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From caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly — a surprising development inside the home

Thinking things through before I launch some grand new gardening scheme is not my strong suit. If I cared to recall all the failures and wasted money, which I don't, I'm sure I could shock you. But the garden's a safe place for letting my freak spontaneous fly, so I do.

I learned a lesson this month, though. It's one thing to kill a plant because you didn't do due diligence after it hopped into your shopping cart. It's another to take responsibility for a creature — or three; monarch caterpillars in this case — without enough information and a good plan.

So I share my cautionary tale, which does have some beautiful high points.

In late December, I spotted three monarch caterpillars on my giant milkweeds. I love butterfly caterpillars! I checked on them mornings before I left for work and, with a flashlight, when I came home at night. I was thrilled to see them still there, happily chewing my milkweeds to nubs.

When a freeze was forecast for Jan. 4, I feared my little cats wouldn't survive. So I created a "safe nest" for them: a screened, ventilated container full of yummy milkweed leaves that I could bring inside. (I learned about these from South Tampa gardener Laura Barber, whom I wrote about on Sept. 9.) I knew they'd need fresh food every day, so I carefully covered the milkweed plants after pulling some leaves, just in case.

I kept a close eye on my new little friends, gently retrieving them when they slipped through the cracks in their nest. If the house was very quiet, I could actually hear them chomp-chomp-chomping on their salad. They were nice company.

It got very cold the night of Jan. 3, and even colder on Jan. 4. On the morning of Jan. 5, one of the caterpillars became a chrysalis. Yay!

Monarch butterflies, I was told, usually emerge in the morning, when the warmth of the sun tells them it's safe to come out. Then they hang around near their empty chrysalis for a couple of hours, getting to know their fingers and toes and antennae, and drying out those incredible wings. It usually takes about 10 days from chrysalis formation to butterfly hatch.

That first butterfly didn't emerge until Jan. 17, in the afternoon. By the time I got home from work about 7 p.m., she was still hanging out near her birthplace, occasionally opening and closing her wings. But by 10 p.m., she was antsy. I took her outside to the garden to release her but, unbeknownst to me, she hitchhiked a ride back indoors. (Smart butterfly. Laura has since told me it's not good to release new butterflies at night.) The next morning, I was relieved to find her lounging on my shoe in the kitchen.

Chrysalis No. 2 was changing color so I knew it was due to hatch.

My husband and I both had to work, so I decided to bring the nest to my job at EMSI, a public relations firm in Wesley Chapel. I figured an unattended house wouldn't be safe for a newborn butterfly, and it might be fun for my co-workers to see the whole process.

It was more than fun; it was exciting! Everyone marveled as we watched our new butterfly slowly unfold her orange and black wings and test her long black legs. Radio guy Rich Ghazarian, our lovable office curmudgeon, dubbed her Zeke. (We learned later that boy monarchs have a black spot on their wings.)

By lunchtime, Zeke was ready for takeoff. I scouted our office park for landscaping with flowers and panicked when I found only foliage. Finally, with Zeke perched on print-campaign diva Ginny Grimsley's finger, I drove to a neighboring subdivision and found a blooming bottlebrush bush on which to deposit her. I wished I'd taken the time to print out a list of monarchs' preferred flowers. I hoped if she didn't like bottlebrush, Zeke could find something better.

Chrysalis No. 3 looked as if it might pop the next day and, again, no one would be home at my house. So I left the nest at the office. The next morning, I brought some plumbago and lantana to work. I hoped I could keep this butterfly satisfied with office flowers, then bring her home to release in my garden the next day.

It worked — for a few hours. Zelda quietly lounged on the pink and yellow lantana, soaking up the sun on my office windowsill as I typed a couple of feet away. We enjoyed a tranquil afternoon. Every time I looked over at her, I smiled.

That is, until she discovered the cord to the blinds. I spotted her just as she started her ascent — and fell. Behind the filing cabinet! I got her extricated but next, it was a trek up the window, and another tumble to the floor. Then she was zooming around my office and bumping into the walls. Desperate, I finally took her outside with the plumbago, lantana, and a couple of office plants. She lingered for an hour.

It was almost time to go home when I checked on her and witnessed what was likely her first flight outdoors, a short, wobbly journey to the shrubs next door. She took a breather, then made another unsteady, indirect trip to the eaves. After a short rest, she sailed over the rooftop to a tree behind the building.

I went back inside, finished up some work and packed to leave. By then, it was twilight, and I decided to check the tree, hoping she'd moved along. She hadn't. She was still in the same spot, motionless, and too high for me to reach.

I watched her for a while, hoping she'd at least open her wings, but she didn't move. Finally, sadly, I left.

I know Zelda probably wouldn't have survived the freeze, so I bought her some extra time here on the planet — and three brief flights through the great outdoors. But still, I feel guilty. I took a life in my hands without thinking it through and the result makes me sad.

I won't be taking in any more caterpillars, at least until I have a better plan for them. But plants? They're still at risk.

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