Tag Archives: frangipani caterpillars

The Mystery of My Frangipani Tree

frangipani caterpillar
Frangipani Caterpillar

There is a large native frangipani tree growing just off of the deck of my house. Its been there a long time. A piece of rusty barbed wire is embedded in the bark of the tree trunk, which means it was here and large enough to support a barbed wire fence back when Chocolate Hole was dedicated to the raising of livestock. There’s also a concrete animal watering trough nearby. So we’re talking about a tree that’s been there for at least 60 years.

I’ve been living in this house for about 15 years and I’ve only seen this tree with full grown leaves about a dozen times and only twice have I seen it produce flowers. This is because as soon as the leaves even begin to grow, frangipani caterpillars appear and devour the new leaves in a matter of days.

In theory, the caterpillar is supposed to wait until the leaves are full grown and the tree flowers. At that point they eat the leaves and fertilize the tree with the after products of the digestion.

I understand this relationship and how both the tree and the caterpillars can survive. What I don’t understand is how this particular tree has survived so long with hardly ever being able to produce leaves, which I imagine would be essential for photosynthesis and the production of food and energy for the tree.

Next time around I think I’ll pick the caterpillars off the tree and see what happens.

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St. John Flora: Frangipani Caterpillars

St John Flora: Frangipani Caterpillars
Frangipani Caterpillars, Pseudosphinx tetrio

Frangipani Caterpillars are also called Frangipani Worms or Frangipani Hornworms because of the spike on their rear end.

They start out by hatching from eggs laid on the underside of the leaves of frangipani trees or sometimes allamanda bushes.

They grow quickly. Their skin is not flexible so they shed their skin as they grow. They may molt five or six times before they reach their full size.

Being that the sap of the frangipani is poisonous to most animals including human beings, the frangipani caterpillars have no enemies. Their bright color serves to warn potential predators not to indulge.

Meanwhile its been my experience that they will eat every last flower and every last leaf on the tree before they fall off and begin the next stage of their development.

The tree does not die, however, and new leaves will grow back. Looking under the tree are copious quantities of small black pellets that could only be caterpillar poop and my guess is that this fertilizes the tree to stimulate the next cycle of growth.

The caterpillars eventually fall off the tree and become become pupae, encased in a shell. Given time they will incubate and become large moths.

The moths also serve to help the tree grow back by acting as pollinators.

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