Virginia Kennedy of Jonesborough introduced me to the Spicebush Swallowtail larva.
As you may know, Virginia is keen on butterflies and moths, raising many on her back porch for later release, including monarchs, which she tags so they can be tracked on their long flight to Mexico.
One summer she had a Spicebush Swallowtail larva among her brood. I saw it and wanted to burst out laughing. It looked to me like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon.
In order to fully appreciate these guys, you must see a photo. I suggest you Google “Spicebush Swallowtail larva” and hit “images.”
You will find a plump, bright green caterpillar speckled with blue dots. It has huge “eyes” and a head too big for its body. Viewed from above, the caterpillar looks as if it is smiling.
The eyes are fakes, designed to make the little guy look like a snake in order to scare off predators. Frankly, I imagine the birds are too busy clutching their sides laughing to eat them.
In keeping with its name, this swallowtail is born and lives on spicebushes. I had never heard of such a plant, but Virginia showed me one she had growing in the back yard. Later that year she gave me a tiny “volunteer” that had sprung up in her yard. I kept it in a pot for a year, then planted it in a spot it apparently loves. Spicebush Swallowtails also like sassafras trees, and though it may be crooked and not always attractive, the sassafras plays an important role and should be left alone.
Because of my dismal record trying to raise monarch caterpillars to maturity, I have never brought a Spicebush Swallowtail larva inside. I know they are on my spicebush because of a tell-tale sign: The caterpillar turns down the corner of the leaf, or, when it is further along in its development, folds the leaf in half and lives inside it.
I leave them undisturbed. To do otherwise would put them at serious risk.
So why in the dead of winter am I thinking about butterflies? On Wednesday, the U.S. Postal Service released its Spicebush Swallowtail stamp.
It is a 2-ounce stamp, costing 66 cents, and designed to be used on cards with irregular shapes.
The designer of this stamp was Tom Engeman of Frederick, Md. (I was kind of hoping it would be Norm Gunderson of “Fargo,” but his specialty was the mallard.)
Engeman worked under the direction of Derry Noyes of Washington, D.C., creating the design on a computer using images of preserved butterflies as a starting point.
The result, they say, “is a highly stylized, simplified image of a spicebush swallowtail rather than an exact replica.”
I’ve seen the stamp; it’s beautiful. But it will never make me laugh like the caterpillars do.
Jan Hearne is the Press Tempo editor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.