The Great Spangled Fritillary


A few years back, I planted some Pale Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea pallida) behind my parent’s house.  I grew the plants from seed, sown in wooden flats in the fall.  The flats overwintered outside, the next spring I had dozens of plants to set out with very little effort, or cost – plus the original seeds came from a threatened prairie remnant nearby – that property/prairie is consistently mowed now.  Too bad for the original prairie remnant for sure, but I’m happy to continue the genotype on in my plantings. 

Last week while walking in the small remnant behind my parent’s house, I came upon a pair of Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) flying around one of the coneflowers that I had planted – it was a great feeling, knowing that through my efforts, a beautiful insect (the butterfly) found some food.  Maybe these Fritillary will lay their eggs in this small prairie as well – the Fritillary larvae (caterpillars) feed only on violets, and there are many violets, including Arrow Leaved Violet (Viola sagittata), Common Violet (V. sororia), and a few Lobed Blue Violet (V. triloba) in this remnant prairie.


The adult Fritillary butterflies can get their nectar from many species of flowers, but the young larvae only eat violet leaves – and nothing else.  Without violets, there will be no young Great Spangled Fritillaries, or any other Fritillaries for that matter, since they all require violets to lay their eggs on.


Wooden flats (lower left) of Pale Purple Coneflower waiting to be planted.

A closeup of the Pale Purple Coneflower (below) shows the yellow ring of disk flowers actively giving off pollen – next week a the ring above will begin to release its pollen – this methodical release of pollen is the reason these composite flowers stay attractive and showy for four to six weeks in summer.  Once all the disk flowers have released their pollen, the ray flowers (the petals) will begin to fade – no longer needed in the role of attracting pollinators.


The “disk flowers” – the spiky part of the flower – will produce the seeds that finches will feast upon. The petals, or “ray flowers” draw in the pollinators – the bees and butterflies.

Male Fritillaries emerge from their pupae in late May or Early June – a few weeks before the females.  The males are in a constant search for females; they are so persistent, in fact, that the females are sometimes mated even before their first flight. 

The eggs that were laid on violet plants in late summer, hatch in the fall of the year, overwintering as immature larvae, or “instars” near the violets that they will need for food next spring.  Unlike Monarch Butterflies, which migrate from Mexico to Canada, over four generations in one year, only one generation of Fritillary butterflies emerges each year – Fritillaries do not migrate far from their hatching site.


This male Great Spangled Fritillary is a bit lighter in color than the female of the species.

The one dozen species of Fritillary only occur in North America, of those, only three are permanent Illinois residents, they include the Aphrodite, Regal, and Great Spangled Fritillaries.


The small butterfly, nectaring on a wildflower, is a gentle reminder that it is critical that we actively work to maintain the health of our remaining prairie remnants and also that we include native plants around our commercial buildings and homes.  Wildlife, including important pollinators, depend on these plants to reproduce (and we depend on them to pollinate many of our food crops). 

If all we have around us are natural areas overrun with invasive plants,  soybean and corn fields from roadside ditch to roadside ditch planted to European Brome Grass, Bluegrass lawns and Japanese yews surrounding every home and business, with no hope of native plants to be found anywhere, we, ourselves, will be hard pressed to survive in such a destitute environment.

Source: Field Guide to Butterflies of Illinois, John Bouseman & James Sternburg, Illinois Natural History Survey, 2001






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Out in the Yard in November – Beautiful


Milkweed pods catch the rays of a setting sun in my backyard meadow.

“If you’ve got just lawn grass, you’ve got nothing,” said Mace Vaughan of the Xerces Society, a leading organization in insect conservation. But as soon as you create a front yard wildflower meadow you go from an occasional honeybee to a lawn that might be full of 20 or 30 species of bees and butterflies and monarchs.”  New York Times, Jim Robbins, 22 November 2013

When I first moved into my home in the fall of 2005, I was excited about having a big yard, but the yard, as it was, was all mowed lawn – not very exciting at all.  When I read the article, The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear, by Jim Robbins last week, about the decline in Monarch butterfly populations, it made me think of my yard, both how it was, barren, and how, when I look out my windows now,  I see variety and life, activity, beauty, nature.

The Front Yard


My home, in the winter of 2006, shortly after I moved in.

My housewarming present from my father was a small seedling oak that he had dug from his yard, my first planting in my yard.   And so it began.  During the first spring in my home, I started marking out planting beds, laid out my vegetable garden, and planted more seedling oaks and other trees native to my region.  All the trees were started from seed collected on, or adjacent to, my parent’s property, a remnant of second growth oak woods.


Today, the fall of 2013

Those small trees grew fast – I was really amazed.  After a few years of putting roots deep into the ground, they started growing at two to three feet a year.  The American Hophornbeams, shown below with their leaves still intact, were only thirty inches tall three years ago.  When I look at photos from past years, I am amazed at how short a time is needed to transform a yard from a sterile no-man’s-land, to something that makes one breathe deep in awe – a landscape full of beauty and wonder.  A classroom, a sacred place.



A young Red Oak (Quercus rubra), in the foreground, will take over as the short lived Silver Maples decline.


January of 2006


Today, November of 2013

The narrow strip of land between my driveway and my neighbor’s driveway receives plenty of sun, why mow grass when our native prairie grasses and flowers are so incredibly beautiful and would do so well in this location?  This garden has evolved quickly from a prairie flower garden with Black-eyed Susans, Pale Purple Coneflowers, Prairie Dock, Orange Milkweed, and Prairie Dropseed, to a more mature garden of mostly Midwest native grasses and trees, including Winged Sumac, Red Oak, and Hawthorn.  Prairie Dropseed grass (Sporobolis heterolepis) and a young Hawthorn (Crataegus sp.) can be seen in the above photo, with a ‘Twilite Prairie Blues’ Prairie Indigo just behind.  The larger scale of these plants works well for this open space.

The Back Yard


Shortly after I moved in, January 2006. The one foot tall caged oak (a gift from my father) to the right of the clothesline was my first planting.

“Around the world people have replaced diverse natural habitat with the biological deserts that are roads, parking lots and bluegrass lawns. Meanwhile, the plants people choose for their yards are appealing for showy colors or shapes, not for their ecological role. Studies show that native oak trees in the mid-Atlantic states host as many as 537 species of caterpillars, which are important food for birds and other insects. Willows come in second with 456 species. Ginkgo, on the other hand, which is not native, supports three species, and zelkova, an exotic plant used to replace elm trees that died from disease, supports none. So the shelves are nearly bare for bugs and birds.”  New York Times, Jim Robbins, 22 November 2013


That little oak is now over ten feet tall and it has the company of over thirty other young oaks.

I do still have plenty of turf grass, too much, some of my friends tell me, some of it is aesthetics, as a landscape architect, I like long views, and some of the turf is practical, including the area around the clothesline and over the septic field.  But the aerial photos, shown below, hopefully help show how greatly the yard has changed over the past few years.  Now its a joy to take a stroll through the gardens and explore the changes year to year, even day to day.

My Yard in March of 2006:

cr 2006 Mar w Labels

My Yard in September of 2013:

2013 summer w labels


Old Chicago street pavers stacked as sculpture until they are needed in the garden for another purpose.

Found objects play a big role in the design process.  The granite street pavers were salvaged by me after they were removed from an abandoned roadbed in Chicago.  Knowing their history, what street they came from, makes them even more interesting as repurposed objects in the landscape.


More granite pavers waiting to be artfully stacked


Some of the 100 year old granite pavers were used to create a retaining wall. The Maindengrass (Miscanthus sp.) while not native, creates an effective living screen.


A trilobite fossil was found in a piece of salvaged limestone while building a low retaining wall.


The remaining granite pavers may be used to replace the badly settled walkway along the garage.


It’s not hard to tell where my property stops.  Eight years ago both sides of the photo looked the same.


Salvaged building materials can make for interesting garden art.


This garden chair was found in a creek bed, now it’s sculpture under the branches of the old apple tree.


Other found objects were assembled to create a steampunk effect in the garden


Stacked bits of driftwood show the passing of time.


Rocks are my favorite form of sculpture, stacked, they show a human presence, evoking ancient rituals.


Souvenirs from vacations do not have to be T-shirts and ceramic mugs, this Deborah Silver sculpture reminds me of my visit with her at her Detroit Garden Works.


Silhouettes on the winter sky.





Mowed lawn for fifty years, now a prairie meadow, mowed once a year in March.


One of Illinois’ native Opuntia cactus showing this season’s fruit, “prickly pear”



Standing in an oasis, I see the desert beyond


The remnants of Stiff Goldenrod seedheads – the flowers may be gone, but the beauty has not.



Little six foot oak, grew two feet this season. Reach for the sky mighty oak.


Pasture rose shows off its seasonal decorations


Mounded Prairie Dropseed grass surrounded by taller Little Bluestem grass in my backyard meadow


Poverty Oats grass, how beautiful you are.




Orange Milkweed pods spreading seeds and giving hope to future Monarch visitors


Solomon Seal fruits, understated beauty


Mountain Mint, seed heads


American Hazelnut catkins in November, ready for a warm spring day to release their pollen.


‘Annabelle’ Hydrangea, with Serviceberry trees, combine well with a few non-native evergreens including the groundcover Epimedium and Japanese yew shrubs .. makes a nice winter garden composition.



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