Black swallowtail: New Jersey’s official butterfly

If the Garden State were to gather together its official plants and animals, what an incredible assemblage it would be!

Black swallowtail butterfly

Black swallowtail butterfly

Eastern goldfinches flitting in the branches of a red oak tree, violets growing beneath and honeybees buzzing about. Blueberry bushes laden with ripe fruit, horses galloping in fields, and brook trout swimming in a freshwater stream. Nearby in the ocean, knobbed whelks.

The black swallowtail butterfly is a welcome a new addition.

Thanks to recent bipartisan action by the state Legislature and Governor Christie, the handsome black swallowtail is now New Jersey’s official state butterfly.

How did this large black butterfly with distinctive yellow and blue markings flutter to the top of the butterfly heap, surpassing others like the monarch, tiger swallowtail and spangled fritillary?

Its designation was largely due to the determined efforts of Jeannie Geremia of Flemington, a longtime leader in the Garden Club of New Jersey.

Jeannie’s fascination with black swallowtails began about 10 years ago, when she bought pots of rue, a garden herb, at a plant sale. Two plants had caterpillars munching their leaves, and Jeannie thought they might be monarch caterpillars. She decided to keep them in a cage until they revealed their identity.

Each formed a chrysalis, and eventually two black swallowtails emerged. Jeannie was hooked.  “I became enchanted with butterflies, and black swallowtails in particular,” she recalled.

Years later, Jeannie learned through a magazine story on state butterflies that New Jersey didn’t have one. “I was flabbergasted that New Jersey didn’t have a state butterfly,” she said. “I called Barbara Mullin (also of the Garden Club) and said, ‘Let’s launch a campaign to get one.’ ”

In her view, the black swallowtail was the logical choice because it’s found in all 21 counties – rural to urban – and lives its entire life cycle in New Jersey. Monarch butterflies, on the other hand, overwinter in Mexico and are already the official butterfly of several other states.

Sharon Wander, vice president of the North Jersey Butterfly Club, agrees the black swallowtail is a great choice because just about anyone interested in butterflies can attract this pollinator.

“You can plant common garden herbs like parsley, dill and fennel and it’s very likely you’ll attract adult black swallowtails to lay eggs,” she explained. Black swallowtails also like wildflowers in the carrot family, like Queen Anne’s lace and Golden Alexander.

The ease of attracting black swallowtails also makes them ideal for educational projects. “In the classroom, teachers can bring in a caterpillar in the fall and the kids can watch it form a chrysalis, and then get to watch it hatch before the end of the school year,” Sharon said.

But getting black swallowtails designated as New Jersey’s official butterfly was not easy. Jeannie had to write the proposed legislation, find legislative sponsors and help get the bill moved into and out of committee. To rally support, the Garden Club of New Jersey, New Jersey Audubon and other partners launched a massive campaign, including a petition, letter-writing and testimony before the Legislature.

“I just kept at it constantly wherever I went,” Jeannie said. “I just drove everybody crazy.”

But it worked – legislators voted unanimously for the black swallowtail, and Governor Christie signed the measure into law in January.  As the weather warms, let’s hope the newly-hatched black swallowtails that grace our landscapes will receive more attention and appreciation from the public than ever before.

To learn more about black swallowtails, go to the North Jersey Butterfly Club website at www.naba.org/chapters/nabanj and click on the “NJ Butterflies” link. More information, including an elementary school lesson plan, can be found at the Garden Club of New Jersey website at http://njclubs.esiteasp.com/gcnj/Butterflies_and_BeeGAP.nxg.

And for more information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.


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