In the Dill

It’s finally gardening season here in the northeastern US, and one of my favorite spring rituals has begun: watching for interesting plants that sprout up unannounced in my garden beds. Gardeners call these plants volunteers. Every year, volunteers show up in places I didn’t put them and don’t expect them to be. Sometimes they’re weeds whose seeds blew in from somewhere else in the neighborhood. Sometimes they’re plants I grew last season that managed to spread their seeds willy-nilly around the garden before I noticed. No matter how they arrived, they never disappoint.

This year, I’m particularly blessed with volunteer dill. Lots and lots and lots of it. I’m talking about a forest of dill. Which is cool, because I like dill. I’ll be chopping it and sprinkling it on salads and soups all summer long.  And I’ll dry some to sprinkle all winter, too. But the real reason the forest of dill thrills me? Some of my favorite butterflies adore it.

Late yesterday afternoon, my daughter and I spotted our first-of-the-year Eastern black swallowtail in the garden. It was female, and she was flying low over a patch of dill seedlings. We saw her alight here and there, a few milliseconds at a time. We tried to get a picture, but she didn’t stay still long enough for that. We had a good idea why she might be touching down so regularly, though. We watched and waited. Once she’d flown out of the garden for good, we got down on our hands and knees in the dill. And sure enough …


© Loree Griffin Burns

Do you see it? The yellow orb in the middle of the photo? That gift, for me, is the real joy of this year’s volunteer dill plants: I’ve got myself a nursery of Eastern black swallowtail butterfly eggs, right in the back yard! Let’s spend the next few months watching them, shall we? 


One Moment

I’m home! I’m home!

I’ve been home for days, actually, but unable to compose anything coherent about my trip to Costa Rica. It was an unforgettable adventure, an experience so rich with sensory details that I haven’t found a way to process them all yet. I’ve decided to start by sharing just one very small moment. Here it is:

© Loree Griffin Burns

Can you see the blue morpho caterpillars all over the leaves in the image? This is just one small branch of one small tree in a greenhouse full of trees. We are talking lots of caterpillars. It was the largest herd of caterpillars I have ever seen in one place. Their brilliant yellow bodies and hot pink hair tufts were stunning against the green leaves, especially as the sun set over the farm. Here’s a closer look:

© Loree Griffin Burns

I took photo after photo, none of which did the sight justice. Eventually I gave up, and opted for simply watching them. In this tiny moment of defeat–during which I finally stopped making noise with my camera shutter–I was treated to the most astonishing thing: the sound of hundreds of caterpillars feeding together.

Who even knew such a sound existed? Or that human ears could hear it?

I didn’t.

But now that I do, I plan to remember it always. As with the photos, my literal descriptions don’t quite do the sound justice. It was a wet noise. Sharp, but in a whispery sort of way. Nippy. Insistent.

I have pages and pages of trip notes and interviews to read through and transcribe in the coming days. And a book proposal to write. With any luck I’ll find time to share more Costa Rican sights and sounds here, too. In the meanwhile, have a great week!

About This Little Trip …


In the fall of 2008, I took my three kids to the Museum of Science in Boston to see the live butterfly exhibit. Although we go to the Museum fairly often, we’d never been to the Butterfly Garden, and, for one reason or another, we’d finally decided to go. It was a cool trip. I now look at that day as the one on which I began making my way to Costa Rica.

How’s that?

Well, it started with the butterflies in the picture up there. Yes, they are mating. No, I am not some sort of butterfly pervert. I’m just a naturally curious girl! I’d done a little poking around online before our visit, and I knew that most butterfly exhibitors were not allowed to breed butterflies. And, yet, here were two Transandean Cattlehearts (I didn’t now they were called that then) … brazenly breeding for my camera.

What to do?

Well, I found me a Butterfly Garden Docent and pulled out my notebook. “What’s up with the mating butterflies?” I asked. “Isn’t that illegal?”

The Docent laughed, but in a very kind way. Then she explained that even though the butterflies were mating, the plant on which it relied for its larval food supply (that is, the only plant Transandean Cattleheart caterpillars could eat) was not growing in the garden. And so the female would most likely never lay her eggs. And if she did, they would be laid on a plant that could not support caterpillar growth. They could mate, but they would never produce a new generation of butterflies.

I was intrigued. I asked about four thousand more questions, and the kind people at the Butterfly Garden gave me four thousand more answers. They told me the most amazing things, among which was this doozy:

Every butterfly in that greenhouse had hatched from an egg on its natural host plant several weeks before … in Central America. They had lived their caterpillar lives there, and when they pupated, had been packaged up and mailed—by DHL, for crying out loud!—to the Museum. They were unpacked and incubated in a special behind-the-scenes laboratory, and when they finally emerged as adult butterflies, released into the garden for my kids and I to look at.

To this day, I find this astonishing.

So, on Monday, after more than a year of research and planning, I’m going on a little trip. I am going to live on a Costa Rican butterfly farm—one which supplies the Museum of Science with butterflies and which uses profits from those sales to preserve and protect the Costa Rican rainforest. I’m going to see with my own eyes how this amazing-ness unfolds. And when my camera is full and my notebooks are bulging and my head is ready to write, I’ll come home and begin the equally amazing process—at least to me—of sharing what I’ve seen.

See you soon!