Spicebush swallowtail caterpillar

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These are my favorite caterpillars and I like finding them in the backyard. The first sign is when I find a leaf on my native Kentucky spicebush (Lindera benzoin) cut and folded like this.

Spicebush leaf with spicebush swallowtail caterpillar

When I open the leaf, I usually see a small spicebush swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio troilus).

Small spicebush swallowtail caterpillar

In a week or so, I often find a large leaf folded in half like this.

Spicebush leaf folded in half by spicebush swallowtail caterpillar

When I open the leaf, this is my special treat.

Close-up of spicebush swallowtail caterpillar with eyespots

Isn’t it a cutie? Those are false eye spots and the head is actually hidden under what looks like a mouth, but isn’t. The face is supposed to look scary – especially to critters looking for a meal.

The folded leaf is created by a web spun by the caterpillar. It hides there in the daytime and comes out at night to eat.

Spicebush swallowtail butterfly (Papilio troilus)

Eventually, the caterpillar changes into a chrysalis and emerges as a spicebush swallowtail butterfly. These butterflies only lay their eggs on spicebush or sassafras (Sassafras albidum) plants.

Spicebush is one of my favorite native Kentucky shrubs. I appreciate the small yellow blooms that are one of the first signs of spring, and I like the delightful spicy smell of the leaves. And, it’s the host of my favorite caterpillar!

9 thoughts on “Spicebush swallowtail caterpillar”

  1. Oh, I really like him/her! But a couple of questions:
    If “the head is actually hidden under what looks like a mouth, but isn’t” – am I understanding correctly that
    both the “eyes” and the “mouth” are camouflaging attributes? And, “if the head is hidden under the mouth” but I don’t see it, is it just invisible or is it physically under “the canvass” on which the mouth is displayed?

    1. Yes, Beth, the false eye spots and mouth are for camouflage purposes. The head is visible when the caterpillar is feeding but is otherwise hidden under the false mouth. Thanks for asking.

    1. Great to hear from you, Richard. Hope you get to witness the arrival of at least one of those brand new butterflies. And sharing a passion adds to the fun.

  2. I had my first experience with a Spicebush caterpillar this summer…what a treat. He is just beginning to pupate. Thank you for your blog.

  3. Fascinating! I would normally be seeking out various glimpses of natures oddities. Unfortunately, an extended stay at the inhospitable looms and I must be ready. This means (among other things) stuffing my iPods to their fill of old Rock ‘N’ Roll (to increase my prospects of a shorter stay — hee, hee, heeee). So, what has all that to do with y’all and your buggy affection (or affliction)?

    Well, Creedence Clearwater Revival attributes two of its earliest songs to the authorship of one T. Spicebush Swallowtail.

  4. This is just what I was looking for!! These are perfect pictures to help my kids and I find one of these beauties! We’ve mastered fostering Monarchs, Black Swallowtails and Cabbage Whites, now we’d like to add to the list the Spicebush Swallowtail. We have a reservation close by that is loaded with Sassafras trees so I’m hoping we can find one there–we were there yesterday and a Spicebush butterfly flew by…so I’m hoping we might be close to starting a new caterpillar fostering adventure! Thanks for the pictures!!

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