August 19, 2023
Zebra swallowtails love the southern part of the city where freshwater flows and pawpaws grow


By Mary Reid Barrow

Photos by Laura Joksaite

If a beautiful zebra swallowtail butterfly gracefully glided into a garden up in the northern part of the city, you might be as surprised as if a real zebra trotted in!

Zebra swallowtails are rare up there where salty waterways dominate the landscape.  But down in the southern part of the city, the beauties are more commonplace, because that’s where freshwater flows and pawpaw trees grow.

Pawpaws are the only host plant a zebra swallowtail caterpillar will eat. The trees are common along freshwater bottomlands, flood plains and even ditches.  Like the zebra swallowtail, the pawpaw is unusual.

Its branches with big, long leaves are reminiscent of umbrellas.  It blooms with purple flowers in spring that produce long, tasty yellowish green fruit in summer.

Not only are zebra swallowtails found among the pawpaws, but “Dear little Suzy” of the folk song can be found, picking paw paws “way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.“

Laura Joksaite took these beautiful photos of zebra swallowtails at Stumpy Lake, a big area of fresh water and wetlands, part of the North Landing River waterway system. The butterflies can be seen in summer in similar habitats across Virginia and much of the south.



Zebra swallowtails must have been Mother Nature’s best blueprint for a swallowtail butterfly.  They feature the longest “tails” of any swallowtail in the country.  And they appear to know just how special their tails are, as they fly gracefully about as if to tease with their beauty.

They are easy to identify with their long tails and black and white zebra stripes.  They also feature splotches of red at the base of their wings, and a red streak on each underwing.

By happenstance, you might also be taken aback by the sight of the somewhat similar zebra longwing butterfly in your garden.  These interesting looking butterflies with longish horizontal black and white stripes and equally long horizontal wings, might arrive in our area as an egg or caterpillar on the butterfly’s host plant, a passionflower, shipped in from, say, a Florida nursery.

But the zebra swallowtail is in Virginia Beach precisely for the pawpaws.  I planted a little pawpaw tree several years ago, and it’s growing ever so slowly—no blooms yet.   I’ll probably be long gone before a female zebra swallowtail finds it and lays her eggs, but it’s nice dreaming about the possibility.



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