Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Life On A Passion Vine

Have you ever sat down in front of a plant and just observed all the activity that goes on there? My children and I recently did this as part of a homeschool assignment and it was fascinating to see all the life on our passion vine (passiflora incarnata).


A female Variegated Fritillary butterfly visits to lay eggs. First landing, then touching with her feet to "taste" that this is indeed the right plant to support her offspring. Then with gentle intent she deposits eggs on the underside of the leaves.


Other butterflies have been here already, before her. There is the obvious caterpillar munching away at the leaves. It is a host plant for several butterflies including the Gulf Fritillary and Variegated Fritillary and if you are further south than we are, you may find Zebra Longwing or Julia Heliconian caterpillars.

Gulf Fritillary caterpillar

Variegated Fritillary caterpillar

In fact, upon close observation, we find lots and lots of caterpillars in various instars. Sometimes alone on a single leaf and other times munching away in unison on a shared spot.


But there are other less familiar visitors to this vine. Several ants busily run up and down the stalks. They stop at the base of a leaf and start madly crawling around in circles. They are visiting the extrafloral nectaries (EFN), nectar producing glands that are separate from the flower.

ants collecting sweet liquid from extrafloral nectaries


Reading up on EFNs, studies indicate that they are used by plants to attract beneficials such as ants and beetles by secreting glucose, fructose, sucrose, protein and amino and organic acids. This is one way the plant protects itself and improves its survival and reproduction success. Sometimes referred to as host-plant resistance.

lady beetle larvae finding nectar at extrafloral nectaries

Stripped cucumber beetles run around the tops and underside of the leaves. They prefer vining plants such as cucumber, pumpkin, and squash but they will eat just about anything they can find. They are thought of as a garden pest primarily because they chew on the leaves and are largely responsible for bacterial wilt. If they were in my vegetable garden I might spray an organic soap on them but the cucumber beetles will get a pass this time because the passion vine is populated with far too many caterpillars and I wouldn't risk their survival. More importantly the cucumber beetles may be lunch for a wolf spider, ground beetle or even a bat.

stripped cucumber beetle
Other flying insects, such as flies and wasps make brief pit stops to check things out before departing in search of a meal elsewhere.

banded robber fly

Life on a passiflora is in no way dull. There is constant activity. Every insect interacting with the plant with their own resolve. Take a moment to observe the plants in your garden. How are they supporting your ecosystem?  You may be surprised what you find there.

14 comments:

  1. It is so interesting the variety of insects to be found with having the right plants. It is like a gift to the gardener seeing all that flying color. The Zebra and Julia I only see at the Butterfly Conservancy. I hope they (Fling organizers) take your group there because that is also where the horticulture school is located. There grounds are beautiful. It is one of my favorite places across the border to visit.

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    1. I don't think that is a stop on the tour but I will put it on my places to visit. Sounds like we are in for a whirlwind tour of Toronto gardens. I'm excited!

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  2. Learned something that I've never heard of before - EFN's. That explains why I see so many ants on certain plants. Thanks Karin!

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  3. Wonderful post on the insects and garden. The first plant is beautiful and I love the butterfly. Happy Friday, have a great weekend!

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    1. Thanks! The first photo shows the passion vine in bloom. They are so exotic looking and they are covered in bumblebees all summer long. Wonderful plant for lots of pollinators.

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  4. A delightful post, Karin! Last summer, I spent an hour observing a patch of Monarda punctata for the "Great Sunflower Project." What a wonderful experience! It amazed me how many pollinators and how many different types of pollinators visit a single plant in one hour! It's also a very calming activity. How fun to participate in this project with your kids!

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    1. I'm so glad you reminded me of the Great Sunflower Project. I remember reading about that on your blog and I want to participate. I've made a note of it for this year.

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  5. What a delightful view of the wonders of such a wonderful plant! Can't wait to meet you at Fling!

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    1. Yay! I was just looking at the schedule last night and I am super excited. Looking forward to meeting you too!

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  6. Oh that is a wonderful project and one I must attempt on a plant here...I love learning and the EFNs was new to me....so much to be seen in our gardens...thanks for sharing this Karin.

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  7. I love reading your blog because I learn so many things that I wouldn't thought about. Thanks!

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  8. How fascinating - I can't believe that you found all of those insects on one type of plant. And your photographs are beautiful!

    It's incredible what we can see if we simply slow down and take the time to look. I'm often in such a rush to get things done that I forget to do that - so thank you for the reminder!

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  9. Very cool! I loved learning about the EFN's - never knew that! And you even got a Robber Fly hanging out there. It really does attract all sorts of things!

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  10. I can imagine that this could be an interesting exercise and one that would give you a better understanding of the creatures in a specific area of a garden. Oddly enough I rarely see caterpillars of any kind in my garden. Ants, bees and mosquitoes seem to be the most common insects...but perhaps I need to look more closely...
    It was great meeting you Karin!

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"Don't wait for someone to bring you flowers. Plant your own garden and decorate your soul"

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