Whitework embroidered alphabet: letter Z for Zebra Butterfly


Z is for Zebra butterfly, , a whitework alphabet (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

At the start of this embroidered alphabet project, I rather dismissed animals like the X-ray fish and the zebra butterfly for being second rate representatives for the initial letters of their names and for revealing a too great use of the imagination on the part of those given to the naming of animals. I even wondered whether such creatures had been named solely for the convenience of adding a bit of padding to those final difficult letters of the alphabet and thus making things easier for illustrators of children’s alphabets and people like myself who dabble in that sort of thing. This has not proved to be the case. It didn’t take much research to discover that these animals are fascinating not only for themselves but also because of the way their biology or their behaviour  reverberates on that of our own species. As Linnaeus was the first to describe the zebra butterfly, I think I’ll just draw a veil over my sloppy thoughts and vow in future to avoid superficial judgments on areas I know nothing about.

Heliconius charithonia,  the zebra butterfly is also commonly known as zebra longwing, which name reflects its unusually long wingspan (from 70 – 100mm / a little under 3″ – 4″ ) – perhaps even just a bit too long aesthetically although it is still markedly graceful in flight.  No butterfly in the wild in England even vaguely approaches this size, so my family and I are fortunate to have seen them alive in a temporary exhibition of butterflies in the grounds of the Natural History Museum 2 or 3 years ago. The caterpillars are white with black spots and long black spikes, while the adult butterfly is dramatically patterned with white stripes on a dark background and white spots like seed pearls along and just in from the edge of the wings. (All a bit difficult to read on a whitework butterfly!) Their natural home is in Central America, extending  as far north as southern Texas and peninsular Florida, with migrations even further north in warmer months.  In 1996 the zebra butterfly became Florida’s official butterfly.

Z is for Zebra butterfly, , a whitework alphabet (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

Zebras are greedy butterflies. They take not only nectar from plants but pollen too, which is rare in butterflies and results in a  protein rich diet that has a dramatic effect, increasing the butterfly’s life span and producing more eggs. Most butterflies live for 2-4 weeks but a zebra can live up to 3 months in the wild and 4-5 months in the laboratory (the Natural History Museum, London, website suggests even up to 6 months).  Pollen is digested internally by dissolving the grains in saliva. Because of their diets, both zebra butterflies and their caterpillars are aposematic which means they are poisonous and have the sort of dramatic colouration that warns off predators (just like PDFs, as the poison dart frogs are confusingly called by the small person). Caterpillars get their toxins from eating the leaves of passionflowers while the adults synthesise poison from pollen (when pollen is low, they have the ability to  recycle previously synthesised products).

The butterflies may be poison to predators but within their species they are unusually sociable, roosting in large groups where positioning is hierarchical. The oldest butterflies chose the best spots and then others snuggle round them. Staff curating the butterflies in the Sensational Butterflies Exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum saw up to 30 ‘cosying’ up in the early evening. In the morning, they also noticed how older members of the group seem to nudge the younger ones out of bed. What a thought – teenagers’ need for morning sleep-ins may not be confined to Homo sapiens!

Z is for Zebra butterfly, , a whitework alphabet (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

Before I opted for zebra butterflies I nearly chose zebra fish, picturing two little fish swimming in opposite directions in the zig zags of the Z like two little zodiacal pisces. Now I read (The Time 28 May 2020) that zebra fish have been making scientific headlines. Apparently and somewhat surprisingly, their neurons interact in a way similar to ours and as they are also transparent (and thus confusingly similar to X-ray fish) their behaviour and their brain activity can be studied without killing them. From the study on the fish, experiments were repeated using cultured human cells and from there it was shown that chemicals in the exhaust fumes of diesel powered vehicles can cause a build up of a protein in the brain such as is commonly seen in sufferers from Parkinson’s disease. Previous studies suggested the link but this research has shown how it happens.  The zebra fish may come last in the alphabet but it is up at the front in scientific research.

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Whitework embroidered alphabet: letter Y for yarrow


Y is for yarrow, a whitework alphabet (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

Yarrow will make itself very much at home in gardens if it likes the conditions – and it was obviously very happy in the vicarage garden at Ipsden where it would pop up all over the place, not often exactly always where you would like it to, though it has to be said, it was quite easy to remove. After a while, I came to welcome the ferny leaves topped by creamy white platters of cauliflower-like florets for the way they poked up above the leafy hostas  and heucheras which also tolerated life on the thin chalk soil.  But isn’t naming a funny business? Looking into yarrow, it came up that it’s binomial name is Achillea millefolium and I remembered back 15 years when I was homeless and living with friends in Monmouth as I tried to buy a flat in the town.

Y is for yarrow, a whitework alphabet (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

My friend had a beautiful but run down historic garden whose bare bones she was restoring to their glory days of the 1920s. Stone piers stood straight but no longer carried the 40 ft lengths of oak that made up the pergola, the woodland walks were heavily overcome with brambles and other colonising plants and the yew hedges backing deep floral borders were notable for their almost complete absence. Worse of all in terms of historical accuracy, a previous owner had built a swimming pool across a third of the flat parterre that led from the house to the pergola. In spite of the swimming pool having no planning permission, planners allowed it to remain – much to the grief of my friend’s husband who hated it and would have dug it up single handedly with the slightest justification. (But being a pragmatic chap he knew other things needed doing first.) From the point of view of the swimmer it was in fact one of the most beautifully sited swimming pools in the world (and I’m comparing it to the pool of Old Cataract Hotel which looked out over the Nile to Elephantine Island and to that of  The Meena House Hotel at Giza which had the pyramids as backdrop!).  My friend’s house and pool sat on a ledge near the top of an escarpment facing west. The garden then fell away into woodland bottoming out in a stream before the land rose again into a patchwork of small typically English hedge-bound fields in the middle of which sat Cwmcarvan Church – quintessential England, think Nutwood in the Rupert Bear books. (Actually it’s Wales, now. Monmouth has a complicated history having been bounced between England and Wales through much of its history.) To the south-east, beyond the fields and the scarcely visible dip suggesting the Usk valley, rose the Black Mountains, the easternmost range of the Brecon Beacons, while to the north-west the Sugar Loaf and Skirrid mountains presented their  distinctive profiles.  Swimming in the pool felt like you were swimming at the top of the world with all good things laid out beneath you. When I was living there, the summer was glorious. I had just had a shoulder replacement and I put full recovery of  the complex movements of my shoulder joint down to regular, sometimes twice daily, swimming sessions in this little corner of paradise and the wonderful feeling of wellbeing the swimming and the spirit of the place gave me. Of course the pool had to go. It went and the herbaceous borders and the vista from house to pergola were restored. Whenever I visit I grieve for its loss – but thank it and its custodians for having been there when I needed it. (High Glanau Manor is open under the NGS scheme and sometimes for special parties of visitors.)

High Glanau Manor, Lydart, Monmouthshire. The swimming pool formerly occupied the top third of the lawn and borders above. This not very good photograph was taken in late summer when the borders’ were just over their glorious best.

Achillea, yes! It’s just that I remember my friend planting achillea with pale grey ferny foliage and little yellow flowers and then later ones with lovely coral flowers with yellow centres. It took me a long time to twig that these plants so at ease in their place in the sophistication of the herbaceous border were cultivars of the same yarrow I’d always thought of as a weed.  The Spanish rather sweetly call it plumajillo, which means little feather but colloquial English names, woundwort, staunchwort and herbal militaris, hark back more to function than appearance and refer to the plant’s ancient job of healing wounds, as does the latin name Achillea which refers to the legend that the Greek hero Achilles took it into battle with him for treatment of his soldiers’ wounds. We don’t seem to use the herb much medicinally anymore, but starlings are canny enough to line their nests with yarrow and from studies on other birds which don’t routinely do this, the addition of yarrow has been shown to inhibit nest parasites. Yarrow’s nectar attracts important insects beloved of gardeners like hoverflies and ladybirds both of which help reduce garden undesirables like aphids. Predatory wasps go one step further and in exchange for deep draughts nectar they pick up and remove yarrow’s insect pests and carry them off to feed their larvae. So, not so much a weed, more a jolly useful plant!

Y is for yarrow, a whitework alphabet (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)


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