In our backyard Life & Style

Every mother’s favourite

The Black Mormon butterfly finds its home on the curry leaf plant

The Black Mormon butterfly finds its home on the curry leaf plant   | Photo Credit: Sohail Madan

The curry leaf or kadi patta bush or tree plays host to the Common Mormon butterfly

During the lockdown, we’re all beginning to pay more attention to the flora and fauna around — suddenly the trees seem grander, the butterflies prettier, the flowers more vibrant. And the creepy crawlies are back, devouring leaves like there’s no tomorrow.

Staying home didn’t seem like a happy proposition for a naturalist like me at first, but I am now overwhelmed by the richness of my own concrete backyard with potted plants. One of my mother’s favourites is the curry leaf (Bergera koenigii aka Murraya koenigii), a small deciduous tree or bush with strongly scented leaves, a much loved ingredient in several Indian cuisines. The plant, also called meetha Neem belongs to the family Rutaceae, which also includes citrus.

The bark is brown, thin and delicate. The older barks may show shallow fissures. The leaves take a compound arrangement with about 9-25 small pointy leaflets. White fragrant flowers appear on the plant with about five petals and pink berry like fruits arrive at first and slowly turn purple and then shiny black towards the end, Pradip Krishen’s book Trees of Delhi tells us.

In Delhi, the bush is mostly grown in pots and is not often found growing wild as a tree. Very few exist in tree form, found mostly in Sunder Nursery. In Jawaharlal Nehru University campus they are found as hedgerows.

The Kadi Patta plays host plant to the caterpillars of the Common Mormon (Papilio polytes) butterfly that belongs to the elegant Swallowtail family. During the long hours at home I discovered caterpillars devouring the leaves – delightful for me; an annoyance for my mother, though she is learning to take it in her stride.

Common Mormon butterflies keep coming to my backyard to lay more and more eggs in singles under the leaf. This behaviour of laying their eggs under the leaf is a defence mechanism to avoid losing eggs to predators.

Although caterpillars in their lifetime have the luxury of only eating and pooping, their life is not a bed of roses. The several stages between a butterfly oviposting (laying an egg) to the new butterfly emerging from the pupa are very delicate and prone to several dangers. From the egg being damaged, to the caterpillar being eaten by birds and lizards to wasp parasitism, they have to brave it all, but most fall prey. In the process, my curry leaf plant has lost at least two caterpillars, one in pupa form to a macaque and the other under mysterious circumstances!

But all is not lost. I have found more eggs and can’t wait to chronicle their life cycle. So if you have a curry leaf plant at home, try looking for the caterpillars.

The writer is the founder of NINOX - Owl About Nature, a nature-awareness initiative. He is the Delhi-NCR reviewer for Ebird, a Cornell University initiative, monitoring rare sightings of birds. He formerly led a programme of WWF India.

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Printable version | Jul 11, 2020 5:52:12 PM |

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