigger the beginning of another purposeful, beautiful and abundant new life.


Flowering plants, whether herbaceous perennials, annuals, shrubs or trees, are delightful to the senses. We are drawn to their clusters or punctuations of color in delicate or robust shapes, varied textures and subtle or bold scents. Insects and birds are also drawn to flowering plants. Flowers provide nutritious and tasty nectar that insects and hummingbirds need for energy to fly, reproduce and ensure the health of future generations. Flowers often develop seeds that are a vital source of food for birds, humans and other animals.

The shape and color of a flower or inflorescence is usually an indicator of the type of insect that will be attracted to it. Bees love purple and yellow flowers, especially those of the Asteraceae family. Butterflies do not seem to be partial to flower colors. Hummingbirds are attracted to the color red and to any flower that is tubular. Of course the long beaks and tongues of hummingbirds and the flexible proboscis of butterflies and moths can reach into many tubular flowers that store nectar deep within. Lines, ridges and folds in flower petals help guide insects, like a plane on a runway, towards areas of the flowers that guarantee maximum connection with grains of pollen, that will be transported to other flowers, thereby increasing chances of pollination.

As insects, birds and other animals go about their business of survival, they ensure the survival of many other species including humans beings, by pollination. Food crops and other plants and trees often depend on the dispersal of seeds by birds, rodents and other creatures. Every nut-carrying frantic squirrel is adding to the survival of oak trees by the many acorns that are buried and are meant to be later dug up by absent-minded furry nuts. Every squawking blue jay that lands on a city windowsill with a beak full of nut seeds ensures the survival of many interconnected species.

Below is an assortment of plants that I've been growing in the Memorial Garden and other areas in the R.L Clinkscales Community Garden and Playground in Harlem. Please note that some of these images were found online. 

Buddleia davidii is a non-native and often considered an invasive shrub. Apparently butterflies do not distrust immigrants as they flock in multitudes to feed on the numerous tiny flowers on long panicles. I do not plan to exclude this plant from my garden palette anytime soon.

Foeniculum vulgare is another non-native and if left unchecked, it will seed prolifically. This short lived-perennial is also a host plant of black swallowtail caterpillars. Black swallowtails are fond of yellow-flowering umbiliferous plants. Fennel, dill, parsley, celery and Zizia aurea (Golden Alexander) are among their favorites.

Towards the end of summer when many flowering plants are past their peak, pollinators are rewarded with a special treat of nectar and pollen from asters and goldenrods. These perennials are essential to the survival of many species that need energy to fuel their long migration to warmer lands. Monarchs gorge themselves at stop-over points along their way to Mexico. Like New Yorkers, other pollinators brace themselves for the winter cold. Most will not have access to food for months and honker down to avoid freezing winds. Asters and goldenrods provide food that will take sustain butterflies through the hibernation period.

Last November I was thrilled to find Salvia elegans (pineapple sage) with its bright red tubular flowers, still going strong in the Memorial Garden. I bet hummingbirds and other pollinators were equally delighted.


Butterfly sightings elicit excited shrieks from delighted children and adults. It is a special treat to glimpse these beautiful winged insects in our urban landscapes, floating on the air or darting about. For some, seeing a butterfly is magical and a hint of the spiritual realm. For others it is a natural wonder and a reminder of the beauty and frailty of all life. Whatever you may feel when a butterfly captures your attention, note that you are experiencing a privilege. 

Like bees, butterflies and moths are vital to our existence and like bees, their numbers are declining. Many are on the endangered species list and others are rapidly nearing extinction. Human intervention in the form of pesticides applications and soil and water pollution has weakened their bodies; their food supplies and habitats are razed for infrastructure and urban expansion. Unpredictable climate and increasing temperatures are also disrupting their food supplies and survival rates. Butterfly and moth populations in cities increase or decrease in direct proportion with pockets of greenery, trees, flowering plants, community gardens, parks, rooftop and green roof plantings and window boxes, all of which, provide food and habitat for these attractive winged insects.

  Still tweaking and adding more species to my collection.

Last winter I began a project to become better acquainted with common butterflies, moths and caterpillars that I spot on various landscapes and while gardening. My goal was to increase awareness and appreciation of these beautiful soft bodies and winged creatures, decrease caterpillar anxiety and create many ah-ha moments among my fellow community gardeners. I was also hoping to inspire curiosity among ­­­­­parents and children in the adjoining playground and neighborhood of Harlem. These durable hand-painted signs were to be hoisted on flexible bamboo rods and placed in various parts of the garden.

Red Admiral has striking orange-vermillion bands on its upper and hind wings.
It is not difficult to fathom how certain caterpillars may seem scary or icky. However, I  was shocked to find that some people are terrified of butterflies. One teen described an episode of Sponge Bob in which the body and compound eyes of a butterfly were magnified and appeared to terrorize the screaming Sponge Bob and his starfish friend Patrick. Those two goofballs are such drama queens.

Some caterpillars, especially ones donning spines, bristles or hairs, have been known to cause skin irritations. In Trinidad and Tobago, where I grew up, a hairy or spiky caterpillar is called a “chinney” after the French word for caterpillar ‘chenille’. Some people assume that such caterpillars “sting” or cause itching. In response, many caterpillars are avoided and, unfortunately, often killed, even the absolutely innocuous ones.

Like all organisms, caterpillars seek to defend themselves when threatened. Some like the Black Swallowtail caterpillar extends its osmeterium, a v-shaped structure that secretes a foul smelling substance that birds dislike. Others attempt to look as threatening as possible, like the tomato horn worm, which raises its upper body, somewhat like a sphinx, hence the name sphinx moth. Some caterpillars have horn-like structures that look sharp while others possess hair-like appendages that are whipped around to ward off predators. The spicebush caterpillar sports prominent eye markings to seem more like the eyes of a serpent, which is threatening to birds and scary to humans. Some caterpillars protect themselves from predators by means of clever disguises or camouflage. The Giant Swallowtail caterpillar is mottled brown and white and resembles fresh bird droppings. Others are colored as to be mistaken for leaves, stems or twigs. Some are colored to resemble tree bark, which are great hiding places for moths.

The Monarch butterfly caterpillar absorbs toxins from its host plants that in turn make it and its butterfly unpalatable to birds. Other butterflies have evolved the great defense mechanism, which is to physically mimic a different butterfly species that taste nasty or is toxic to predators. A bird may see a Viceroy butterfly and mistake it for a Monarch, which they know from experience, makes them ill. Similarly, the Black Swallowtail and the Spicebush Swallowtail are often mistaken for the toxic Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly. Birds stay clear of all three. 

Monarch caterpillars may look fierce with their horn-like appendages but they are quite docile. They feed exclusively on various species of milkweed. Look for them on common milkweed in weedy areas. 

Unless you are a bird other predator, all the grandstanding, strong odors or nasty taste should not deter close observation of the wondrous lives of these little creatures whose metamorphosis is such and extraordinary event. Caterpillars generally do not move very quickly so you can get really close. Try not to disturb them or redirect them if you think they are straying from their food source. Often a caterpillar will seem to be aimlessly wandering off in no particular direction That lonesome traveler is not lost but searching for the right place to hide and form a chrysalis.

You may be allowed to get really close to a butterfly or moth. Like bees they sometimes get so focused on feeding that they do not notice you creeping closer. Moths often sit still for long periods. Butterflies and moths are eye-catching and their distinctive wing shapes and patterns are truly awesome. Be patient and you may be rewarded with a display of both the dorsal (upper side of wing) and the vernal surface (under side of wing). Wing undersides are generally of different colors and patterns than the dorsal surface. Some butterflies and moths have incredible marbled designs and wonderfully arranged shapes in linear and often concentric patterns. Some have deceptive and attractive eyespots. Others don less distinctive or mottled shapes. All are unique and provide incredible visual entertainment.

Monarchs are popular for their size and beauty and for their migratory pattern in vast numbers over long distances. This natural phenomenon is threatened as Monarch butterfly numbers decline. Gardeners all across the US are growing various species of milkweed, their host plant, to increase their population. These majestic creatures also need lots of nectar from other flowering plants as they make their long journeys to and from wintering grounds. It is always a pleasure to see them in the garden.


This male Monarch butterfly visited the habitat garden in Harlem regularly. The nectar of blazing star was irresistible.

Monarchs are popular for their size and beauty and for their migratory pattern in vast numbers over long distances. This natural phenomenon is threatened as Monarch butterfly numbers decline. Gardeners all across the US are growing various species of milkweed, their host plant, to increase their population. These majestic creatures also need lots of nectar from other flowering plants as they make their long journeys to and from wintering grounds. It is always a pleasure to see them in the garden.

Monarchs feed on milkweed nectar but also enjoy nectar from many plant species.

The common Buckeye butterfly can easily be identified by its many eyespots and rows of chevrons on wing margins.  
 Variegated Flitillary

There are four stages in the life cycle of butterflies and moths: egg, caterpillar or larvae, pupa or chrysalis and adult. A butterfly or moth can lay thousands of eggs during its short lifespan, which is usually between a few weeks to about nine months, as in the case of Monarch. However, in all stages, staying alive is a precarious business as there are many natural predators lurking, often allowing only a small percentage of eggs, caterpillars, pupae or chrysalis to reach the final adult stage.

  None of the black swallowtail caterpillars on my flowering parsley and bronze fennel lived to grow past an inch long. Wasps that nourish their offspring with caterpillar juice gobbled them all up. Lifeless, shriveled skins were sometimes left behind.

I do feel particular sympathy for the poor tomato or tobacco hornworm that morphs into the elegant Sphinx Moth, seen visiting the moonflower at evenings. The larval stage often becomes food for larvae of parasitic wasps that penetrate the skin and lay their eggs in the caterpillar's body. When they emerge, the hungry larvae feed on the soft wormy body of their defenseless host. You may notice the white cocoons of the soon-to emerge young wasps attached to the body of the ill-fated caterpillar. It is a curious sight and one that I do not relish. This parasitic relationship is beneficial to tomato growers as it keeps hornworm populations in check. I came across a recipe for fried tomato hornworms. I wonder if they taste like fried green tomatoes. Hmmm.

In their adult butterfly or moth stage, these lovely winged creatures become food for birds, spiders, and praying mantis. Last summer I found many Monarch wings at the base of flowering plants. Large praying mantis, very cleverly hidden, were always nearby on the butterfly bush, waiting but never in vain.
In both the ornamental and vegetable gardens caterpillars may be uninvited guests. The aim of a caterpillar is to eat and grow through various stages before becoming mature enough to morph into a butterfly or moth, so the adult can mate and reproduce.

  Although they may seem ubiquitous, Cabbage White butterflies are native to Europe and Asia.

Caterpillars have ravenous appetites and a few can quickly strip a plant of its leaves. The sight of Cabbage White butterflies flitting around a garden is a sign that their offspring may be responsible for the holes in collard greens, kale and cabbages. I don’t mind them or the bites they take. I grow enough for us all. However, I would not like to take a bite of one of these green creatures while eating my dinner. Yuck!

This gypsy moth caterpillar in Ashfield, MA ravished my friend’s juniper. This is the larva of a non-native moth species, which is considered a pest.

I was not happy to discover a colony of fall webworm on my Ilex veticillata.

Some caterpillars can cause major leaf loss, leading to reduced chlorophyll and overall tree health. I do not hesitate to destroy large colonies of tent caterpillars, which morph into moths. One such pest is the Fall Webworms that have invaded my community garden. The pesky caterpillars will morph into white moths after growing fat on leaves from the apple tree and dogwoods. Although some defoliation takes place, these caterpillars cause little damage to otherwise healthy trees. This is undoubtedly in part because of the wide range of trees and plants they nibble on. Fall Webworms have nibbled leaves of kale, the tender first leaves of sunflowers and could be found just about everywhere in the garden last summer. Mostly, they are just annoying. Unwanted caterpillars play a significant role in the ecosystem too. After a few weeks webworm moths will be plentiful and will feed hungry songbirds that need to fatten up before the winter days.
Finding ravished plants in the pollinator garden is reason to rejoice. I am thrilled to find bites on any of the various species of milkweed growing in the Memorial Garden bed at the R. L. Clinkscale Playground and Community Garden in Harlem. I welcome Monarch butterflies, their caterpillars and all butterflies, bees and wasps. The very attractive bronze fennel with its lovely yellow umbels is much loved by multitudes of inspect species. Fennel leaves are very tasty, like licorice. They are also much loved by the black swallowtail caterpillar.

Black Swallowtail caterpillars also love the leaves, stems and flowers of Zizia aurea or Golden Alexander and other plants in the parsley family.

Lindera benzoin or spicebush shrub is the larval host plant of the spicebush butterfly. Last summer I saw ­­­­­no evidence of caterpillars but the leaves of the native shrub are a favorite of the leaf-cutter bee. I anticipate caterpillars next summer.

  The Question Mark butterfly can often be found feasting on rotten fruit, which may be available when flowering plants are not so plentiful.

Don't be surprised to find butterflies resting on soil, on beaches, on muddy or sandy puddles and sometimes daring to land on a sweaty brow or shoulder. These insects seek salts and nutrients that can be found on various moist surfaces. You may also spot butterflies in unexpected places. Some species enjoy sips from a juicy turd or rotting animals. Decomposition releases easily digestible nutrients that some butterflies recycle into nourishment for their bodies.

Skippers are smallish butterflies with short, stout bodies. See them resting with their wings held upwards.

Some moths are daytime feeders and flyers, like this Virginia Ctenucha.

The Eight-Spotted Forester is another day-flying moth.

Although a non-native and considered an invasive weed by some horticulturists, Buddleia davidii is a favorite of butterflies. I once spotted more than six monarchs in a one-foot radius of this shrub.

                Blazing star gets a lot of plant love for from this Monarch and Black swallowtail.


  A Black Swallowtail on Vernonia fasciculata.

As cute as a button, the Sootywing is a tiny butterfly with a wingspan of just about one inch. It flies low to the ground to avoid being noticed by predators. It loves the non-native Verbena bonariensis.
Gardening, in so many ways, is a leap of faith. If you want to see more butterflies, moths and caterpillars, grow what they love and they will come. You will also attract multitudes of bees, wasps, ladybugs and other beneficial and pollinator insects.

·      Grow native plant species and other (non-invasive) plants that provide nectar and habitat.
·      Urban living is usually accompanied by limited space and opportunities to garden. Grow wherever you can, on your windowsills, window boxes, tree pits, backyards, containers and between herbs and vegetables in community garden beds.
·      Entice butterflies with rotting fruit, puddles and patches of nutrient-rich soil.
·      Refrain from cutting back plants that may be their over-wintering shelters.
·      Avoid the urge to rip out non-invasive weedy plants like violets as key are hosts and habitat for many species of butterflies and moths.
·      Be more careful about winter clean up as larvae, chrysalis pupae and eggs may overwinter in leaf litter under plants and trees.
·      Avoid using pesticides. Sprays and powders that are toxic to caterpillars are often toxic to bees and other beneficial organisms. They are also hazardous to human health and may remain in the soil to pollute several seasons of crops.
·      Opt for handpicking or hosing pesky caterpillars off plants.

Butterflies are emblems of hope, endurance and change. Keep being curious. Never loose hope that human beings can work together for change, for the survival of our amazing pollinators and our beautiful planet.


My obsession with butterflies and moths has grown over the past few months. It began out of a need to identify and showcase the caterpillars...