The Wood Folk Diaries: Volume 3, Chapter 18: Commas, Question Mark and Elms

Dear Wood Folk,

Around Haliburton, Ontario we have 4 comma butterflies: the green comma (polygonia faunus), eastern comma (polygonia comma), gray comma (polygonia progne), and the question mark (polygonia interrogationis). They are all sorted into the genus polygonia

They stand out with their angular wing edges from lookalike crescents and fritillaries. But they are very mistakable for the similarly jagged winged Compton tortoiseshell. The Compton tortoiseshell also has similar habits. I see them both at the same times in the same places.

Eastern Comma (polygonia comma)
Eastern Comma (polygonia comma)

Commas can be differentiated from each other by subtle markings, like the green commas sub marginal row of green spots on its underside. ID-ing these can be a difficult task. If you can master these species in your butterfly field guide, you’re doing awesome!

Comma Plant Allies

The adults of these butterfly species mostly prefer tree sap, rotting fruit, dirt, dung, and even carrion to the flower nectar typically envisioned for butterflies. This is common to overwintering butterflies who come out early spring and are often still fluttering about late in summer, when we’re low on flowers/nectar. Mourning cloaks and Compton tortoiseshells usually show up first early spring, but commas arrive soon after.

The commas all have solitary caterpillars that camo well in the trees and shrubbery, using leaf shelters and transforming in brown, dry leaf looking chrysalises.

Green Comma (Polygonia faunus)
Green Comma (Polygonia faunus)

Green Comma Plant Allies

Greens have many host plants including alder, prairie willow (salix humilis), and ribes species like currants.

You’ll see ribes species come up for most of these commas. Native nettles and elm may host green commas too, and they are also popular with various comma species.

Some of these green commas host plants can be found near wetlands. Alder is a token wetland species. Wood nettle and swamp currant too.

Eastern Comma Plant Allies

Eastern comma caterpillars feed on American elm (ulmus americana), basswood (tilia americana), ribes again like currants and gooseberries, and nettles. And nettle-ish plants like canada clearweed (pilea pumila) and false nettle (boehmeria cylindrica).

Common hackberry (celtis occidentalis) can also be a host tree for the eastern comma, although I’ve found no reports of it in Haliburton county. There are native hackberry trees that can grow in our zone.

Grey Comma Plant Allies

Ribes is also paramount species for greys. Their main host plants are native currants and gooseberries – common understory shrubs in Haliburton forests. Birch and possibly elm may be used as grey comma host plants too.

Elm Tree
Elm Tree

You’re more likely to see the gray comma outside of the woods than the other comma species.

Question Mark Plant Allies

Elms are a common host plant for question mark butterflies. Nettles, false nettle and clearweed too. And hackberry makes the list again.

If you’ve got a mix of the likes of native elm, nettle, and currants or gooseberries, you’re sure to attract these “punctuation” butterflies to brighten up the grey early spring and fall here.

Next month we’ll be covering viceroys – the monarch doppelganger.

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