Giant Swallowtail Butterfly

I was going out this morning to pick tomatoes when I saw an unfamiliar butterfly on the Mexican Sunflowrer (Tithonia rotundifolia). Judy grabbed her camera and came outside to get some pictures. However, the humidity was so high that her lens fogged over.

Picture taken through a foggy lens.
Picture taken through a foggy lens.

So, if you’re wondering what photos look like taken with a fogged over lens, here you go. It took several minutes for the lens to clear.

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The butterfly turned out to be a Giant Swallowtail. We’d never had one in the garden before to my knowledge.

Giant Swallowtail, view from the back.
Giant Swallowtail, view from the back.

The Giant Swallowtail was really loving the Tithonia, which has turned out to be golden in terms of attracting butterflies to the garden.

Giant Swallowtail caterpillar. Photo: University of Florida Department of Entomology
Giant Swallowtail caterpillar. Photo: University of Florida Department of Entomology

Plants in the citrus family are hosts to Giant Swallowtails. In Illinois, that means Prickly Ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) and Hop  (Ptelea trifoliate) trees, as well as Common Rue (Ruta graveonlens). I’m tempted to plant some Common Rue myself, though I’m not sure where to get hold of it. Giant Swallowtail caterpillars camouflage themselves by resembling bird poop.

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The damaged wings indicate this particular Giant Swallowtail has taken some hard knocks, or bites.

Bumblebee wants the swallowtail to move on, and he does.
Bumblebee wants the swallowtail to move on, and he does.

The Swallowtail was fluttering from bloom to bloom on the Tithonia. Even while feeding he kept his wings moving, which made getting a good shot challenging for Judy. At one point, she saw a bumblebee chase the swallowtail away from a flower.

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Giant Swallowtails aren’t uncommon, but I’m highly gratified every time I find a new butterfly species in the garden.

53 Comments on “Giant Swallowtail Butterfly”

  1. This butterfly would not hold still for a second. I actually got these shots by using the sports setting, the shutter keeps clicking as you hold the button down – so I was shooting as the butterfly was moving and didn’t know what I got until we downloaded the pictures.

  2. Wow, A little serendipity meshing well with your life; what a pleasant surprise! Thanks Judy, now I know what the sport setting does…makes sense. You two do a great job together; very interesting topics and great photos = most enjoyable!

  3. Isn’t that a treat!!! I would be over the moon to see a new butterfly in the garden! Such gorgeous photos of that guy! And he does look like bird poop as a caterpillar!!! Congrats on the new visitor! Happy weekend to you guys! Nicole

  4. Great photos and good job seeing the difference. I wish I would have had this post a week or two earlier though since I’m pretty sure we had one too and I just didn’t know it. Thought it was an odd looking tiger swallowtail and gave it the usual look but then saw a local post on Facebook calling it a giant and recognized the pattern. Nice you have a garden so welcoming for wildlife.

  5. Wow! your humidity must be so high for the lens to fog over like that! your swallowtail is very different from our two and the caterpillars are very different too. Ours are green and red and feed on fennel.One of the reason I don’t cut back the fennel plants even if they seem very tall and about to seed-

  6. I’ve grown rue (the herb) quite successfully in IL as a perennial. There in a mounding one with yellow flowers and a taller one that seems to be formerly called thalictrum,with a lilac flower. I think I stopped growing it because more people were commenting on it causing skin reactions. It never had that effect on me.The interesting foliage and its mounding habit were quite nice. I think it is out there and still available, but it also seems to come readily from seed from what I have read. I always had just divided my clump.

    The taller one is sold by North Creek Nurseries and in your area they partner with Midwest Groundcovers out in the western suburbs. (

    I’ve seen the taller one growing a couple years back at the CBG.

  7. Gorgeous photos! Aren’t they impressive when they float through the air–they’re much larger than any butterflies I’d ever seen before. They seem to like Cosmos, Zinnias, Lantana, and Swamp Milkweed, too. I’m also wondering if my Lemon tree is attracting them this year. I haven’t found any larva on it, but maybe it’s just there and I’m thinking it’s bird droppings. 🙂

  8. I have never see that butterfly either. If you want, later on in the season I can send you seeds of Ruta graveolens. I have a patch of it and they produce a lot of seeds.
    I like Thitonia but it does not seem to like me. I expect we are not hot enough.

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