Lessons from Sam the Caterpillar

It’s always interesting to me how can grow into lifelong passions—and sometimes into professions. My love of nature and the environment began with a natural curiosity at a very young age and a gigantic, bluish-green caterpillar that I named Sam.

Sam was my world at 5 years old and I was delighted when I found Sam inching its way up a willow tree on my family’s Michigan flower farm. Sam was almost as big as my hand and its little hairs tickled my palm when my grandmother, mom and I tucked it safely into an old birdcage.

We had no idea back then that this beautiful creature was a cecropia caterpillar or that Sam would one day become a moth whose species is the largest in the United States. At its biggest, Sam the caterpillar was about four inches long and ¾ inches round. Sam ate mostly bits of willow, apple and lilac and one day spun the most elaborate silken cocoon.

When it hatched, Sam’s transformation was a beautiful surprise, and we worried about how to get Sam out of the birdcage without damaging its huge wings! Cecropia moths’ wingspan is typically five to seven inches.

Cecropia moths are found across North America and as far west as Washington and most of the Canadian provinces. They lay eggs on trees, with larvae commonly found on maple, cherry and birch. Cecropia moths live off the stores from their caterpillar fat. Lacking functional mouthparts and digestive systems, their primary function is to mate.

A member of the giant silk moth family, cecropia’s colors are an artful mix of beige, soft brown, red and cream, with unique markings and patterns on its wings. Their lifespan is about two weeks.

I was heartbroken when the day came that Sam was gone. The bittersweet joy of watching Sam transform provided profound lessons for me. I’m not quite sure how we figured out what type of moth Sam was, but Sam was glorious.

When I see a moth or butterfly in our CityEscape gardens, I remember Sam and those memories make me smile. Growing up on a farm and enjoying playing outdoors with my family taught me many things about life and about living curiously. As summer dawns on Chicago, encourage curious living with the children in your care. You just never know the impact it may have on their life—and possibly even their profession.

See you at CityEscape,