Spicebush and Spicebush Swallowtail

Lepidoptera — an order of insects that includes butterflies and moths.

What a wonderful week for this budding lepidopterist. At the end of June, my new co-worker, Kaita, gave me a dozen recently hatched cecropia moth caterpillars (Hyalophora cecropia). The cecropia moth is North America’s largest native moth and is a member of the silk moth family. This week, the five survivors that I raised have started to cocoon. Two have actually finished as of this writing. But this post isn’t about those gorgeous alien creatures (stay tuned). This post is about the spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus), which gave me a nice surprise yesterday.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin): Plant it and they will come

In June I attended a presentation by Kim Bailey of Milkweed Meadows Farm in Hendersonville. She described monarch butterflies as the “gateway pollinator,” and I had to laugh because that definitely applies to me. My success with attracting monarchs by planting native milkweed has made me keener than ever to plant new native lepidoptera host plants in my yard.

Just to review, many butterflies are “specialists,” and their caterpillars will only eat a certain type of plant. The spicebush swallowtail caterpillar specializes in two native plants in our area: spicebush (Lindera benzoin), a shrub, and sassafras (Sassafras albidum), a tree. Both belong to the Laurel family.

A friend of mine gave me two small spicebush plants from his property last fall, and I transplanted them to a partly shady spot in the back yard. I didn’t get my hopes up for spicebush swallowtail caterpillars this spring. The plants seemed too small to catch a butterfly’s attention:

young spicebush plant

But I kept checking anyway and, on June 22, 2017, I noticed the telltale sign of a spicebush swallowtail caterpillar:

sign of swallowtail larvaeSee the rolled-up leaf in the picture above and the chewed up leaves? Once the spicebush swallowtail hatches, it folds over the leaf and spins some silk to keep itself covered. Then, it will come out at night when the birds can’t see it and eat on the leaves. After reading up on this butterfly, I learned that the adult female actually prefers to lay her eggs on young plants.

I gently unrolled the leaf. Sure enough, I found my baby:

Baby spicebush caterpillar

I also found several other rolled up leaves on both plants with nothing but silk in them. Then I found this carcass:

Caterpillar carcassCaterpillars face so many challenges. Besides the birds, they have to dodge spiders and insects. So, one healthy caterpillar for me would have to do. I brought it in out of harm’s way and made sure to give it plenty of fresh spicebush leaves.

instar1onleavesThe spicebush swallowtail looks like a bird dropping during its first stages with its brown and white coloring. Talk about a clever defense! In later stages, it turns green and has fake eye spots on the back of its head to mimic a snake. Not only that, if it feels threatened it will stick an organ out of its head that looks like a snake’s tongue and contains a stinky chemistry. What a strange and mesmerizing creature:

back view of caterpillar

front view of caterpillar

On July 13 — 22 days after I found it — my caterpillar, which had turned a yellowish color and stopped eating, pupated and became a chrysalis at the top of its enclosure:


close-up chrysalis

Unfortunately, I missed seeing it pupate. The chrysalis measured only about an inch and seemed too tiny to have a butterfly developing within. I consulted the internet and learned that spicebush swallowtails have 3-4 generations a year, and the last caterpillars to pupate will go into “diapause,” over-wintering in their chrysalis until spring. Greenish-yellow spicebush swallowtail chrysalides eclose and reproduce; it’s the brown ones that over-winter. I mis-read that factoid and thought I had the color chrysalis that would over-winter. After the chrysalis above hardened, it looked like this:

Due to my color mix-up, I went about my business thinking I wouldn’t see this baby reach adulthood until next spring. That did seem odd to me, but this is the first time I’ve reared a swallowtail. I should have double-checked my information, but I seem to always be in a hurry. Not much of an excuse, I know.

So yesterday morning I went out to tend to my cecropia moth caterpillars. I wanted to transfer the three that have yet to cocoon into clean, frass-free containers. I started to work, when this caught my eye:

dirty towel

What?! How did my clean paper towel get stained in the spicebush swallowtail chrysalis container? Could I have … I looked though the door at the top:

Well, hello! A fresh, healthy baby boy. How could I tell?

See that comet-like swoosh shape on the wing? That indicates a male:

After gawking at this very welcome and unexpected visitor for a while, I put him outside near the spicebush. He will live two to 14 days, nectaring on flowers, and mating. The female that he mates with will find a spicebush or sassafras, land on a leaf, drum at it with her legs and use her chemical receptors to make sure she’s got the correct plant before laying her eggs.

On a side note:

Earlier this spring, I asked my neighbor if she would mind me planting a sassafras on her side of the fence near her chickees. More opportunity to lure in spicebush swallowtails. I didn’t find any rolled-up leaves or signs of spicebush swallowtail caterpillars on that plant:

My camera:

A reader wanted to know what kind of camera I use. It’s a point-and-shoot Olympus digital Stylus XZ-10 camera that cost me about $120 a couple of years ago on B&H Photo. It has a manual setting for extreme close-ups.


Wildflowers & Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains & Piedmont,” by Timothy P. Spira. We sell it this must-have book at the Botanical Gardens at Asheville.

List of native plant vendors near Buncombe County as well as a couple of trusted online vendors. (Always ask for the Latin name of the plant you’re looking for to ensure that you’re getting what you want.)

Spicebush swallowtail page on the University of Florida’s Entomology and Nematology Department

Papilio troilus page on the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Website

Todd Stout’s video on an easy “hotel” butterfly breeders can make for swallowtails to pupate in and how to care for them until they eclose out of the chrysalis.

Flying monarch

This blog is sponsored by Ben Gillum
Keller-Williams Professionals

Little monarch(My husband and fellow butterfly lover)
20 years of real estate experience in Asheville, Buncombe County, and WNC!

Life-long Asheville native; experienced landlord and property investor;
Exceptional researcher and negotiator;
Conscientious, fair, and kind.

Call Ben today for a free consultation: 828-989-2815.

Ben with monarch

Ben Gillum
Keller-Williams Professionals
Asheville, NC


About MonarchLover

Heather Rayburn is a native of Asheville, NC., and works at the Botanical Gardens at Asheville, a non-profit 10-acre public garden dedicated to the promotion of plants native to the Southern Appalachians. She has a B.A. from UNC-Asheville and a M.S. from the University of Tennessee, both in Mass Communication with a focus on environmental issues and social justice. She's also a dog lover and baker.

11 comments on “Spicebush and Spicebush Swallowtail

  1. Hello Heather,

    I just found a brown swallowtail caterpillar (from reading your post when it first came out, it could be the over-wintering spicebush) in the middle of the road. The poor thing must have blown off of a plant during the storm that passed through this past week. All the ‘healthy’ nurseries are closed now. I acquired some sweet laurel bay but found out that it might be the wrong one. I am afraid my little caterpillar will die on my watch.
    In the event that you are able to read this before tomorrow morning (when Reems Creek Nursery will re-open and I can actually hunt down a spicebush or sassafras plant), could you please let me know if this is the wrong bay plant or one that might offer nourishment to the little being? I am worried sick.

    Thank you. Had it not been for your post, I would not have recognized this caterpillar on the road!

    Kindest Regards,

  2. What a great story! I especially love the pictures, particularly the one with the butterfly on Ben’s forehead!

  3. What a great read this has been! Here in Charlotte, I am doing the initial research to start a butterfly friendly area at the Charlotte Water office by Billy Graham library. I have been tasked with identifying native plants that don’t use a lot of water. Any suggestions?

  4. Great informative article. Now I know that I have dozens of the spicebush swallowtail flying all over my property right now. I’m keen to find larvae. And I’m glad that I have preserved every spicebush of the hundreds I have. (Not so much with sassafras, though, which sometimes comes up in places unwelcome.) Here’s a video we made in east Asheville in 1998 of cecropias we had–someone had given us a female cocoon, which when it “eclosed” drew in a bunch of males. They provided an amazing homeschooling lesson. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nrNYbve8bPw

  5. What a gift for storytelling you have, Heather. Before your book comes out (hint, hint), allow me to make a pre-release order of six copies. It’s never too early to start a holiday gift list.
    The pictures were really extraordinary. I have never seen so many stages of a spicebush swallowtail’s life. Thank you for sharing this with everyone out there who loves butterflies.

    • I am such a rank amateur, Gloria, but thank you for the kind words. Hope you’re having a great butterfly season!

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