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Wild and Wonderful West Virginia Whites

May 18, 2010

It’s not a gaudy butterfly. It isn’t the biggest or the smallest. In fact, it’s mostly just white. But this butterfly is unusual; it only flies in forests. And last weekend I had the pleasure of finding 50 of these beauties nectaring, patrolling and procreating in a forest in southwestern Vermont where it is considered a species of conservation concern.

To see this butterfly you need to get to rich, mature hardwoods with spring wildflowers early in the season. Our other, more common veined white, the Mustard White, does fly in woods, but it has distinct dark veins in its first brood (when it may be confused with West Virginia White). The West Virginia White always has faint gray scaling along the veins. And, unlike the Mustard White, it only flies early in the season.

Their flight is slow and close to the ground. Follow a woodland stream until you find the host plant, — and the butterfly. It’s host plants are Crinkleroot (Cardamine diphylla), Cut-leaved Toothwort (Cardamine concatenata). Adults nectar from Toothworts, Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), Violets (Viola sp.), and other plants.

The West Virgina White is almost completely white above with some gray scaling on the forewing. It is whitish below with no yellow wash. The veins on the underside of the hindwing are faintly outlined in pale gray scales. It is often confused with the Mustard White, which by contrast shows distinct dark green-black veins on the underside of the hindwing during the spring flight.

West Virgina White is declining in many areas due to forestry, development, and the spread of an introduced weed called Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata). Garlic mustard was first found in the United States about 1868 on Long Island, New York. Invasions of Garlic Mustard are causing local extirpations of toothwort, and chemicals in Garlic Mustard appear to be toxic to West Virgina White eggs. The adults will lay eggs on the plants but the eggs fail to hatch.

You have to hurry to see this butterfly. Like its host plant it’s a true spring ephemeral. As soon as the canopy leafs out, the adults are gone until next year.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 18, 2010 9:09 am

    I miss the wildflowers during the spring season. One of my favorite things was to see the snow disappear and the flowers arrive. I was lucky enough to get to see the WV Whites on a butterfly patrol with you back in 2003. Bought my Nikon 4500 soon after watching you take pictures of the butterflies. I still use that camera. perfect for macros.

  2. Christine Eckel permalink
    May 18, 2010 9:13 am

    As I was mountain biking in Douthat State Park (Clifton Forge, VA) and Carvins Cove (Salem, VA) last weekend I ran into several huge groups of yellow and blue butterflies. They looked a little like Monarchs, but I’m guessing they were a different species. I didn’t literally “run into” them, but saw them on the trail in big bunches. When I stopped nearby, they all fluttered away, and I was surrounded by a cloud of beautiful butterflies. It was magical.

    Now I will be on the lookout for West Virginia Whites! I moved to Lewisburg, WV from out West last summer, so I appreciate your description of the plants that they eat and such. That will make it easier to know where to look for them. Thank you!

  3. Sue BOB permalink
    May 29, 2010 6:58 pm


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