The Great Southern White

The Great Southern White butterfly (Ascia monuste) is common in coastal areas where its slow, low flight may visit a garden near you. During their seasonal abundance in Cayman, thousands of these white butterflies can be observed and this abundance gives the impression of a passing cloud.

The Great Southern White butterfly (Ascia monuste).

The Great Southern White butterfly (Ascia monuste) is common in coastal areas where its slow, low flight may visit a garden near you. Photo: File

These butterfly clouds have already been observed in North Side and East End. Great Southern Whites are found throughout the Caribbean and southern United States.

The adult butterflies have a wingspan of 1.75-2.25″. Females may be dark gray in summer. The average lifespan of males is five days; of females, eight to 10 days. The upper surface of the male forewing is white with black zigzag pattern on outer margin. Dry season female form resembles male with heavier black zigzag pattern and a small black spot in the wing cell. Eggs are laid on the upper surface of host plant leaves in groups of about 20. The habitat of this butterfly includes salt marshes, coastal dunes, open fields, and gardens.

Spanish needles, a weedy wildflower, and lantanas are a favourite nectar plant and these butterflies are often seen visiting the flowers in open areas on and near the beaches.

Their caterpillars love the leaves of the Capparis family such as ‘Raw Bones’ and ‘Headache Bush’. These medicinal plants are abundant in Cayman’s woodlands and provide lots of food for these massive flocks.

The following is taken from Wild Trees in the Cayman Islands by Fred Burton, with illustrations by Penny Clifford; photographs generously provided by Frank Roulstone.

Devil Head trees grow with ascending branches to give quite a narrow profile. The young shoots are a rusty peach colour, and young leaves are dusted with white hairs which rub off like fluff on your fingers to reveal a dark shiny green upper surface. This tree usually produces clusters of white flowers in April, and the developing capsules retain the rusty colour of young shoots until they ripen and split open.

This small tree is related to the Headache Bush, and the shrub Capparis flexuosa (see photo) which is variously known as ‘Raw Bones,’ ‘Raw Head’ and ‘Bloody Head,’ all reflecting the gory appearance of the opened fruits of this group!

Devil Head is a rather rare tree in the Cayman Islands, and is not recorded from Little Cayman. It does also occur on Cuba, Jamaica and Hispaniola. In Cayman it is usually found in rocky woodland areas. Cuttings will take under mist watering, or you can propagate Devil Head from seed. It grows slowly.

Protect Cayman trees and encourage Cayman Wildlife! For more information, to share your knowledge or if you would like to get involved with the many activities in the National Trust’s Know Your Islands Program, please visit or contact [email protected] or 949-0121.

Last week’s answer: Avoid standing under Manchineel when it rains; the milky sap which springs from any broken part of this tree is highly irritant!

Trivia question: What is the name of the fish that inhabits and resembles sargassum weed? Look for the answer in next week’s feature!

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