05 August, 2013

Curry Plant Chronicles - Part I. (Garden Series: Food for All.)

My general attitude towards gardening is one of laissez-faire.

This suits everyone just fine. Most of all, me.

Surprisingly, the plants don’t seem to mind this at all.

In fact they do quite well.
And the ones which don’t, well, they don’t.

It’s simply a case of survival of the hardiest.

Any plant which still exists in my tiny, little balcony garden, is pretty hardy, you can bet.
No mollycoddling here.

Very occasionally, though, I do get a little partial to some plant or the other, particularly a new one.

Like this Curry Leaf Plant, which is the third in a series of much-loved and eagerly awaited ones (don’t ask).

 It is still my hands-off attitude (forgetting to nip things in the bud, quite literally) that has allowed it to flower.

And fruit. Gone to seed!

What, me worry? Of course not.
We can then collect the seeds and have MORE curry patta plants.
Give them away, even.

The plant holds all the promise of providing that oh-so-critical flavour in upmas , sambars and what-not, once it is big enough to harvest a few sprigs from.

So I zealously guard it from any prospective harvesters till it is big enough.  That is to say, till it is at least as tall as me.  Well, or at least as tall as Y1. Ok, Y2. No less!

Imagine my horror, then, when I discovered one morning, that leaves from two entire rows of sprigs were missing from both branches on top of plant! The very best leaves, that too! Which I had so  recently denied myself the use of, for tempering a last-minute dal!

Fully intent on finding the culprits and giving them a piece of my mind, I stop for a second, noticing something under one of the sadly bare stems.
A caterpillar.  So that’s who it was!

The little fiend! He (or she, as the case may be) has been merrily munching away my precious leaves like there is no tomorrow!

The initial annoyance gives way to fascination as I keenly observe the unwelcome guest.
Y1 and Y2 are duly summoned to witness the spectacle.

There is much excitement.  And paparazzi-style clicking.
Y1 points out something else that I hadn’t noticed before.
It’s a pupa.
So there were TWO of them chomping out there! No wonder!

The caterpillar is studied in much detail.

Up, down, sideways. How on earth does it stay there like that?

It is pretty immobile – so does that mean it’s done eating and will soon join its companion in fellow pupa-dom?
Later, I found out that this must have been the fourth or fifth (final) instar of the caterpillar (meaning it must have molted three or four times already) and is more or less ready to pupate into a chrysalis.

Sidenote: Some of the following pictures showing the pupa are in fact, this second caterpillar.  The chrysalis near the fruit is the first one, and the one on the leaf stem is this second one, which pupated later. For this story their pictures are used interchangably.

The pupa is studied, too.

It’s camouflage is truly amazing.

I’m convinced that there is a transfer of biological information at an intracellular level that transpires when the caterpillar is eating the leaves so that the resulting pupa looks, for all the world, exactly like the leaves that it consumed!  (Apparently, pupae are designed to take the colour of the background that they're in. See link of video at the bottom.)

We might even have missed noticing it altogether, if not for Y1’s eagle eye.

Held in place by what seem to be two ridiculously thin, delicate, cobweb-like strands, it stays put, oblivious to all the attention it has suddenly generated.

Seemingly immobile, there is no doubt plenty going on inside which we cannot see.

There is also plenty going on to keep us busy for the next few days.

Finally, one morning, Y1’s shouts have us all running to the balcony, where a fully grown butterfly, which has just emerged, is perched on the curry patta fruit in the process of drying it’s wings.

Simply majestic.

Needless to say, we are thrilled to bits.  There is further paparazzi-style clicking.

This time, the insect is obviously aware of the attention, and one daringly close macro shot makes it stumble, trying to desperately speed up its wing-drying process.

That still takes a couple of minutes, giving us plenty of time to gawk at it.

Then, suddenly, in a flash of brilliant black and iridescent colour, it’s gone.

Hopefully, we'll catch the next one emerging. It's already settling into the chrysalis phase.
Before long, our other friend, the very hungry caterpillar, is a pupa too!

A side-by-side comparision of the vacated shell and the newly formed pupa. (See the mass consumption of my curry leaves?)

Why, there’s a full blown biology class going on here, if you’d care to notice.
Back when I was in school, all we got were some rather poor quality, ho-hum B&W, line drawings titled ‘Metamorphosis’.
Then, after all these decades, I get to see the real, incredible thing!

Our beautiful guest? The Common Mormon (Papilio polytes) which is a common species of the Swallowtail Butterfly widely distributed across Asia.

Update 1.  We completely missed seeing the second butterfly which is assumed to have peacefully emerged, dried it’s wings and flown away, it’s beauty undocumented here, but no doubt, stunning and serving it’s purpose in this world.

Update 2. The curry leaf plant, meanwhile, sprouted several new whorls of leaves, which are by now well grown, totally covering the missing leaves below and the story left behind.

Update 3.  Even the empty shells of the pupae are well on their way to disintegrating/decomposing.

Update 4. That’s not all. More coming up in the Curry Plant Chronicles – Part 2.

And finally, if you really would like to catch more of the action, then click on this link to see a more thorough and informative documentation of the whole process of metamorphosis of the swallowtail butterfly.

Do take a look also at the interesting video on this link which shows the full life cycle at a butterfly farm.

That's where I learnt how a newly emerged butterfly is busy with not just drying, but also pumping fluid into the veins of its wings; and that excess fluid also sometimes gets squirted into the pupa shell.  So the mysterious liquid that I assumed to be rainwater in the shell was not really that!

Here is a list from an architect's blog of what you can grow if you want to cater to butterflies.
And one more here on slideshare of a list of some of the host and nectar plants in South India.
From around the world, if you want to give butterflies a drink from your garden here's a list from BBC, and another list, a US based one.

Best of all, get a curry leaf plant.
You get nice upma, too.


  1. Thank you for sharing that beautiful story, and the lovely pictures too:) Hands-off gardening can be rewarding in the most surprising ways...! Me and my husband never use chemicals on our plants, just planty of organic home-made compost nor do we ever kill pests, and the funny thing is our plants actually don't often get attacked by pests like blackfly and the like. But in case they do, a good strategy is to grow so many that we can spare a few for the insects to munch on...

    1. Thank you! I'm totally in sync with you on that philosophy! :)Somehow even the idea of - for eg. - applying rubbing alcohol etc on mealy bugs is something that never appeals to me. Occasionally ants might come to feast on them (the mealy bugs) - and I'm ok with that - it's the natural way of things. I like that strategy of having enough so one could spare some for the bugs!

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks, Poornima! I must confess I thought of you a zillion times as my favourite expert resource for id-ing - but it turned out to be common enough for me to locate online! :)

  3. Fascinating narration. We'd a Common Mormon last year on our Curry Leaf plant. It wiped out the plant leaves. But the way the plant came back to life after the metamorphosis was pretty vigorous! It seemed to be happy to host the Butterfly/Caterpillar!

    1. :) Thank you rb stumped. It does seem to be the case, doesn't it? Nature provides a win-win it would seem (if only allowed to!) I'm now waiting to see more Common Mormons! They seem to have stopped after that one time.



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