The circle of life

A few monsoons ago, a friend gifted us a small, succulent plant which had lovely red flowers. A couple of weeks after we had installed the plant among others in our balcony, when the flowers had fallen away, I saw a small red, white and black butterfly, called the Red Pierrot come fluttering in and fly to this new plant and sit on it. It walked around one of the round, fleshy leaves, fluttered to another leaf, inspected it and then settled on one that was partially hidden from my view.

 A few minutes later, it was gone. I was really excited and called my friend to tell her. She laughed and said, “Oh that’s fantastic! I was a little afraid the Red Pierrot might not visit you since you are on the third floor, but the little butterfly has managed to make it all the way up!”

 I learnt that the plant she had given us was called Bryophyllum and it was the “host” to this species of butterfly, which meant that the female would lay a single tiny egg on the leaf of this plant from which a larva would hatch.

 I watched carefully and sure enough, a few days later, I saw signs that the larva had hatched. One of the leaves had been eaten from the inside, leaving a thin layer above and below. Gently holding it up to the light, I could see the caterpillar inside! It was just about a centimetre long and was steadily nibbling away at the fleshy inside of the leaf.

 In a few weeks, we had three caterpillars on this one plant. In total contrast total contrast to their tiny size, they managed to reduce the plant to nothing in no time! One of them even burrowed into the stem when the leaves were all eaten up.

 Under the rim of the pot, I found all three caterpillars had turned into pupae. That’s when the real excitement began. I looked it up online and found that it would take a week or so for the pupae to hatch and butterflies to emerge. It said this would normally happen in the morning. The pupa would turn black and split down the middle and the new butterfly would come out. I could not wait!

 I watched them carefully everyday and one evening, I found them slightly changed in colour. I set an alarm for 5 am the next morning and woke even before it rang. I made some tea and settled myself into the chilly balcony and watched.

Nothing happened for hours. The sun came up, it even drizzled a little. I rushed in to grab some cornflakes for breakfast and came back with the bowl. Still nothing. Finally when I was getting tired, around 11 am (six hours later!) one of the pupae turned black! And a seconds later the casing split open and something slowly wiggled its way out. I had been expecting a dramatic opening of tiny wings, but no such thing happened. It crawled up a led and sat there, moving its back occasionally. Then that’s when something magical happened. Wings!

 The small, dark bundle, unfolded its still-wet wings and waited for them to dry. In this time another pupa had hatched and I hadn’t even noticed! A second butterfly came up the stem. The two met and wasn’t happy occasion. The older one chased the new one away to another leaf, where it sat waiting similarly for its wings to become ready for flight.

 Fifteen minutes later they had both, in turn, climbed to the very top of the plant and flown towards the railing. They sat here to recuperate and then took off, into the world.

 Since then I have discovered many other such “host plants”. You may have many of them in and around your house too. Common Mormon butterflies use curry leaf plants as hosts and several butterfly caterpillars use the lemon and other citrus trees. Milkweed and other common plants are hosts too. Look for butterflies around them and for their caterpillars and pupae too.

This article appeared in the Hindu in School on 17 April 2013.

Photo: Pavithra Sankaran