Collateral Damage

Things have to eat to survive. When plants are eaten, they don’t always look as good as before they were eaten. Think of a head of leaf lettuce growing in your garden. It is so beautiful there – wavy leaf margins and a blush of burgundy at the tips – until you lop it off to harvest it for your dinner. You weren’t really thinking about how the plant would look after that, were you?

caterpillar eaten leaf
Oak leaf abandoned by caterpillars

Plants eaten by caterpillars sometimes lose their good looks too. Caterpillars don’t go into the endeavor with the intention of making the plant look bad.

That’s just collateral damage, a consequence of getting the nutrition they need to reach adulthood and become a beautiful moth or butterfly.

Leaf damage comes in various forms:

  • Some caterpillars eat entire leaves; the spicebush swallowtail in my yard modestly consumed one leaf each night, leaving no trace whatsoever of what had been consumed.
  • Some caterpillars eat holes in the leaves or just the edges of them, leaving a patchwork of damaged leaves.
  • Some caterpillars skeletonize the leaves, leaving a lacy reminder of what was there.
  • Others, like fall webworms, smother the branch tips in a tangled web of silk, turning all the leaves to a crispy, brown mess.
caterpillar amelanchier

A lone caterpillar works this serviceberry leaf, ignoring the ripening fruit.

For the most part, only a fraction of the plant is affected by caterpillars. The larger the plant, the less noticeable the damage is. A large oak tree, for example, may have damage only on the branches high in the tree. A milkweed perennial, on the other hand, may lose a lot more. Yet both of them are doing exactly the same thing: supporting the larval form of a moth or butterfly.

After the caterpillar is finished growing up, many plants will sprout new leaves to replace the ones that were eaten. Nature has a way of dealing with the situation. Plants have been living with bugs that eat them for thousands of years.

caterpillar malvaviscus

This caterpillar seems to have no method to his approach.

Are a few chewed leaves so bad? If the infestation seems unbearable, don’t reach for the pesticides. You can pluck some off by hand (wear gloves if they bother you). Another alternative: blast them with a spray from the hose.

Some may come back to the plant, but others will get eaten by predators that might not have reached them otherwise (frogs, toads, lizards). Rest assured that when you are not looking, hungry birds will be helping you out by snatching a few.

American lady caterpillars eat Antenarria, which always recovers afterwards.

American lady caterpillars eat Antennaria, which always recovers afterwards.


Everything has to eat. Allowing caterpillars the freedom to do so in our garden demonstrates our willingness to share the table we call Earth.

© 2014, Ellen Honeycutt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    As I write this, one of my Red Rosier Dogwoods is being devoured by Dogwood Sawtooth Larvae (not caterpillars). I read that their feasting is rarely lethal and I’m going to trust that because that is how nature works. I am surprised at the number of larvae, however, with all the birds that visit my garden!

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