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Zebras, Tigers and Hummingbirds—the Zoo in my Own Back Yard

by | Jul 13, 2015

I love the way summer dotes on us with its predictable and its unpredictable surprises. I look forward to the royal pink crape myrtle carpet in our back yard.


When I see these buds as fat and orange as carrots, I know it’s almost Turk’s cap lily time.


And sure enough, the next morning here they are, as elegant and ornate as ever.


There is always drama in the garden. And often it’s a hummingbird that ratchets up the action. The one at our feeder is guzzling nectar as if it’s already time to head across the Gulf of Mexico. But she has a greedy streak. Here is a somewhat ragged tiger swallowtail feeding at the Turk’s cap lily, and suddenly–zoom–the hummingbird darts over and chase it away.


I have a special place in my heart for tiger swallowtails, the way they gracefully caress the flowers and bushes, like flying flowers themselves. But in all the years I’ve been watching butterflies, I kept hoping to see another—the zebra swallowtail. It took me a little while to be sure of the difference. Tigers? Zebras? Which was which?

Cousin Jewel Hertzler, who grew up in this house, remembers seeing lots of zebra swallowtails in the phlox around the washhouse, which isn’t standing any longer. It turned out I wasn’t seeing any zebra swallowtails at all.

Zebra swallowtails begin their lives on one plant only—the pawpaw. I’m sure the woods around this place were once full of that host plant, but suburban lawns don’t feature it these days.


Years passed. Once I caught a glimpse of a brilliant zebra swallowtail on the bike trail at Newport News Park, and longed to see the same here at home. Robby brought home a pawpaw from the Virginia Living Museum wild flower sale, and we planted it.

It grew and thrived beside the playhouse.


And then one spring morning I got up from my desk to do a turn in the garden, just looking for what nature might have to show me. And I got the surprise of my life. Busy at the butterfly weed was the first zebra swallowtail I have ever seen here. A splash of red accented the graceful black and white.


The zoo in my garden was complete down to Z. What a gift! And yet—if we had not planted that pawpaw…if we had not nurtured the butterfly weed…if I had not risen from my desk to receive nature’s rare gift, who knows if I would ever have seen that zebra swallowtail? We are partners in the upkeep as well as the delight of our backyard zoo.




Susan Yoder Ackerman is a writer and gardener in Newport News, Virginia. Both her writing and her gardening are enhanced by tending a century-old family farmhouse and eight grandchildren that come and go. You can email Susan at [email protected].