The toothache trees are just beginning to bloom, and sure enough, there are Giant Swallowtail butterflies not far behind.
Giant Swallowtail Butterflies
Besides being our largest butterfly, these butterflies have some of the most interesting caterpillars. Here on Dewees Island, they use the toothache tree as their host plant almost exclusively. And the caterpillars aren’t hard to find: they look like bird droppings on the leaves. We have other swallowtail butterflies on the island: here are some hints to tell them apart. Giant Swallowtails have a yellow body, lots of yellow on the underwings, and the yellow spots on the top are fused into a stripe pattern that goes across the middle of the wing. Black Swallowtails are much smaller, and the yellow spots are congregated along the bottom edges of the wings. They also have a spotted body. Palamedes Swallowtails are a sort of in-between size, and they have a striped body with browner colors.
Here are some other local swallowtails to contrast so you can tell the Giant Swallowtail from the Black Swallowtail, the Palamedes Swallowtail, the Pipevine Swallowtail, and the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.
Giant Swallowtail Caterpillar and Chrysalis
What a treat to have a chance to see these caterpillars spin themselves into a chrysalis. First, they ate everything in sight.
And as you can see from the end of that video, they created a lot of frass (poop).
I was fascinated by the way the caterpillar morphed into a slightly scarier version.
Then, they formed a j shape on a branch and turned into a chrysalis that looked like an extension of the branch itself. The host plant has such knobby bark that the chrysalis looks like part of the plant. Another chrysalis that formed on the edge of a stairway also looks like a knotted branch.
Toothache Tree, Xanthozylem clava-hercules
I love this plant, and I love the elaborate name~ which translates to Hercules Club. (It’s a reference to the classical Hercules, whose weapon of choice was supposedly a spiky club). It is known by a bunch of other names: Southern Prickly Ash, Pepperwood, Pepperbark, Tickletongue, or Toothache Tree. The leaves and bark contain a chemical that will numb your gums or teeth.
It likes the calcium rich and sandy soils here, and is occasionally associated with oyster middens. Click here for the Dewees Island History Tour that features this plant.
It has compound leaves that seem to burst out in tufts in the early spring, and there are thorns along the leaves, the branches, and the trunk.
The flowers attract lots of pollinators. And birds that prey on those pollinators.
The fruits ripen from green to red.
And they eventually split to release the seeds. The seed pods have their own beauty into the fall.
If you already have these in your yard, check them out for all the native wildlife they attract!