butterflies in golden gate park: anise swallowtail


Anise swallowtail butterfly at Strawberry Hill, Golden Gate Park (sketch by Heath Massey)

Anise swallowtail butterfly at Strawberry Hill, Golden Gate Park (sketch by Heath Massey)

I have been noticing butterflies in the park lately.  This Anise Swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon) was flitting around a patch of yarrow and sticky monkey flower near the reservoir above the falls on Strawberry Hill this past week, while I was busy sketching a Red-tailed Hawk.  Then it perched for a long time, so I snapped a picture and drew this from the photo later.  I find that drawing fixes the markings in my memory much more permanently than taking a photograph;  now I will definitely recognize an Anise Swallowtail next time I see one.  There are about 35 species of butterflies in San Francisco, listed by local lepidopterist Liam O’Brien on his website:  http://sfbutterfly.com/www.sfbutterfly.com/SF_Index.html

I also own the wonderful Field Guide to Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Valley Regions,  by Art Shapiro, illustrated by Timothy Manolis, which has a long and informative introduction explaining butterfly life cycles, behavior, population dynamics, effects of climate change, plant associations and much more.   From this book I learned that the Anise Swallowtail is a fascinating and adaptable butterfly!

The species Papilio zelicaon has been remarkably flexible in response to dwindling numbers of native plant hosts that once sustained it.  It is found throughout the temperate Northern Hemisphere, but there are many “ecological races,” meaning localized populations that have adapted to different ecotypes.  Its common name reflects the fact that it long ago adapted to breed on naturalized non-native species of the carrot family (i.e. “weeds”), particularly sweet fennel (anise).  Fennel was already in California by the Gold Rush and  Anise Swallowtails were observed feeding on fennel here in 1850 by the French forty-niner Pierre Joseph Michel Lorquin (California’s first recorded lepidopterist).  Fennel grows abundantly along roadsides and in vacant lots,  sustained by runoff from urban roads and back yards, and it affords edible material year round.  Anise Swallowtails that rely on fennel are multivoltine, meaning they go through the lifecycle multiple times during the year.  But in areas where there is little or no fennel and they breed on other plants, they may have only two life cycles per ear (bivoltine) and even just one life cycle per year (univoltine) in serpentine areas in the Coast Ranges (e.g.  Napa County).  This is a surviver species!

I think the butterfly I saw was probably a male, “hill-topping.”  Just hanging out there in a sunny, late afternoon, exposed spot, looking beautiful and sexy, hoping to attract a female.  I didn’t detect the scent of pheromones, but then I’m not a butterfly.


About fromthethicket

I'm a landscape historian and professor emeritus of landscape architecture, UC Davis. I live in San Francisco.
This entry was posted in animals, insects, wildlife and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to butterflies in golden gate park: anise swallowtail

  1. milliontrees says:

    Teaching at UC Davis, as you do, you must know Art Shapiro. And it seems from this post, that you may also be familiar with his study of the use of non-native plants by California’s butterflies: SD Graves and AM Shapiro, “Exotics as host plants of the California butterfly fauna,” Biological Conservation, 110 (2003) 413-433. Although the Anise Swallowtail is probably the best known example of a native butterfly that now depends on an introduced plant, there are many other butterflies that also use introduced plants, as Art reports in his study.

    I took a butterfly class in the East Bay Regional Park District Botanical Garden in Tilden Park recently. The emphasis was on gardening to attract butterflies in your garden. The instructors recommended planting fennel. The native plant advocates in the class were very unhappy, but the instructors would not relent. They said, “If you want butterflies in your garden, you will plant fennel in your garden.” The instructors also said that Art’s book about California butterflies is the best available.

    The San Francisco Chronicle had an article in its Food & Home section yesterday about fennel. They said that the seeds of wild fennel are full of good flavor, but they warned foragers to be careful to avoid picking fennel where it had been sprayed with herbicides. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is any reliable way to know that.

    I am glad to see your blog active again. Welcome back!

  2. sparrow says:

    I was just now admiring a Red Admiral butterfly in Frick Park and thinking I’d like to paint it 🙂 Love this sketch. Glad to know some butterflies are strong.

  3. Red Admirals are abundant here too, and in Eurasia as well as throughout North America. Not clear where it originated. Another survivor, for sure!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s