The Wood Folk Diaries: Volume 3, Chapter 14: Crescents and Asters

Dear Wood Folk,

In Ontario, we have three crescent butterflies. The two main crescents are the northern crescent (phyciodes cocyta) and pearl crescent (phyciodes tharos), who may or may not be the same species, although the current line of thought is that they are separate species. That might flip flop. And third is the tawny crescent (phyciodes batesii). They are all lookalikes, especially the females. Have you seen a group of orange and black butterflies as pictured below?

Northern crescents (phyciodes cocyta)
Northern crescents (phyciodes cocyta)

I see most crescents on dirt roads or roadsides. They stop frequently on roadside black-eyed Susan’s, who coordinate well with them. Sometimes I find them fluttering about field and woodland openings. Over the summer I might see hundreds. Haliburton county is covered in asters, so it’s possible to see this butterfly anywhere here.

Crescent Plant Allies

Flat-top aster (doellingeria umbellata)
Flat-top aster (doellingeria umbellata)

I am so happy to feature asters (symphyotrichum spp.)! Asters are in the sunflower family (asteraceae), flowers full of flowers. They aren’t very edible and medicinal, although they will be a featured plant on our main blog in the next year.

To the various crescent butterflies, asters are vital as their caterpillar host species and a nutritious source of nectar for adult butterflies. Asters are popular in the world of pollinators. Even for those last of the monarchs preparing to head south, the later blooming New England Aster (s. novae-angliae) provides one of the few nectar sources left in our area late September.

There are 30 “American Asters” present in Ontario and most of them are native. Besides New England aster, the most common are panicled aster (symphyotrichum lanceolatum), common blue wood (s. cordifolium), my favourite: calico (s. lateriflorum) and swamp (s. puniceum). Asters are sometimes hard to ID one from another, but besides one goldenrod that looks more like an aster, it’s pretty easy to tell when you’re looking at one.

The crescents first brood is midsummer with a partial second brood in August-early September. The later caterpillars overwinter here.

Adult butterflies drink nectar from many of our all-star native pollinator plants like asters, coneflowers, dogwoods, fleabanes, goldenrods, milkweeds, spreading dogbane, swamp milkweed, mountain mint, native phlox, thistle and sunflowers, ragworts, and vervain. That’s a proboscis full.

We’ve got a full year and some of butterflies and their host plants left to cover, but I may cover some bees and wasps and other small critters soon! Remember to subscribe and hit notifications where you wish! Our socials are all up top.

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