Just before the first cold weather of fall, I saw a butterfly on one of our large oaks. I knew what it was from across our cottage garden. It was a Question Mark.
When I showed the photo to a couple of staffers, it was like eyes were opened up for the first time.
Without a doubt the Question Mark is one of our most beautiful butterflies. It is found throughout the eastern half of the United States. Even though it is so prevalent over such a wide range, my seminar audiences are a lot like those staffers; they seem shocked that there is such a butterfly moving about in their neighborhood. So this week I thought I would prime you for butterfly season with the idea of getting you to notice and appreciate butterflies other than just monarchs and swallowtails.
The Question Mark gets its name from the white question mark-like marking seen when its wings are folded. But I even have an appreciation for its scientific name, Polygonia interrogationis. When the wings are folded, your first inclination would be to think that you are looking at an old leaf stuck to the tree limb or shrub. But when those wings open up, the butterfly lover's cameras go off.
Whereas the monarch butterfly must have milkweed and the gulf fritillary must have a passionflower vine, the Question Mark has a few more options. If you have an elm tree, you are probably in luck. In fact, the American elm, red elm and even the lacebark or Drake elm all provide larval food for the Question Mark. Even the hackberry, which is considered a trash tree by many in the landscape trade, is a treasured host plant.
But the good news goes further: Nettles and false nettles like the Boehmeria cylindrica also provide caterpillar food.
There are generally two broods a year, giving the butterflies a summer form and a winter form. Adults of the summer form have dark burgundy to almost black hind wings. The adults of the winter form have longer tails, colored reddish orange with dark spots.
They are often seen on sap or rotting fruit. Once winter has departed, pay attention to trees that ooze a little sap and look for one.