Violets and the Great Spangled Fritillary

Fritillaries on Milkweedby Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

I know I promised this article a couple of weeks ago, but between blackberry pickin’, the garden and seed saving classes, I just couldn’t get back to it.  But while we were up berry pickin’, we saw lots of butterflies – including the Great Spangled Fritillary.  Of course, I love all butterflies, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Fritillaries because of their softly muted-orange coloration and complex wing patterns in brown, black and silver.  I had been wanting to entice more fritillaries to the garden but wasn’t sure what to do, so you can imagine my excitement when I realized I had already done it!

I already knew that most butterflies prefer feeding on the nectar of various types of flowers.  Fritillaries tend to gravitate towards flowers such as milkweeds, coneflowers, violets and ironweed among others.  So I set out to grow some of those nectar plants in my garden.

But oftentimes, nectar plants that adult butterfly feed on are not the same as those that their caterpillar-selves gorge on before pupating.

So it was that I was having a conversation with a friend this spring about the violets growing along the edge of the driveway where it meets a three-foot high boulder wall that supports the garden above.   “You should really get rid of those,” she said, “they’re so invasive!”  Violets in limestone

She was right, of course.  They are invasive.  But I’d already decided to keep them.  Partly because they they are already there and require zero maintenance and partly because they haven’t moved very far from where they are in three years.  More importantly, however, is the fact that the beauty of a clump of blooming violets shooting out from beneath massive boulders and flat stepping stones in early spring simply takes my breath away.  Why destroy so much flowering goodness on purpose?

Not too long after that conversation, the Great Spangled Fritillaries began feeding on the electric blossoms of echinacea growing in the garden directly above the violets and out in the meadow on the purple milkweed.  I learned that female Great Spangled Fritillaries also lay their eggs on or near violets and that the larva (caterpillars) feed exclusively violet leaves.  But here’s where it get’s interesting.

The eggs are laid on or near violets in early summer and hatch into caterpillars in the fall of the same year.  But after hatching, the caterpillars do not eat anything for seven or eight months!  From the day they hatch to the day they come out of winter hibernation, they eat nothing at all.  But come spring, they emerge just in time to feed on the leaves of violets and quickly pupate into the large, lovely and graceful Great Spangled Fritillaries that now dance in my garden.

Violets and EchinaceaSo, if you love butterflies, grow their food! Give them a little shelter and a dash of water somewhere and soon you will have more butterflies in your yard than ever before!

In the meantime, if you see a black caterpillar with long, sharp-looking spines with a bright orange-red base crawling around the garden – don’t kill it!   It’s a Great Spangled!

And don’t kill the violets if you don’t have to.  There are tame native violet species that grow well in open woods and woodland edges.  Violets like a little shade with not too much competition and a little moisture in the spring.  They especially like disturbed areas and the high side of drainages.

In a not-so-weird twist of fate I had inadvertently provided the Great Spangled Fritillary with the perfect food plants when I decided not to eradicate the violets along my garden wall.  And now, dozens of nearly three inch wide, orange and black beauties dance above the Echinacea in the warm summer sun.  Soon the Echinacea will go to seed and attract a new kind of flying beauty… but that’s another story.

Read more about nurturing butterflies in your garden:
Flying Flowers: The Beauty of Butterflies

© 2014 Jill Henderson  -Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.


AJOS-214x32813A Journey of Seasons

Filled to the brim with colorful stories, wild walks, botanical musings, and a just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor A personal and inspiring tale of homesteading in the Ozark backwoods by noted author, naturalist and plant organic gardener, Jill Henderson.

Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore
Look inside!


Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore.  Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.


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2 responses to “Violets and the Great Spangled Fritillary

  1. Good info. Lucky me I discovered your website by accident
    (stumbleupon). I’ve saved as a favorite for later!

  2. I wanted to share this short piece about violets and TGS Fritillarys from the Springfield Plateau Master Naturalists website. Great little video, too! http://springfieldmn.blogspot.com/2017/04/spare-that-violet.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+SpringfieldPlateau+%28Springfield+Plateau%29

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