COME LEH WE LIME - Peas, Fire + Steel

Today, one day before Ash Wednesday, marks the end of the two-day celebration of revelry and musical explosion in what has been called the greatest show on earth, Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. For years I witnessed thousands of paraders donning costumes fashioned around social commentary, political satire, global issues of the day, history, folklore, flora and fauna of the islands. All the happenings of the past year could be themes for new calypsos and large costumes and I can imagine overwhelmingly orange costumes, referencing the virus and Trump. Many decades of wire bending tradition goes into creating some of the worlds most intricate, flexible and magnificent costumes for the Kings and Queens of the bands. The followers usually frolic in simpler costumes; lighter, more flexible versions of the king and queen. In recent years some mas bands have relied on cheap, made-in-China headdresses of colorful feathers on sequenced, barely-clad bodies. In social media Trinidad Carnival looks very much like the plumed bikini pageantry of Rio de Janeiro. However, the atmosphere surrounding competing calypsonians presenting their original tunes each year and the rivalry and camaraderie among the multitudes of steel band groups keep Trinidad and Tobago Carnival spectacular and dynamic.  




The pandemic has placed a hold on Carnival this year. The streets will not vibrate with thousands of bodies dingolaying and shuffling behind large steel band formations, performing in front of judges across the stage in Queens Park Savannah. Nor will there be revelers chipping down the road in towns across the country. There is no Panorama steel band competition, no J’ouvert, Dimanche Gra and no winning Road March this year. Today the celebration of freedom and a tradition that grew from defiance and rebellion against French and British colonial oppression is present and in the air and in the form of looking back.

The Steel drum is an invention which first took root in the 1940’s in poverty-riddled hills of Laventille, Trinidad. Through the innovation and Winston “Spree” Simon and later talents of greats like Ellie Mannette, pan evolved into multiple multi-note instruments. With no amplification, a tremendous range of notes resonates on indentations portioned into the circular end of oil drums, hammered into a shallow concave form. Trinidad exports billions of dollars worth of oil and gas to the US and globally each year. Most early steel pans were made from discarded drums. What began as a simple 4-note instrument evolved into various drums that come together to form orchestras with over one hundred players. Large bands are divided into groups of players on the tenor pan (1-2 pans), guitar pan (2 pans), the cello pan (3 pans) and the bass pan (4-6 pans, fashioned from full length oil drums). I have been mesmerized by the sweet melodies emanating  from steel played by men, women and children, moving with lightning speed, their bodies swaying with each beat while celebrating their craft. In the words of the calypsonian Maestro, "Hot like fire!"


New York subway riders may be treated to steel pan music from a single tenor pan or a double guitar pan. Caesar Passée is a musician who plays the pan with skill and passion. One particularly bad performer prances around while pounding out the first couple lines of Beethoven’s Für Elise. It is quite difficult to stand on the platform when he is doing his thing and I often want to pay him to stop playing.

Regardless of which side of the equator we West Indians live during winter, Carnival season is the time of year when our spirits are infused with rhythms born of hybrid African and western traditions that make for unique and vibrant people. Come rain or snow or shine we lime, Trinidadian style. ‘Lime’ is a noun and a verb in Trinbago dialect. The word means a hangout out, party or any informal social event and also used to describe hanging out or socializing. I hope that we can meet for a lime in the very near future and celebrate life and hope for the future. Below is an invitation to walk down memory lane and to be introduced to some favorite oldies in the form of traditional calypsos and steel pan.

Calypsonian Lord Relator and Andy Narell Steel orchestra performing in Germany. Relator sings a medley of some popular calypsos by the super talented grand master, the Lord Kitchener, who passed away in 2000. Kitchener was a genius in composing music that was well suited to explore the range of tones of the steel drum. Enjoy!

The brilliant Maestro said in his 1976 funky soca tune “Savage”

"…Especially in the winter

Temperatures lower than ever

Yankees looking for shelter

West Indian on the road, taking over

Taking Over, Hot like fire.

Savage! They say we West Indians Savage......."

Or you may like Bunji Garlin’s “Savage”, 2012

Trinidad All Stars - “Woman on The Bass”, 2014


Shadow - “Dingolay” (frolic wildly and move to music)



Pigeon peas (Cajanus cajun) is a favorite Trinidadian crop that is usually harvested around Carnival time. We cook it with tiny pieces of salted meat and coconut milk. Or with rice and meat in pelau. Delicious!

I am really glad Shadow decided to sing calypso rather than become farmer. How lucky we were to have him. Hopefully he still had time to enjoy planting pigeon peas, sorrel and okra   when the bass man allowed him.

Shadow -“Bass Man”,

"I was planning to forget Calypso
And go and plant peas in Tobago
But I am afraid ah cyah make de grade.
Cuz every night I lie down in mih bed
Ah hearing a Bassman in mih head

Ah don’t know how dis t’ing get inside me
But e-ve-ry morning, he drivin’ me crazy
Like he takin’ me head for a pan-yard
Morning and evening, like dis fella gone mad.
Pim pom – an’ if ah don’t want to sing
Pim pom – well, he start to do he t’ing
I don’t want to – but ah have to sing
Pim pom – an’ if ah don’t want to dance
Pim pom – he does have me in a trance
I don’t want to – but ah have to prance to his:

pom pom pidi pom, pom, pom pom pidi pom, pom… "

Lastly, Kitchener – “Pan in A Minor”


Harlem may seem like an unlikely location for bird-watching. Yet, for the past few months Harlemites have woken up to the sounds of multitudes of bird calls, some just outside their bedroom windows. New Yorkers are used to the sounds of those sometimes-pesky sparrows that are like miniature pigeons. They seem to be everywhere waiting for the crumbs of your sandwich as you sit in the park. They bicker and are often a boisterous lot too. Then there are the pigeons. Pigeons on your rooftops, window sills and air condition units, splattering the sidewalks with poop and swooping down within inches of your head as you try to escape what you realize a little too late, is their feeding spot in a park. As I write I hear crows making a ruckus nearby. What I am thrilled to hear each morning are the sounds made by cardinals. It is mostly a shw-heet-shw-heet-shw-heet-shw-heet-whoo-whoo-whoo; three or four long and three staccato. Robins make a sweet call too and if you are  curious and patient you can connect the music to the red-breasted serenaders.

The source of much of this ornithological merry making is the largely undisturbed tree canopies that shelter the North Woods of Central Park, which abuts 110th Street. Morningside Park sits a few blocks away to the West and St Nicholas Park is close by. The ribbon of greenery ends with the narrow Jackie Robinson Park, with its many massive mature trees and understory plants throughout the ten-block landscape, ending at 155th street. With all these large fragmented pockets of wilderness, city birds have ample areas in whi
ch to forage and raise their families. 



Many spaces in which birds congregate are usually narrow patches of earth strewn with used diapers, foam and discarded household items resting on the roots and clinging to branches of mulberry bushes, lovely purple-flowering paulownias and elderberries. Stray cats curl up on discarded stuff toys and cushions, some still recovering from the long winter and too tired or eager to pounce on the all-too-vigilant sparrows. 

My apartment is on the forth floor of a five-story apartment building, which is surrounded by similar structures. Between my north-facing windows and the south facing windows of buildings on 149th street lies a narrow strip of land and concrete which runs along the entire length of the block. The sliver of land is divided into coveted backyard spaces for the ground floor residences and are home to birds, squirrels, stray cats and the occasional racoon family, on vacation from the nearby parks. I find myself rushing to the window, careening my neck and stepping out on the fire escape to find that bird that is not the cardinal whose calls and whistles I've come to know so well. The blue jays are the ones making the loud squawking calls. Sparrows are plentiful and noisy. Starlings sit high in the London planetrees and make soft quick clicking sounds to attract mates. Across the street, on the south side of my block sits a renovated school that is now a luxury coo-op building. One penthouse garden apartment attracts an outrageous mocking bird. I often see and hear him mimicking car alarms and announcing himself to the world from his perch on the apex of a roof structure.


Mourning doves are regular visitors to my window boxes and fire escape. They make squeaky-wheel sounds as they fly past my windows.

Slivers of land at the back and sides of multi-family buildings are spaces not unlike areas of the North Woods with its larger two-legged inhabitants sectioning parts of Central Park's wildness for sleep, recreation, bodily functions and other human pastimes. The woods provide hiding, breeding and recreational venues for birds that sometimes benefit from scraps left behind by cohabiting humans.The main attraction for birds however remains the same in large spaces as throughout the narrow margins and spaces between buildings. It is in the bounty of trees laden with mulberries, elderberries, paulownia seeds, chokeberry and sumac berries. 

One other factor influencing bird population in Harlem is the presence of human feeders who accidentally, carelessly or deliberately supply birds with an array of crumbs from bread, bagels, pizza and yes, fried chicken. I sometimes shudder to see birds pecking at sprinkles or chocolate-covered lump of a doughnut or starlings squabbling over pieces of chicken.


Pale Male is the most famous bird of Central Park and possibly in the world (with the exception from Big Bird, of course). This red-tailed hawk may be one of his many offspring. It is perched near a Firth Ave terrace, overlooking Central Park.

Then there are the birds of the bay and bridge areas.The island of Manhattan drastically narrows in North Harlem. Beginning at 125th Street, several bridges straddle the Harlem River and connect the island to the South Bronx. Seagulls sometime surprise me with tenacity, their wing-span and gall as they scoop down to pick on  treats near the subway entrance at 148th street, often startling pedestrians.A few blocks north sits the Macombs Dam Bridge which connects North Harlem to the South Bronx area near Yankee Stadium. I once approached the east side of the bridge curious about the architectural structures on the foundation housing the swing mechanism of the bridge. This foundation is usually covered in weeds; phragmites, paulownia, milkweed and goldenrod occupy the surface of the footing which is surrounded by a band of concrete. As I got closer, I found that each evenly spaced mound on the concrete was a tightly tucked-in Canada Goose. How they managed to each sit perfectly still at about four feet apart was cause for amusement and wonder.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to have a backyard in the city can encourage feathered visitors by allowing one or more weedy shrubs or trees that birds favor.  Mulberries can be messy but birds cherish them as they do the seeds of paulownia and elderberry. A pile of dried leaves may attract warblers and overwintering juncos before it begins to breakdown into compost. A drinking station in the form of a simple birdbath is an open invitation and birds will love you if you provide feeding stations of seeds to help them survive our harsh winters. Amelanchier, chokeberry, sunflowers, panicum and echinachea in containers work for those with terraces and rooftop gardens. Window boxes including small containers of water and assorted birdseed may attract cardinals, doves and sparrows. Evergreen cuttings and stems of holly berry will attract birds in winter and may inspire juncos to overnight as evergreens provide protection during winter nights.

Hummingbird sightings are rare in Harlem. I sometimes spot them at the botanical gardens in the Bronx but will be thrilled to see one in my neighborhood. I am working on it and planted red cardinal climbers, foxgloves and salvia in the community garden on west 146th Street to entice them. Red-orange honey suckle will soon follow in a sunny garden spot. 


Dark-eyed Juncos are known as Snow birds. They spend winter in New York but fly north in spring. 


I keep looking and listening for new and less familiar calls and wonder what new neighbor will move into the hood and which ones may relocate. I welcome all those feathered friends,  even sparrows and pigeons. It is important that we remember that they are entitled to this land. Indeed many of them were here long before us, when Manhattan was a lush landscape crisscrossed with walking trails. They cohabited with many Native American Peoples. With so much urban development taking place in our great city and the many environmental and biological hazards shaping the world, it is extraordinary to have these beautiful and musical creatures choose to share this island with us. 


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.


"Be the reason someone believes in the goodness of people." 
 - Anonymous 

In my almost thirty years of living in New York City I've encountered many remarkable and inspirational people. Some have influenced my career choices and greatly added to the quality of my life. I've also made many mistakes, vapid, ingenuous acquaintances and dealt with parasitic individuals that have taught me the value of my time and with whom to share and limit it. Hopefully, I learn and grow wiser with each blunder.

An ocean of marigolds in multiple hexagonal raised beds near Surfside Community Garden

And then there is Mr Quinones, one of the most selfless beings I have ever met. In 2013 - 2014, the year I spent designing and installing edible and habitat gardens in Coney Island, I came to know this man very well. The neighborhood was rebounding from the trauma of Hurricane Sandy and school gardens were  welcome therapeutic upgrades. Quinones walked by one day while I was moving lumber and wrangling a group of young men, some of whom spent more time on phones than with tools, complaining all the while and disappearing for long, multiple breaks. We chatted a bit and he became excited about the benefits that the gardens would add to the school and neighborhood. From that day onward Quinones became my regular unpaid helper.

                                                                   Quinones at P.S.188 in 2014

I am the kind of person who often gets so absorbed in whatever I am working on at the moment that I forget to eat lunch or go to the bathroom. The clock, Ha! Forget about it! I once worked on a project for 36 straight hours before going to bed. Plants, gardens and landscapes are my passion and I have volunteered many thousands hours, worked through lunch breaks and unpaid hours and have invested my own limited resources for the success of projects when budgets are less than adequate. I've been told that I am too passionate, driven and dedicated and that my work ethics make others look bad. Really? Huh. Yeah, I seriously need to adjust my work habits. I need to care less, not so as to make others look less bad, but for my own health. I sometimes think  things would be so much easier if I did not give a damn about doing what I know to be right. I am learning that sometimes saving oneself is better than trying to save the world, or not-worthy-of-my-time others.

Yet I do not necessarily want to change the fact that I expect others to do the jobs they are paid to do, or at least attempt to do their jobs. I have my mother's energy but I am my father's daughter, which means that I regard doing far less than one is paid to do as something akin to stealing, and I suffer fools better than I do slackers and dishonest folks. During my time working in Coney Island I grew utterly conflicted over the ethics of many of the people I needed to work with to create my first edible gardens. I had worked in advertising for almost fifteen years and had encountered my share of unethical characters, but this was a new breed of lackadaisical, incompetent and downright pernicious characters, both at the management and at the ground level. Maybe something was in the air (or soil), as I also experienced jaw-dropping duplicity among hired help and a client on another project during the same period. One meets all types of people in horticulture, advertising and other industries, as in one's personal life. As much as I hate to admit it, I am learning to lower my expectations. 

Quinones spent countless unpaid hours schlepping his tools to help me drill and cut wood, plant perennials and herbs and move tons of soil. His cultivator and other tools are still buried among garden tools in the shed of the last school I worked at. Understanding my commitment to get the job done despite the limited time and resources, Quinones dug up and transported wheelbarrows of marigolds and sunflowers that he had started growing in his own community garden plot to beautify school grounds at P.S.289. Like my mom whenever I worked in her garden in Trinidad, he kept me hydrated with bottles of water and fruit drinks. Some days, even when I saw that he was totally exhausted and could do no more, he stayed around, often with the hose in hand, so that I was not alone long after the school gates closed. We worked together for many (unpaid) hours each evening after all other staff were gone and often until it was too dark to continue. 

 Eco-Habitat garden at P.S.188

Quinones reminded me that there were others around who are passionate about beauty and affecting the way children and adults respond to the natural world. Once, when I was hasty and about to plant pole beans, Quinones suggested that I save that chore for the kids and have them wait to watch the stems race up the poles. The joy on his face was so obvious as he said the words. Of course he was so right. Though he was not a teacher, Quinones was more excited about inspiring kids than the paid staff. What do you say of someone who works tirelessly to build and improve community and individual lives and for no pay? He never asked for anything and never complained. The man was a bundle of generosity and positive energy.

Sunflowers near the main entrance of P.S.289. Plants were transplanted from Quionnes' garden when they were about 2' tall.  

One of Quinones' projects was constructing multiple raised beds for the members of a community garden in Coney Island. He was recruiting some young men to assist him and he was relentless in his pursuit of finding paying jobs for them. He understood that youth needed to be rewarded for their efforts and that reasonable wages would improve their attitude about employment and the environment. Quinones was also on a mission to unify discordant members of the community garden so that no one member or group had a monopoly on the space. It was a vexing and sometimes risky role he had undertaken, but he had been struggling to build the garden for too long to let it go without a fight. When he was not gardening, helping elders in the Surfside garden or making fencing for a garden in one of the many public housing developments in the neighborhood, or beautifying some once-a-dump-site, he attended NYCCGC meetings and courtroom sessions in solidarity with other gardeners, fighting to retain ownership of cherished community gardens. With all that he still found time to stop by and offer helping hands. I often needed all six of them.

Quinones of Coney Island was my savior, my inspiration and cheerleader when I wanted to throw in the towel or throw a trowel. He reminded me that the world is full of people on the road to self-preservation who will do what they will. Some may wish others fail and even deliberately throw obstacles in their paths. Other people will stand by, watch and take undue credit if they could. He urged me to be undeterred, to never let anyone get in the way of my passion for gardening, doing good work and for doing good. On a recent trip to Coney Island I found Quinones at it, weeding and clearing debris to repair and plant the hexagonal raised beds in a sitting area just outside his community garden. Despite his ailing health, he remains undaunted.

If you make a trip to Coney island and notice masses of marigolds and sunflowers growing in front of schools and along sidewalks, they were most likely the handiwork of Quinones. The world is a better  place because he lives in it and the neighborhood of Coney Island will forever be in his debt. I am privileged to have spent time with this constant gardener and extraordinary human being. He deserves many awards, my undying gratitude and support in all his endeavours. Cheers!


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 over-wintering shelters for pupating butterflies and moths.
·      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 are toxic to caterpillars and are often harmful 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 and never loose hope that human beings can work together for change. Our survival depends on the survival of our amazing pollinators, which create a more resilient and beautiful planet.

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