Very Hungry Caterpillars

“The caterpillar ate through one nice green leaf, and after that he felt much better.”
Eric Carle

Getting to study horticulture the past three years has given me the opportunity to be introduced to lots of interesting new (to me) plants. Passiflora incarnata is one such plant. One of its common names, passion flower, alludes to the fact that some of the components of its wonderfully complex flowers have been likened to various aspects of the passion of Christ. According to the Floridata website, “The name, Passiflora or ‘passion flower’, was given by 16th century Spanish missionaries in South America who thought they saw a reference to the Crucifixion of Christ in the elaborate flower structures: the corona, sitting at the top of the flower, is the crown of thorns; the five anthers are the five wounds; the three styles are the three nails; and the five petals and five sepals are the apostles, less Judas and Peter.” (The two apostles who betrayed Jesus – Judas to the utmost and Peter only temporarily.)Passiflora incarnata


I decided the stunning flowers would make a lovely addition to my garden and planted a small vine next to my mailbox. I watched as the vine grew, wrapping tiny tendrils around support stakes as it went. I searched daily for buds, which finally appeared. Sadly, for some enigmatic reason, all but two failed to produce the much anticipated and hoped-for flowers. Instead, my Passiflora produced a bounty of a different kind . . .

In addition to the beautiful flowers, I learned Passiflora serves as a host plant for the larva of the Gulf fritillary, a lovely bright orange butterfly with black markings. The Gulf fritillary is so-named because of its migration across the Gulf of Mexico. Sure enough, one morning when I went out to get my newspaper, I spied the first of what would be several waves of caterpillars to feast on my vine. Although the orange caterpillars don’t sting, they have rows of soft black spines. The black and orange stripes warn potential predators of their toxicity and so, even though my little crop of caterpillars was munching away in plain view, the birds left them alone to eat and grow. And eat and grow some more!An early caterpillar

I delighted in watching the caterpillars, checking on them every morning when I went to retrieve my newspaper and every afternoon when I went to the mailbox. Then one afternoon they were all gone. The first group, in its entirety, had disappeared in the four hours or so between my two daily treks down the driveway. Search as I might over the next few days, I couldn’t find any of the chrysalises. Soon more tiny but ravenous caterpillars appeared and started munching their way through the remaining leaves.A late catepillar

Noticing the bedraggled appearance of my vine, a well-meaning friend asked what I was planning to use to “take care of” the voracious intruders. I explained that the caterpillars would turn into butterflies and I was willing to sacrifice my plant so they could complete their life cycle. As a matter of fact, I was rather in awe of the ability of the mother butterflies to find my vine in the first place. It was small (and getting smaller every day), the only Passiflora on my property and possibly the only one for miles around. Yet because of the innate capability God instilled in them, the fritillaries found, and deposited their eggs on, the only genus of plant their caterpillars feed on. After some more cycles of hatching and eating, there were no more leaves (or buds) left on the vine and the subsequent generations were left to eat the stem. As I watched them gnawing away, I could only imagine that the stem was much tougher than the tender leaves.

With each successive hatching, there were fewer and fewer caterpillars, probably due to the dwindling food supply. The last hatching yielded only one caterpillar. I checked on him from time to time as I worked in my garden last Saturday afternoon, watching as he valiantly stripped and then ate the outer, green layer of the vine. A couple of days before I noticed a Passiflora seedling had sprouted not too far from the mother plant. After some deliberation, I decided to gently remove the solitary caterpillar from the leafless vine and place him on the seedling, which already had several leaves. I held my breath as I watched him crawl down the short stem of the seedling, hoping I hadn’t confused him when I disrupted his resolute consumption of the tough vine. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded. After a few seconds of exploration he settled in at the base of one of the leaves and resumed eating. I continued to check on him throughout the afternoon, content to see him making headway on the tender leaf.

A tasty last mealThe next morning, when I looked at the seedling, there were two half-eaten leaves but no sign of the caterpillar. I smiled, hoping the leaves had provided a tasty last meal for him before he crawled off to spin his chrysalis.

Over the past month, I’ve seen a number of Gulf fritillaries fluttering about in my garden, no doubt the result of some of the caterpillars I took such joy in watching eat and grow. It was worth sacrificing my Passiflora although knowing how that particular vine can spread around and having already found several more seedlings, I’m hoping next year there will be enough to feed a passel of hungry caterpillars AND provide some exotic flowers for me to enjoy!

As I considered how the Gulf fritillaries faithfully laid their eggs on the right plant, thereby providing the proper food for their offspring, I was reminded that God has provided his Word, both written and in the flesh, to nourish us spiritually. Jesus quoted the Old Testament when he resisted Satan’s temptation to “turn stones into bread” so He could satisfy his hunger after forty days and nights in the wilderness, saying, “Man does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God”. (Matthew 4:4) Later in his ministry, He referred to himself as the “true bread from heaven”, saying, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)

My thoughts also turned to the very hungry caterpillar in the beloved children’s book of the same name by Eric Carle. For the first six days of his existence, the storybook caterpillar ate everything that appealed to him, eventually giving himself a stomach ache. It wasn’t until day seven, when he “ate through one nice green leaf” that he felt better. Like the caterpillar in Carle’s book, we are tempted to feed on many things other than the spiritual nourishment God has provided and, similarly, we often find those things to be poor substitutes for the sustenance we need and crave. Instead, may we be as single-minded as the determined Gulf fritillary caterpillars to seek out and consume our designated food, being fully satisfied by the sufficiency of the Word. Gulf fritillary butterfly

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