Butterfly nation

From October 1-14 Yates NZ is giving away free seed packets of butterfly friendly plants to help attract the beautiful insects (and important pollinators) into our gardens. Register for free seeds here.

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It’s Saturday morning in the butterfly garden at Te Puna Quarry Park, near Tauranga, and while monarchs flit and flutter 83-year-old Mary Parkinson is clambering up a rock face to plant a prickly euphorbia, while 80-year-old Norm Twigge tames a wayward shrub with loppers.

The pair, who met as trustees of the Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust, have for the past 2 years combined their talents in the garden, one of the many themed areas in the 32ha park, after Norm, a lifelong butterfly enthusiast, moved to Tauranga from Whakatane.

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Norm Twigge and Mary Parkinson in the Te Puna Quarry Park butterfly garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Mary, NZ Gardener’s Bay of Plenty Gardener of the Year in 2010 and long-time Tauranga Orchid Society member, started helping at the former gravel quarry at the behest of her sister and foundation volunteer, Jo Dawkins, after a large donation of Cymbidium orchids arrived.

The butterfly garden, on a terrace in the area planted with orchids, was developed in 2007 after Mary spotted a self-seeded swan plant amid 3m-high gorse. “Actually, the butterflies invited themselves,” she says. “They found the plant and laid their eggs, all I did was try and give them a home.”

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Pride of Madeira echium provide good food for monarch butterflies. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Each year she raises as many monarchs as possible which, at various times, means wasp and preying mantis patrols, as well as hauling buckets of water in summer to keep nectar-rich flowers in peak condition.

“I just keep suggesting things and then have to get stuck in and get the work done,” Mary says, recalling that her offer to stage a Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust conference in Tauranga in 2009 also meant clearing and planting more of the terrace in readiness for a conference visit.

A small hatching house was added when she and fellow volunteer Shona Purves decided to feed caterpillars inside to protect them from wasps. Thanks in part to public response – containers of caterpillars left on site – it was quickly apparent a larger house was needed.

In 2016 Mary and Norm extended the larger, second house in support of a MBNZ Trust project that saw UK conservationist Steve Wheatley and local entomologist Peter Maddison investigate the forest ringlet butterfly, in decline in lowland areas. Norm, who has been recording forest ringlet sightings in the Mt Ruapehu area for 20 years, was also be involved, particularly during the trial breeding phase.

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An admiral caterpillar on a nettle leaf. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Norm raises admiral butterflies, both red and yellow, in the quarry garden. Loss of habitat is the major problem facing these butterflies as nettles are essential to their life cycle. “This is a public garden so we can’t grow big areas of nettles,” Norm says. “Someone’s always got to touch – even if there are warning signs – which means the size of our admiral populations will always be limited.”

He’s also keen to see if any “migrants” that blow over from Australia – blue moon, painted lady and the lesser wanderer –  can be encouraged to breed.

“The biggest thing is the lack of somewhere warm for them to overwinter,” he says, adding that while living in Whakatane he tried heating a room overnight to see if he could create the right conditions for some lepidopteran visitors. “The power bill soon made me see sense.”


A blue moon butterfly visited the Quarry Park in 2014. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Most butterflies feed on the same flowers and Mary recommends grevilleas, Montanoa (tree daisy), echiums, zinnias, wallflowers and collarette dahlias. “Any cottage garden flowers are good.”

Norm notes many lawn “weeds” are also great butterfly food, including clover and dandelion flowers. “And buddleias are fantastic,” he says. “There are several that don’t seed but sadly they’re all regarded as pest plants. It’s known that butterflies can detect food from 2km away so planting the right things means butterflies in the area will come.”

The white-flowered swan plant and the two brightly coloured Asclepias curassavica (tropical milkweed) provide nectar for monarchs, while the plants themselves play host to monarch eggs, feed the caterpillars and are often home to the resulting chrysalis. Providing enough swan plant for very hungry caterpillars stresses many people, Mary says, and over the years she’s taken in thousands of caterpillars to raise.

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A monarch feeds on Dahlia ‘Pooh’, a favourite plant in the butterfly garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

In 2016 Mary tagged and released 400 monarchs from March 1 until the end of June “when I ran out of tags”. It’s hoped that anyone who finds or photographs a tagged butterfly will go to the MBNZ Trust website and record the “white dot” number and where the insect was found so giving researchers an idea of how far the insects travel and clues to where they cluster to overwinter.

The park’s lone swan plant of 9 years ago has morphed into many more, both in the butterfly garden and beyond, although Mary accepts they need thinning to stop them spreading too far.

“If you’re worried about swan plants seeding through your garden, snip off the green pods before they burst,” she advises. “Swan plants don’t have a long life, maybe 3 or 4 years, so you want at least one new one coming on each year.”

Feeding notes:

See a list of nectar plants to feed butterflies at the MBNZ Trust website.

When buying swan plants from garden centres check they are spray free and keep your garden spray free.

Keep some swan plants under wraps (old net curtains, mosquito nets) so not all have eggs on them and/or are eaten.

Pumpkin can be used as food only at the end stage of a caterpillar’s life (2cm+). Any earlier and the butterfly will emerge deformed.

Wasps, ants, preying mantis and passion-vine hoppers all predate on one stage or another of the butterfly life cycle.

Lend a Hand: Mary and Norm are always looking for helpers. To volunteer simply turn up at Te Puna Quarry Park at 9am on a Tuesday, taking your own smoko.

This article was first published in NZ Gardener and appears here with permission.

A butterfly life

We’ve nurtured three monarch butterfly caterpillars through their final bulking up and into the chrysalis stage and it’s been fascinating watching it all – one of them attached itself to the handle of a teapot in the kitchen so we got an up-close view of proceedings.

We moved the caterpillars inside because of wasp predation which doesn’t seem to be the complete extermination it was last year, as a few caterpillars have been making it through to chrysalis without our help. Wasp predation should finish at about the end of February.

To find out more about monarch butterflies, visit the Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust website.

Eggs on a swan plant leaf. Hatching will be 4-8 days, depending on temperatures. The egg will turn grey when it’s ready to hatch and a black dot (head) will be visible. Females lay up to 400 eggs at the rate of about 40 a day. Photo: Sandra Simpson

A tiny, very hungry, caterpillar … Photo: Sandra Simpson

… turns into a large, very hungry caterpillar. In 2-3 weeks it grows to 2700 times its birth weight! To accommodate this growth it moults 5 times. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Now we follow the story through photos of a single caterpillar …

When the caterpillar weighs about 1.5g it sets off to find somewhere to hang its chrysalis – in this case the handle of a teapot! Rear ‘protolegs’ attach to a silk ‘mat’ it’s secreted and the caterpillar begins turning itself inside out to form the chrysalis, with plenty of wriggling involved. The process took no more than 10 minutes. Photo: Sandra Simpson

With a final wriggle the chrysalis is complete and the black bit left sticking out the top (we wondered what was going to happen to it) falls off – excess skin. The chrysalis kept wriggling for a little bit. Within 2 days what’s left of the caterpillar becomes a pupa. No one yet knows what the beautiful gold spots are for. Photo: Sandra Simpson

It takes about 10 days for hatching – just before the butterfly emerges the chrysalis turns black (still with gold markings) and the butterfly inside becomes visible. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The newly hatched butterfly (a male) rests quietly near what’s left of the papery chrysalis. When it emerges it has an abdomen full of fluid that pumps into its wings before it can fly. During summer monarchs live for 60-70 days. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Many thanks to the University of Waikato’s monarch butterfly life cycle page for extra information. This overview page about monarch butterflies is also worth reading.

Butterflies & veges

Went and saw Flight of the Butterflies last night – delightful 3D documentary being shown as a fundraiser for the Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust.

This delightful film traces the work of Canadian scientist Fred Urquhart to understand more about the orange butterflies that fascinated him as a child, alternating with a narrative about the monarchs’ grand migration. Until Fred and his army of ‘citizen scientists’ no one knew the flight path, what happened at the other end or even where the other end was!

Beautiful photography that had us all reaching out to cup a butterfly as they flew round our heads (3D glasses on loan at the theatre). The film was introduced by Jacqui Knight, chairwoman of the MBNZ trust, who mentioned the alarming decline of the native forest ringlet butterfly.

Merivale Community Gardens in Tauranga is adding a new plank to its platform – installing vege gardens in backyards with ongoing support to help keep it producing. The first one was installed in March and sponsored by Dr Luke Bradford, a GP. To sponsor a garden or to be considered for one at your place email community gardens co-ordinator Deb McCarthy.


Garden news

Some bits and pieces from the world of gardening …

Gardener charged
Last week’s Herald on Sunday had a news brief saying that Clive Higgie, owner of Paloma Gardens near Wanganui, has been charged by the Ministry of Primary Industries – the first charge to be laid after raids on public and private property two years ago. MPI was hunting for an exotic kauri allegedly imported illegally. However, the HoS records Clive as saying the charges relate to an Australian fig tree!

Some Agathis specialists (the top specialists in the country are, ironically, the ones being raided) argue that the tree MPI is so concerned about, Agathis silbae from Vanuatu, is actually the already recognised and recorded Agathis macrophylla, which has been in New Zealand for some time. This 2012 backgrounder article on the controversy is a good read.

New fig tree with historic connections
A new fig tree from Katikati company incredible edibles may have links to some of the district’s Ulster Irish pioneers (Ulster Scots in the link) as it is thought the original cutting of Candy came from the garden at Athenree Homestead, built by Adela and Hugh Stewart in 1879.


Candy, a new fig from incredible edibles. Photo: incredible edibles

“Someone gave us the cutting and said it came from there,” says Fiona Boylan of incredible edibles. “Fig names have been causing problems in New Zealand for years, though – the same tree can produce different fruit in different soils and climates.”

Some of Adela’s original orchard still stands and in among the trees is at least one fig, although the day I visited the paddock was full of frisky young cattle (some with horns) so discretion was the better part of valour! Volunteers at the homestead make marmalade from “Adela’s citrus trees” and sell it as a fundraiser for the restoration project.

Fig expert John Dean, a life member of the Tree Crops Association who lives near Katikati (and who has a fig variety named for him), says there is a tree in the district known as “Mrs Stewart”, supposedly descended from a fig tree Adela had. He was planning to take a sample of the homestead tree to a South Island expert to see if it could be properly identified.

Blue moon update
Mary Parkinson of the Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust says there are a good number of blue moon butterflies (native to Australia) around Papamoa while someone in Whakatane has 20 or so on a couple of camellia trees. Three males and two females have been confirmed at Te Puna Quarry Park near Tauranga but apparently there have been no confirmed sightings in Auckland so it’s just our bit of the coast that has been graced with their presence!

I recorded my sighting at the Quarry Park on the Monarch Trust website and Margaret Topzand of the trust has been in touch to say that “many sightings of blue moons are coming in, all blown over from Australia via Cyclone Ita”.

Seeds of success
Tomato seeds brought back from Italy by a solider after World War 2 have been distributed in the Timaru area with great success, thanks to Albert Peattie of the Timaru Horticultural Society. Read more here. (No “approved organisms” list then, obviously!)

Butterfly tree

An unusual tree is “blooming” just now at The Chapel cafe in the Chapel St shopping centre in Tauranga.

A potted cordyline is festooned with the chrysalis of monarch butterflies that will open when the time is right. The tree was featured at the recent Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust conference in Auckland and, for reasons that I’m not sure of, has ended up at this cafe in Tauranga.

The chrysalis tree in The Chapel cafe. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The cafe owner says they are beginning to hatch and has put a potted flowering plant at the base of the tree for the butterflies to feed on before, presumably, they are allowed out the door.

Butterfly notes

Don’t have any monarch butterfly caterpillars on your swan plants? I haven’t for a while, which has given the plant a chance to recover, but neither have I seen wasps which predate on every stage of the butterfly’s life.

Mary Parkinson, who founded and runs the butterfly garden at Te Puna Quarry Park, tells me that wasps are probably the culprits though – they don’t change their diet until about the end of February.

Passion-vine hoppers (fluffy bums) will also eat the caterpillar and chrysalis and although they’re about in smaller numbers than last year, they’re still about.

Mary advises moving potted swan plant indoors or covering the plant (mosquito netting, fine-mesh shade cloth, old net curtain) as there are likely to be eggs on it. “The trick is to protect caterpillars as much as possible. I have even seen an ant carry off a tiny caterpillar.”


The fine seeds of a swan plant – if you snap off the pods before they open you won’t have plants coming up everywhere. Photo: Sandra Simpson

If you suspect you have too many eggs for your swan plant to support, wipe some off and cover the plant – it won’t stop more eggs being laid but it will reduce the number able to be laid.

Pumpkin shouldn’t be used for supplementary feeding until the caterpillars are in the end part of that stage of their life (2cm long or more). Younger caterpillars fed pumpkin will emerge from the chrysalis with deformed wings.

“It’s easy to underestimate how much a caterpillar will eat,” says Mary, a member of the Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust. “But the faster they eat, the faster they’ll go into the chrysalis stage.”


A monarch feeds on cherianthus (wallflowers). Photo: Sandra Simpson

Any garden that wants to support a butterfly population must be spray free and must provide nectar all year round – old-fashioned flowers in strong colours is the general rule of thumb.

The butterfly garden at the Quarry has a new butterfly house – much roomier. Mary moves her caterpillars indoors so they build their chrysalis and emerge inside before being released into the garden.

Monarchs of the Air

Realising my meagre collection of swan plants wouldn’t hold out much longer, I carefully picked the 15 or so caterpillars off yesterday morning, put them in a plastic container (with airholes) with a few leaves and took them to Mary Parkinson at Te Puna Quarry Park. “The butterfly lady” is accepting donations and took me into the park’s new butterfly house, about three times as big as the previous one and divided into two rooms.

Roy Oakley, a retired builder and new quarry park volunteer, whipped up the house in about two weeks. It has glass panels so visitors can see in and lots of openings covered in plastic mesh so there’s plenty of air movement.

Some tips from Mary:

  • Pumpkin as a supplementary food is suitable only for caterpillars ready to become a chrysalis. If it’s fed to younger ones they will end up with deformed wings at the butterfly stage.
  • To keep butterflies from laying more eggs on a devoured swan plant, cover it with a net curtain, or similar.
  • When transporting caterpillars put some food in with them … otherwise they will end up eating each other!

Once the butterflies have hatched make sure to have nectar-rich flowers for them to feed on – anything brightly coloured is Mary’s recommendation, including single, orange dahlias, hebes, echium and cottage garden flowers such as coreopsis, dianthus, aquilegia and cornflowers.