A white butterfly made its way above the grassy bank along one side of the car park; in the late morning sunshine it might have been taken for a scrap of paper caught by the wind. I don’t usually pay much attention to the white butterflies, probably an ingrained prejudice from childhood when “cabbage whites” were the bane of my father’s attempts at growing vegetables. But something made me look again, this time I thought I saw flickering traces of orange in the white as the butterfly danced briskly along. It turned to follow a narrow soil border along another edge of the parking area and paused, settling on one of the plants below. Now I could see the insect in all its glory, its prominent antennae, blue-grey velvety body, pure white hind wings and the intense orange patches that occupy most of the outer half of each forewing. This was unmistakeably a male orange-tip butterfly. The vivid orange patches spoke to me of the sky at sunrise, an image encapsulated by the French in their name for this butterfly, l’Aurore, the dawn. But this sunrise was destined to be short-lived – when I moved closer to get a better look at the insect, it promptly flew over the wall into the nearby community garden.
I admit that a car park is an odd place to watch insects but when the lockdown was imposed, I decided to use some of my “exercise” walks to wander around the community gardens and public spaces in Totnes, the town where I live, looking at the wildlife as this unusual spring unfolded. This one, the Nursery Car Park, was a market garden until the early 1980s and traces of its previous existence can still be found. Tall, ivy-clad stone walls enclose the parking area making it a warm and sheltered spot and along two sides there are wide grassy banks where dandelions, celandines and three-cornered leek grow in early spring attracting many insects. During lockdown the area was almost empty of cars and very peaceful.
An orange-tip butterfly in this semi-urban space still seemed rather exotic and I couldn’t remember having seen one here before. It felt as though by pausing above the narrow soil border, the butterfly was urging me to look more carefully. This was a scruffy border that I had ignored previously and I was surprised at what I found when I followed the butterfly’s prompt. Here was a tapestry of wild flowers, pinks, blues, whites and yellows: three species of cranesbill, pink purslane, red campion, green alkanet, cow parsley, garlic mustard, hedge mustard and buttercups. Why hadn’t I noticed this profusion of growth before? Usually it was busy here and the border was inaccessible, but I also had not taken the time to look properly. Now I had that time.
I went back several times over the next few days and usually saw a few white butterflies and one or two orange-tips. The border and its flowers also seemed to be attracting other insects, including a large red damselfly and a grey-patched mining bee. Then one sunny morning I noticed a male orange-tip repeatedly flying upwards and dropping down on to a cluster of small snow-white flowers on a tall plant growing at the far end of the border. When I got a little closer, I could see another butterfly on the flower cluster and realised that this was a female; perhaps the male’s behaviour had something to do with mating? Whatever was going on, she was having none of his rather rough and ready approaches. Eventually, he gave up and flew off leaving her on the white flowers. I recognised these as garlic mustard, a common hedgerow wildflower and one of the principal larval food plants of these butterflies, along with cuckooflower. Two moderate sized clumps of the plant were growing in this border, attracting these butterflies to the car park.
The female moved to another flower where she rested, wings half open, basking in the sunshine. Unlike the colourful male who shouts to be seen, she is understated but just as beautiful – a pale grey patch and spot on each forewing in place of the male’s orange tips. But it was the underside of her hind wings that really drew my attention, a complex pattern of green and yellow veining and mottling resembling the marbled end papers of an antique book or perhaps a tie-died fabric from the hippie era. The male has the same mottled underwing pattern and it provides superb camouflage for these insects when they rest, wings closed, on plants like cow parsley. This camouflage works particularly well on garlic mustard where the small cross-shaped white flowers grow around a central core of yellowish-green immature flowers so that the array has a striking resemblance to the mottled pattern on the butterfly.
The scientific name for the orange-tip butterfly is Anthocharis cardamines. Cardamines refers to the cuckooflower and its role as a larval food source for the insect but anthocharis has a more interesting origin being derived from two Ancient Greek words, anthos for flower and charis for grace. I came across a male orange-tip in countryside near the town and the behaviour of the insect made me reflect on the idea of “flower grace”. The butterfly had been patrolling above a bank of vegetation and eventually settled on a garlic mustard flower. Its wings were closed at first, the green and yellow mottled patterns blending well with the flowers and pale green leaves, so that the insect could easily have been mistaken for a leaf or missed altogether. It was a blustery day and, when the wind blew, the butterfly clung on to the moving flower, occasionally opening its wings a little, revealing a hint of orange from the top of the forewing. This wasn’t the full-on, wings-open colour, just a subtle tint. There was also another, more evanescent effect as, when the insect flexed its wings, a variable orange haze spread through the mottled pattern. It was as if the paper marbler or the tie-dying hippie had allowed some additional colour to bleed through their design and in that moment, I saw the grace of the butterfly and how, in turn, it lends this grace to the flower.
My encounters with orange-tip butterflies in the Nursery Car Park this spring were entirely unexpected. When the lockdown started I didn’t know how I would cope. How would I manage without my regular forays into deep countryside or to the coast for wildlife walks? But I soon learnt how much there is to be seen in our immediate environment and, if I looked carefully, this might include some surprises. Finding so much close to home added something special to the discoveries and I drew as much satisfaction and pleasure from my observations as if I had come across a rare species on the coast path.
I am not alone in this experience. I have been surprised to hear enthusiastic accounts from neighbours and friends, even from those who have lived here for many years, of their discoveries of hidden lanes and passageways, the peace they have found and the colourful wildflowers they have seen. Perhaps, when the coronavirus crisis is over, we can hold on to this new sense of wonder, this awareness of wildlife we find directly around us, even in the most unlikely places.
I continued to watch the scruffy car park border as spring moved forward. Tiny orange eggs, like miniature rugby balls, soon appeared on stems beneath the flower heads of garlic mustard and a few weeks later, these gave rise to small olive-green caterpillars. These were the larvae of the orange-tip butterfly and, in time these larvae will have found somewhere to form a chrysalis for overwintering. Next spring, I hope, new orange-tip butterflies will emerge from each chrysalis and I shall be there, waiting for the flashes of bright colour as they dance through the air.
Most of these observations were made in the fourth week of April and the first week of May 2020.
Photographs by the author.
Philip Strange is a writer, scientist and naturalist who lives in south Devon. His writing has been published in The Curlew, The Canary, Resurgence and Ecologist Magazine and in Guardian blogs.
Philip may be found searching for unusual plants on Chesil Beach, or looking for rare bees by the south west coast path, or chasing up a story about science in everyday life in the west country. For more of Philip’s writing see his blog: https://philipstrange.wordpress.com/
If you’d like to learn more about the naming of butterflies and moths, Peter Marren’s Emperors, Admirals and Chimney Sweepers is out now in paperback.