Vanessa cardui

Painted Lady

Probably the best-known butterfly after the Monarch, Vanessa cardui are found nearly worldwide and nearly all year long. Seemingly every spring they move northwards out of Mexico across California to the Pacific Northwest, sometimes in huge numbers. This is perhaps more a frantic dispersal than a migration, as there is no return. If the host plants are doing well in the southern deserts, the dispersal can be a truly astounding sight to behold as a stream of butterflies continues ineluctably from morning to evening, seemingly everywere. Anyone driving is likely to become a butterfly collector, with a grill instead of a net. Those larval hosts include common plants such as fiddleneck, lupines, mallows, and nettles, which helps to explain why this is such a widespread, hardy butterfly with population explosions. Hollyhocks are a good garden plant kids can use to raise these (as well as V. annabella in the western U.S.). But do we need more? Perhaps we do.

Vanessa cardui was named by Linnaeus - the father of modern taxonomy - in 1758, with Sweden as type locality. The white bar in the forewing closest to the body distinguishes it from V. annabella, which has an orange bar. V. virginiensis has two relatively large eyespots on the hindwing below, in contrast to cardui's small series of eyespots. Wing shapes also differ among the three ladies in our area: cardui has forewing that is more rounded at the tip, while both annabella and virginiensis have a protruding tip, which in the former has relatively square "corners". Forewing shape is what I look for first when out in the field.

Vanessa cardui - Painted Lady
A Painted Lady - Vanessa cardui - on rabbitbrush along Van Dusen Road, Big Bear. September 6, 2007.
Vanessa cardui - Painted Lady
This Vanessa cardui was hilltopping at the Frazier Mountain Lookout. August 11, 2019.
Vanessa cardui - Painted Lady
At Heap's Peak Arboretum near Lake Arrowhead in San Bernardino Co. June 2, 2017.
Caterpillar of Vanessa cardui - Painted Lady
Painted Lady caterpillars were easy to find on Fiddleneck on a hike in the Ord Mountains near Hersperia, April 23, 2008.
Caterpillar of Vanessa cardui - Painted Lady
This Vanessa cardui larva was using Pseudognaphalium canescens in the San Gabriels. July 8, 2019.

©Dennis Walker