Friday, September 11, 2015

Cutest. Caterpillar. Ever.

My, what big eye spots you have, Papilio troilus!

Remember a little while ago when I posted about a mystery seedling that had popped up next to my house?

I thought it looked a little like a sassafras (Sassafras albidum), but I couldn't be sure because the leaves were simple/entire, whereas sassafras usually has lobed, mitten-shape leaves.

One wise gardener (shout out to Laurrie!) who commented on my original post thought the mystery plant could be a spicebush (Lindera benzoin), which did seem like a reasonable possibility.

Well, I happened to go outside one day about a week ago and spot this large, adorable caterpillar resting on a leaf.

"Ah ha!," I thought. "This is a spicebush swallowtail caterpillar. Which means, this must be a spicebush."

(Yeah, Sherlock Holmes ain't got nothing on me.)

Except, of course, that I was wrong. When I looked more deeply on the WWW, I found that the spicebush swallowtail caterpillar munches not just on spicebush leaves, but also feeds on other species including sassafras!!

So, I was back to square one in terms of not knowing the identity of my seedling, except that when I kept a close eye on it, I noticed that it had started producing lobed mitten-shaped leaves.

Here you can see all three types of sassafras leaves - three-lobed, mitten-shaped and entire/simple (no lobes). Mystery solved!

Yep, mystery (truly) solved -- I'm ready to call it as Sassafras albidum.  (So that means Laura Bigbee-Fott was right with her plant ID. Thanks Laura!)

Which means, I will need to transplant it, because having a tree that can grow 30 to 40 feet tall growing 6 inches from your house is Not a Good Idea.

Will it survive transplantation? I don't know, but I've got nothing to lose by trying and a nice native tree to gain for the landscape if it works out.

PS - I'm a little worried about sassfras' reported tendency to sucker, but I think I'll take that risk and try keeping it anyway. It's supposed to be a beautiful tree and I'd love to see more of those caterpillars and the beautiful swallowtail butterflies they become.

Spicebush swallowtail caterpillar all grown up (photo by Elizabeth Nicodemus)

What other amazing discoveries could I make in the garden? Find out with a free email subscription to Garden of Aaron.