Monday, August 9, 2010

Beautiful Red-spotted Admiral Butterflies (Limenitis arthemis)

by Kim Smith

One of the most elegant butterflies to grace our garden, the Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis astyanax), is one of two races that comprise the Red-spotted Admirals, the other being the White Admiral (Limenitis arthemis arthemis). Red-spotted Admirals should not be confused with Red Admirals, which are a member of the Vanessa genus. I hope you are not totally confused at this point, but if you look at the binominal nomenclature, or scientific name (see below), it will help you see that, although distinctively different in appearance, both the White Admiral and the Red-spotted Purple are members of the same genus and species. For many years zoologists thought they were two distinct species. It is a wonder of biology that a single species has such different appearances for its survival strategies. With this delightful stretch of warm weather, almost daily, I catch a glimpse, or two, of this most richly hued and unusual of butterflies.

The average wingspan of the Red-spotted Admiral is approximately three inches. The White Admiral has a distinctive wide white band on both the forward and hind wings, and on both the dorsal (upperwing) and ventral (underwing). In the Red-spotted Purple, the white band is replaced with a band of iridescent lapis lazuli blue scales. It has evolved to mimic the highly distasteful Pipevine Swallowtail. Red-spotted Purples are found in greater numbers than White Admirals in the eastern part of Massachusetts. The opposite holds true for the western part of the state.

Purportedly, Red-spotted Purples are seen feeding primarily on rotting fruit, sap, and dung— infrequently at flowers—however, I see them nectaring often, and for long periods of time, at flowers. They are particularly fond of butterfly bushes, meadowsweet, Marsh Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), and Joe Pye-weed.

Hostplants for the Red-spotted Admirals are extremely varied. Both races use cherries, including Chokecherry (Prunus virginiaina), Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), Pin Cherry (Prunus pennsylvanica), plum (Prunus), apple (Malus), poplars, cottonwood, aspens, willows (Salix), birches, (Betula), hawthorn (Cratageous), basswood (Tilia), Deerberry (Vaccinium stamineum), and serviceberry (Amelanchier). The female oviposits a single egg on the upper surface at the tip of a fresh hostplant leaf. Our postage-tamp of a garden is much too small for the aforementioned larger trees, and too shady to grow healthy Prunus and Malus, so I am experimenting with a multi-stemmed Shadblow (Amelanchier canadensis), which I plan to keep pruned to a manageable shrub-size.

Amelanchier’s common names of Shadbush, or Shadblow, are derived from the fact that they bloom at the same time of year as the annual spawning migration of the shad fish. One of the most beautiful sights of early spring is the lacey white blooms of the Shadblow dotting woodland and roadside. Amelenchier canandensis is also called Canada Serviceberry, because of its delectably sweet blueberry-sized berries. You would be lucky to actually sample a berry. In our garden, the bluejays, catbirds, and mockingbirds are first in line. Naturally occurring in moist woodlands, shadblow is highly adaptable to a variety of soils. It can tolerate some dry conditions, but only when once established. Keep very well-hydrated until very well-established.

I am off to Tanglewood, which is located in western Massachusetts, to visit our daughter. With camera in tow, I am hoping to see a White Admiral!

Red-spotted Admirals
Kingdom: Anilmalia (Animal)
Phylum: Arthropoda (Arthropods)
Class: Insecta (Insects)
Order: Lepidoptera (Butterflies, skippers, and moths)
Superfamily: Papilionoidea (Butterflies, excluding skippers)
Family: Nymphalidae (Brush-footed butterflies)
Subfamily: Limenitidinae (Admirals and Kin)
Genus: Limenitis
Species: White Admiral: arthemis arthemis
Species: Red-spotted Purple: arthemis astyanax

End Notes: I am organizing a new show for the local north of Boston cable network and will be appearing on the Cape Ann Report with Heidi Dallin on Wednesday, August 4th at 6:00 pm to talk about it. More information will be forthcoming. To see a short Red-spotted Purple video, visit the following link: Red-spotted Purple Butterfly Video.

Kim Smith Designs is my interior and garden design firm. My first book, Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities! which I wrote and illustrated, is available through your local bookseller (and Amazon). I will be happy to respond to questions and comments at For more information about Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities!, butterfly gardening, current projects, exhibits, and events, please visit my website.

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