Last month I stopped by Possum Trot Tropical Fruit Nursery, and as usual, brought my camera. I look forward to those visits, because there’s always something new happening. Walking around with Robert Barnum looking at trees and plants never gets old. Robert pointed out something that looked like a massive bird dropping on a leaf, a blotchy browish-black and white blob, and said it was actually the caterpillar of the giant swallowtail butterfly. It was the biggest, ugliest caterpillar I had ever seen. And it had been quite busy, was chewing up large chunks of a Ponderosa lemon seedling’s leaves. In fact, they like eating citrus leaves very much, which could be a problem. Citrus greening is killing local citrus trees, so there goes its food supply.
The caterpillar’s ugly looks were actually its main defense from getting eaten. A bird would look at that and wouldn’t think it’s food. The caterpillar also had another way of defending itself, Robert said as he touched its back. It immediately arched up a bit and something that looked like a red forked tongue came out of one end. It’s called an osmeterium and it gives off a noxious odor to repel its predator. Robert asked if I wanted to smell that finger, but I shied away, no thanks, take your word on it.
That was in May, and by now the caterpillar and its buddies have most likely decimated the lemon sapling and any others nearby, gone through their chrysalis stage (which lasts about 10-12 days) and are most likely now transformed into the giant swallowtail butterfly. The adult butterfly has a wingspan of 4 to 6 inches, and it’s breathtaking to see a butterfly that big in flight.