Butterflies Make the Best Botanists

A Gray Comma from Garrett Co MD [2012 July 10, photo by Rick Cheicante]

The go-to place in Maryland for Gray Comma — normally a butterfly of the Northwoods — is along Big Run in Garrett Co., following Big Run Road from New Germany Road down to Big Run State Park proper. The best sites are the dozen or so state forest campsites before you get to the park; especially on Monday mornings when the weekend campers depart the Gray Commas descend on the campsites and fire rings for spilled beer, rotting fruit, and (one suspects) somewhat less savory things left behind.

Gray Comma is also known from other places in western MD, certainly, primarily in Allegany and Garrett Counties. But not with the regularity one finds it along Big Run.

As far as we know, the host plant for caterpillars of Gray Comma in the mid-Atlantic is Appalachian Gooseberry, Ribes rotundifolia. Which presents a bit of a problem, since documented records of Appalachian Gooseberries exist only for Allegany Co., and certainly not along Big Run in Garrett. There are sparse records in the scientific literature of Gray Commas using rhododendron and other gooseberries, but the heavy favorite is rotundifolia.

But I’ve long harbored a suspicion that there is Appalachian Gooseberry along Big Run as well, a population sufficient to support pretty good numbers of Gray Comma some years. So I spent some time this week botanzing Big Run while the persistent clouds and showers kept butterflies out of sight.

And sure enough, there is Appalachian Gooseberry along Big Run — rather a lot of it, actually — and since it’s in bloom now it can confidently be identified. Or at least I *think* I’ve correctly identified it. It’s got a striking pinkish-purple calyx tube, with stamens that extend quite far out from the petals, the leaves are the rounded shape that give Appalachian Gooseberry its Latin species name, and it lacks the spines and prickles that we associate with other native (and introduced) gooseberries.

When it’s out of flower and not in fruit, the small bush is rather nondescript and could be passed off as a viburnum or chokeberry or ninebark or even a scraggly hawthorn if one doesn’t look too closely at the leaf arrangement and smooth stems. But that doesn’t fool the commas. They really do make excellent botanical sleuths.

This entry was posted in conservation, evolution, general butterfly news. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Butterflies Make the Best Botanists

  1. rob@snphotos.com says:

    Hi Rick

    Yes I concur it is Ribes rotundifolia and it is blooming in Shenandoah NP right now also where it is fairly common at the higher elevations (3000 ft and up; sometimes a bit lower).

    We had our first Juniper Hairstreak of the year at Nineveh, Warren Co. VA on Monday May 2, 2021 nectaring on Fleabane.

    Best to you – Rob

    Ann and Rob Simpson

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