Sunday, October 28, 2018


After reading this review, you can heave a big sigh of relief -I will have caught up with all my gardening related book reviews!

Having just finished Climate-Wise Landscaping, I feel very au courant in writing this review!

I'm not sure what I was expecting, but somehow this book seemed different from what the title suggested it was going to be - different in a good way, more important, filling a gap that's been existing in gardening literature.

Climate-Wise Landscaping:  Practical Actions for a Sustainable Future, by Sue Reed and Ginny Stibolt, New Society Publishers, British Columbia, Canada, 2018, is a perfect guide for people who are worried about our planet's future and are looking for something that they, personally, can do to help lessen climate change and to make our ecosystems healthier.

Every single piece of land can help heal our planet.

There are ten sections in this book, each section dealing with an area of the landscape around a typical home, wherever it is located, starting with the lawn.  Why do Reed and Stibolt begin with the lawn?  As they put it, "...[C]hanging the way we think about and deal with our lawns might be the easiest and most significant step we can take to help the planet."  How much lawn do you think there is in the continental U.S.?  According to the International Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing, as quoted in this book, there is about 63,000 square miles of lawn, an area approximately the size of the state of West Virginia.  That's a lot of lawn - and most of it gets mowed weekly, inundated with fertilizers and pesticides, and irrigated.  Despite all those inputs, lawn produces no food, for people or even for wildlife.  It's essentially a sterile wasteland.

Reed and Stibolt go on to cover many other ways we can help the climate by changing the way we use our landscape.  For example, planting trees sequesters a lot of carbon, as does, surprisingly to me, increasing the health of soils and decreasing the disturbance to them.  Did you know that soils sequester more than 4 times the amount of carbon as forests?  I didn't.  Apparently they are the second largest carbon dioxide absorbing system on our planet, after oceans.  I also didn't know that every time you disturb the soil - through digging, for example - you release carbon dioxide.  So switching from planting annuals, which have to be replanted regularly, to planting perennials actually helps the planet by sequestering carbon!

I'm all for minimizing digging, so that's what I call a win-win.

There's a section on how good planning and design of a landscape can help decrease energy use (and thus carbon dioxide emissions), as well as a section specifically devoted to urban issues.  Each section contains an introductory explanation, followed by a series of "Action Topics", specific ways you can make your landscape work to help stabilize Earth's climate and often to help yourself and other living things at the same time.

Last, but hardly least, the final section covers materials that are commonly used in landscaping and evaluates their carbon footprint, helping us choose rationally among such options as concrete, brick, stone, even asphalt.  This is the first time I've ever seen a carbon analysis of landscaping materials and I really appreciate finding it included in this book.

This is an excellent resource to start with if you're interested in personally doing something specific to help the future of our species and of our planet.  It's a broad overview of the topics covered;  for specific details, you will probably want to explore the areas that interest you further, with further reading or study.  Most of all, Climate-Wise Landscaping examines a broad array of possibilities - and possibilities are a great starting point for building a better future. 

Friday, October 26, 2018


I don't know about you, but I have a perplexing habit of buying books and then getting distracted before I actually read them.  Thus my shelves are full of books that look awesome, but that I haven't read yet.

The Inward Garden:Creating a Place of Beauty and Meaning, by Julie Moir Messervy, Little, Brown and Company, 1995, is a book that has been a victim of my book hoarding habit, but this spring I finally read it - cover to cover - and  I fell in love.  I truly don't remember when I found and bought this book.  I'm hoping it wasn't shortly after it was published, in 1995, because that would mean that I've been unnecessarily missing the wisdom found within its pages for over 20 years.

Unlike the last 3 books I've reviewed, which have focused on native plants and gardening for wildlife, this book is more of a classic garden design book.  And yet it's so much more than just that.....

The Inward Garden encourages us to make gardens more than just pretty places.  In the beginning of this book, Moir Messervy describes a garden in this way, "...[A] garden means far more than just a planted place.  It is a touchstone;  a repository of memories that forms a place of joy in your life.  A garden exists not only as part of your backyard landscape, but as a site that resides in your imagination, a collection of personally satisfying images that can be expressed upon your land."

Do you remember your favorite outdoor places to be as a child?   Are you drawn to enclosures or promontories?  What's your personal image of paradise?  Moir Messervy guides us through these sorts of questions, showing us how our gardens can reflect our own personal histories and memories, our own personal inspirations.  First, though, we have to THINK about these sorts of questions - and then we have to take the answers we've come up with and help them take shape within the parameters of our actual physical space.

There are so many components we can draw upon to create our own touchstone gardens:  color, form, sound, light, plants, geometric vs. natural order, uniformity vs. variety.  It's hard to keep track of all of the different possibilities, but Moir Messervy helps us think about each one in turn without dictating what is "right" or "better".

To a great extent, this book is a combination of psychological concepts and gardening, examining such classic themes as the sacred forest, a classic hut, the need for enclosure, thresholds, bridges, and gateways.   Moir Messervy talks about journeys through our gardens, both mental and physical, with starting points, pathways, and destinations.  

 "...[P]eople garden in order to make something grow; to interact with nature; to share, to find sanctuary, to heal, to honor the earth, to leave a mark.  Through gardening, we feel whole as we make our personal work of art upon our land."

The Inward Garden is a book to aid us in making our gardens into true personal works of art upon our own land.  With ideas and passions to inspire us, this is a book that gives us a serious look at the kinds of gardens we can to aspire to create.  The richness in this book is many layered and it invites us to return for refreshment and new inspiration again and again and again.  I highly recommend finding a copy of this classic work and immersing yourself within it.  You'll be so glad that you did.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018


Quite a few years ago now, I started "talking" with my books by underlining passages that spoke to me and by writing comments in the margins.  It was hard to do at first, but once I got over my good-girl habits of keeping my books pristine, I found that it really helps when I go back to a book to review and refresh myself about what it said.  Most importantly, doing this provides a conversation to join when I reread the book.  I can see what captured my attention originally and compare those ideas to what strikes me now, making my understanding of the book deeper with each reading.  Occasionally I've even shared a book with a friend and invited her to comment (in a different color ink), which adds yet another level of interaction with the written words.

Because of this habit I have of physically talking with my books in written form, one of my easiest "sorts" for which books I want to keep and which ones just need to be passed along is a simple look to see whether or not I've underlined and commented in the book in question.  If it wasn't interesting enough to mark up, it's not interesting enough to keep.  Maybe someone else needs that book more than I do.

A New Garden Ethic, by Benjamin Vogt, New Society Publishers, BC Canada, 2017, passed my "Do I keep this?" sorting question with flying colors.  It's marked up all over the place.  It's marked up so much that my big question for this post is, "How can I possibly do this book justice in a simple, short review of it?"

As I sat down this afternoon to start thinking about writing this review, I began to thumb through the pages.  An entire paragraph highlighted here.  Exclamation point there.  "Great series of questions...." on one page.  Lots of "Wow!" and "Yes!" comments in the margin.  Ideas for blog posts.  Books to read.  More underlining.  Asterisks.  Occasional notes asking about sources for certain claims.  There is so much to digest here that I've become convinced A New Garden Ethic would make a wonderful book for a gardening book club to read and discuss - probably over a long weekend, as a single hour or two wouldn't be nearly long enough.

One interesting twist to this ecological gardening book is its author, Benjamin Vogt.  Dr. Vogt has a PhD, but it's in creative writing, not in biology or ecology or horticulture or landscape architecture or any of the myriad fields that one would normally associate with a book of this nature.  That said, prairie and ecological garden design are obviously deep passions for Vogt and he's educated himself accordingly.  Coming from a creative background, his writing has a vibrancy that can sometimes be lacking in more scientific tomes.

I'll be up front, though:  to me, Vogt's lack of scientific training shows up rather glaringly here as a lack of citations for some of his specific facts.  It is not enough to say Scientist Y did a study in which she found xyz.  I want to know where to find that study - what journal was it published in?  when and where was the study performed?  what were the parameters?  I want to be able to delve into some of those studies more closely to see if the findings are being accurately reported in what was written.  I may want to use those statistics in something I write, too, but I'm not going to quote statistics without knowing where they come from, even in a simple blog post.  A revised edition with this major flaw remedied would strengthen this book significantly, in my opinion.

Beyond that flaw, though, there's an incredible amount of substance in this book that captures my spirit and that doesn't rely on specific studies or individual facts.  Take this wonderful passage that I've seen others pull from the book as a quote, "We live in a world of perfectly spaced plants that mimic headstones aligned in exact intervals.  Wood mulch is more important to us than flowers.  We clean up our gardens like they are living rooms after the children have gone to bed."  With 3 lines, Vogt has given us several iconic images that capture the lack of real life in so many modern gardens.

In the first chapter of this book, Vogt gives us a basic framework about what he sees as being right and wrong about most gardens, yards, and natural areas in our current day and age.  This framework leads him to a statement of a new garden ethic that he believes we need to live by if we want to have our gardens function as more than just a pretty fashion accessory...and Vogt is compelling as he shows us why we want our gardens to function so richly.

With native plants being integral to ecological function in any landscape, Chapter 2 is generally a discussion of native plants, their importance, and the pushback against their use in many circles.  There's a small, fascinating section on the politics and culture of using native plants:  is it "fair" or "democratic" to say that gardeners should only use native plants?  "When we step in and impose our ideals of democracy on a landscape, we disrupt and destroy the landscape, altering life processes that have worked long before we created human democracy...."  Vogt notes that plant culture should not be mistaken for human culture, that nature and ecosystem function have little to do with patriotism or freedom or other political concepts.

In the remaining 3 chapters of the book, Vogt discusses a wide variety of topics ranging from cognitive dissonance and the value of anger and hopelessness to the impact of the Enlightenment on where we are today, all with the object of moving us towards developing and being willing to utilize the defiant compassion that he believes we need to bring to our relationship with our landscapes and gardens.

A New Garden Ethic is a call to action, a call to enrich our own lives and the world immediately around us by connecting deeply to our specific physical environs.  By answering this call, Vogt believes we can each help to save the planet's living fabric, one garden at a time.

Monday, October 22, 2018


After running across and deeply enjoying Nancy Lawson's blog, Humane Gardener, I was excited when I realized she was writing a book by the same name.  The subtitle of her blog is perfect, "Cultivating Compassion for All Creatures Great and Small".  Lawson worked for many years as an editor for the Humane Society of the United States - and I think that caring and compassion for ALL animals has seeped into her psyche, based on the writing she shares both on her blog and in her book.

The Humane Gardener:  Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife, by Nancy Lawson, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, New York, 2017 is a relatively small book, almost a series of 6 essays rather than a scientific tome or an intense guide of gardening methodologies.  Each essay, or chapter, is accompanied by a "portrait" of a real garden and its real gardener, exemplifying the characteristics talked about in the companion chapter.  The gardens range from California to Florida, from Ontario to Oregon, with Colorado and the Chicago area filling in the area in the middle.

More than most gardening books, The Humane Gardener focuses on the animals that are so often collateral damage in modern gardening methods:  from the wide variety of small animals that get chopped up, along with the grass, by lawnmowers to the tiny denizens of leaf litter when it's allowed to lie undisturbed under shrubs and perennials.  There are a few statistics ("The nestlings of 96 percent of North American terrestrial bird species survive on spiders and insects, mostly caterpillars, who are themselves babies with specialized habitat needs....") but most of the information and advice is given in anecdotal form, which makes it easy to digest.

In the book's introduction, Lawson remarks that the gardeners she chose to highlight "embody the ethic of compassionate landscaping, challenging long-held assumptions about animals, plants, and themselves."   Compassionate landscaping.  Compassionate landscaping.  I love that term and the ethic it defines.  The Humane Gardener is a great introduction to this ethical concept.

This ethical concept does not, however, meld well with the perfection-driven standards promoted in most regular garden literature, and Lawson talks about her journey from a mainstream gardener to a compassionate gardener, from being willingly sucked into the "marketing ploys of the Landscaping Industrial Complex" to learning from the plants and animals sharing her yard with her.  In her garden portraits, she often talks about the journeys these other gardeners have made, too. 

As a map of a changing journey in gardening, this book is written as a general guide of concepts which can be used across the entire country.  Thus there is little talk of specifics:  don't look to this book for which particular species to use where or what the best method of performing a particular task is.  The overarching ideas Lawson shares are widely adaptable and easily understandable, though.

The last section of The Humane Gardener is a series of resources you can turn to if you want to get started practicing compassionate landscaping yourself:  among them are a couple addresses for excellent blogs, a short list of regional references for wildlife habitat gardening, notes on the individual chapters, and a selected bibliography.

I greatly enjoyed The Humane Gardener and I would highly recommend it to anyone intrigued by the idea of using compassionate landscaping in their own home environs.


As I started thinking about getting ready for holiday guests and Thanksgiving feasts, I realized that I had a pile of books on our dining room table that were there to remind me to write about them.  It's a pile that's been slowly but steadily growing for quite some time now - and I was somewhere between shocked and dismayed to realize that, in that pile, I had amassed 6 books with gardening as their theme.

So I've pulled them out and arranged them in the order that I read them, in the process realizing that one book had been added to the pile without my actually having read it.  Oops.  Wrong pile.  (Yes, sadly, I have many piles of books around the house.)  So let me get busy with the first of the remaining 5 books in my dining room table pile.

Without further ado, here are my thoughts on Garden Revolution, by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher, Timber Press, 2016, which I read about a year ago, in November 2017.....

Subtitled "How our landscapes can be a source of environmental change",  Garden Revolution truly amazed me.  I've been interested in gardening for and with wildlife for decades now and I have read a lot on the subject.  I am deeply interested in the environment and in ecology.  Not surprisingly, I've done a lot of hands-on gardening and landscaping for wildlife over the years.  Native plants are my "go to" species in planting my yard and its individual gardens.  Truthfully, it's rare for me to find a book with a really new spin or a new series of concepts on any of these subjects - but that's exactly the sort of book I found as I delved into Garden Revolution.

Larry Weaner is a landscape designer who specializes in ecological restoration AND fine garden design.  One of his early insights as he worked in garden design was "...a traditional garden is like a beautiful car with no engine.  The body is sleek, the interior is plush, and the stereo sounds great, but the owner will always need to push it up the hills with bags of fertilizer, weeding forks, and watering wands."  Weaner works WITH nature, in truly amazing ways, to develop beautiful, continually changing, living landscapes.

Working with nature....  What, exactly, do I mean by that?  Before, I've always just meant avoiding pesticides and using native plants, while trying to match the plant species to its preferred growing conditions and hopefully creating habitat for wildlife.  Weaner takes it so much further.  He pays attention to the seeds found in the "seed bank" that is present in every soil, adds in seeds for species that will help succession move in preferred directions, plants small clumps of wildflowers as seed sources to allow for natural spread, and has many other techniques to nudge natural processes in ways helpful to gardeners and landscapers.

Presented in large format with lots of photos, Garden Revolution at first gives off a vibe almost like a "coffeetable book", but it's much more than that.  There is background information, both historical and biological, presented conversationally so that it doesn't overwhelm.  From Weaner's decades of work, there are examples of gardens from large estates to small suburban gardens, discussed in the text as well as illustrated by gorgeous photography.

Using aggressive native species to outcompete problematic invasive species.  Planning and planting for seasonal and successional niches instead of just planting a "once in time" landscape plan.  Cutting weeds off just below the surface instead of pulling them out by the roots and disturbing the soil.  The new ways of thinking about garden design, preparation, planting, and maintenance just keep coming in this book.

Want to help nature and our planet's ecosystems in a very basic, personal, and satisfying way?  Want to help yourself have a thriving landscape with less work?   Want to attract wildlife to your surroundings?  Read this book.  You'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

A Tired Time of Year in the Garden: Time to "Tolerate the Uglies"

As I look around my garden these days, there are definitely places where it's starting to look worn out and ratty.

For example, what's the end result of this sight, on August 25th?

This sight on September 9th!  And LOTS of gulf fritillary butterflies gracing our yard, too.  Just recently a seemingly unpenetrable wall of green, the passion vine (Passiflora incarnata) is literally skeletal now.  All of its leaves - literally ALL of them - have been eaten by gulf fritillary caterpillars (Agraulis vanillae), leaving nothing but awkward stems with the remnants of a few fruits hanging on.  I'm not worried, though.  The passion vine will be back next spring, as full and pretty as ever.

Also, did you notice?  The leaves of the vines were beginning to turn yellow by the end of August anyway.  They weren't going to last much longer even if the caterpillars hadn't been eating them.

The victim of twin onslaughts - monarch caterpillars and advancing age, the swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is looking rather pathetic too.  It's a battle to see whether the caterpillars will eat the leaves first or whether they'll turn yellow and fall off from the bottom up.  (The tall, leggy plants in the photo above are the swamp milkweed, planted just behind the birdbath basin on the ground.)  It's the legginess and ugliness of this stage of their life cycle that encourages me to generally plant swamp milkweed in the back of the border, hopefully behind some "fluffy" lower plants like red sage (Salvia coccinea) or short species of asters.  If you look closely at the left side of the photo, however, you can see that the monarchs aren't upset by the state of the milkweed at all. 

There are still many flying in the yard, with females frequently seen laying eggs here and there - even on "ugly" plants.  

Flyr's nemesis (Brickellia cordifolia) is just about done blooming, so its small, cotton candy pink pom-poms of flowers are fading into grayish lavender mush.  The leaves still look good, but the stalks have sprawled everywhere, thanks to the weight of all those beautiful blossoms over the last couple weeks.

I've got these few stalks held up with stakes because they were lying flat on the lawn.  Our 3 year old grandson gives a good sense of scale against these shortest of the Flyr's nemesis stalks.  Despite the waning number of blooms, the monarchs, gulf fritillaries, and little bees are all still enjoying the Flyr's nemesis immensely.

Declining in the same way they grew, from the bottom up, the Dr. Seuss flowers of spotted horsemint (Monarda punctata) are past their prime as well.  There are still individual flowers in the upper bloom clusters, but the bottom clusters are turning brown and drying out.  Like the Flyr's nemesis, the stems have sprawled from the weight of bountiful blossoms.

Looking up into the trees, numerous nests of fall webworms (Hyphantria cunea) pockmark the ends of the branches of the pignut hickories (Carya glabra).  I've noticed an increased number of birds like bluejays up in the canopy since the webworm nests appeared, so I'm guessing that the birds are having quite a nice, seasonal, tree top feast up there.

In the front gardens, even the tidy green mounds of the trailing pineland lantana (Lantana depressa) are showing signs of decline, although thankfully you have to look fairly closely to see them. 

Many leaves have been used as caterpillar food by some sort of leaf rollers this summer and they have become gray ghosts of themselves.  Empty flower stalks are numerous now, too, although the blossoms still attract most of the attention, especially from a distance.  Luckily, again, the butterflies, skippers, and other creatures don't seem to mind at all.

When I worked the phone line for the Master Gardener office, we'd always get concerned calls at this time of year, "My plant leaves are looking so sick.  What should I spray on them?"

My response then was the same as it is internally to myself now, "It's the end of summer.  The leaves have been working hard all summer and they are tired and worn out.  It's almost time for them to fall, where they will continue working to make the garden healthier as they decompose into rich topsoil.  Don't spray anything.  This is all just part of the natural cycle of life.  Nothing is wrong at all."

Or, in other words, it's the time of year to remind ourselves to "tolerate the uglies" as the seasons begin to change yet again, moving us into the release of fall and the quiet peace of winter.  This, too, shall pass.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Dollarweed - What Good Is It?

Talk about a plant that everybody loves to hate!  Dollarweed (Hydrocotyle sp.) is a native plant, also known as pennywort, that loves to grow in the same conditions that also favor lawn grass:  bright sun, plentiful water, low surrounding vegetation.  It's hardy and it requires essentially no care.  With its single, round, silver dollar sized leaves, it is easily recognizable and it boldly stands out in a mass of linear grass leaves.  As such, dollarweed has gained great notoriety - heaven forbid that a non-grass plant disturb the carpet-like splendor of a lawn!

If you look at dollarweed simply as a plant, however, it's really rather attractive.  The bright, shiny green leaves reflect sunlight and are held aloft on pliable, sturdy stems. 

The flowers are umbels of white that are not glamorous, perhaps, but that are quite attractive in a quiet, lacy way.

 This photo shows how the umbels open up as they get older.

This morning, as I took photos, the insects I found on these flowers in a garden bed were tiny ants.  Truthfully, I didn't even see the ants until I opened the photos up on my computer screen.

Perhaps dollarweed's biggest flaw as a garden plant is that it doesn't tend to form solid mats but, instead, prefers to interweave through other plants, refusing to stay neatly in one place.  It's also difficult to completely eradicate from a lawn or flower bed with underground rhizomes that break off readily at each node. 

Because it's a native plant, I've wondered how dollarweed fits into the ecosystem here, but I haven't taken the time to really study it.  All I've noticed on the plant in my yard is an occasional leaf miner.   I'm not sure what insect is doing this particular leaf mining - the larva of a fly? of a moth? of a sawfly? of a beetle?  Any of these different types on insects have certain species whose larvae are leaf miners, feeding on the leaf tissue between the upper and lower surfaces of leaves.

A couple weeks ago, I noticed a closeup photo of the bloom of dollarweed on Instagram.   Responding to the photo, which was identified only by the scientific name, presumably to minimize automatic knee-jerk negative responses, I commented on my interest about how this plant worked in the ecosystem.  The poster replied back with a list of Hymenopterans (bees, ants, and wasps) that had been observed by scientists in 2015 on dollarweed flowers at Archbold Biological Station here in Florida. (See note below.)

Here's the list "floridaplants" sent, comprised of 10 solitary wasps and one native bee.  As you scan it, be sure to note the prey that these wasps use for feeding their young: orb weaver spiders, beetles, flies, leafhoppers or planthoppers, leafhoppers, flies, flies, flies, moth caterpillars, and moth caterpillars.

Episyron conterminus posterus - a spider wasp specializing in orb weavers to provision their nests
Cerceris blakei - a digger wasp that provisions its nest with beetles
Ectemnius rufipes ais - a square-headed wasp that nests in dead wood, provisioning its nest with flies
Epinysson melippes - a solitary wasp that provisions its nest with leafhoppers or planthoppers
Hoplisoides dentriculatus dentriculatus - a sand wasp that provisions its nest with leafhoppers
Oxybelus emarginatus - a prong-backed flyhunter wasp that provisions its nest with flies
Tachysphex apicaulis - a square-headed wasp that provisions its nest with flies
Tachysphex similis - a square-headed wasp that provisions its nest with flies
Leptochilus acolhuus - a mason wasp provisioning its nest with moth caterpillars
Parancistrocerus salcularis rufulus - a mason wasp provisioning its nest with moth caterpillars
Halictus poeyi - Poey's Furrow Bee, a small native bee in the sweat bee family that provisions its nest with nectar and pollen

Wouldn't it be great to get some free, round-the-clock pest control in your gardens?  Especially pest control that specializes in controlling some of the insects above without, at the same time, killing praying mantids, honeybees, or monarch butterflies?

Well, you can have exactly that sort of pest control - IF you leave dollarweed and other small, flowering plants alone in your lawn, instead of treating them like public enemy #1.  In fact, this sort of situation is why Greg and I don't use chemicals on our lawn.  If it grows low, is generally green, and can be mowed, we let it be.  Because of their relationships with native pollinators, I prefer to have native plants as weeds in my grass - rustweed and some of the sedges, for example, as well as dollarweed - but it's almost impossible to have native broadleafed plants without also having non-natives, so we "live and let live".  

The only one of the insects in the list above that I've knowingly observed in my yard is the native bee, Halictus poeyi, Poey's Furrow Bee, shown in the photo above on Gaillardia and identified on  Coincidentally, it's the only one of the insects on the Archbold Biological Station's list with a common name. That doesn't mean the wasps aren't an important part of the natural web of nature, too, it just means that people haven't paid a lot of attention to them.  They're generally small.  They're not very colorful.  They don't bother people. Until recently, it's simply that nobody has paid much attention to them.  Generally, scientists often don't know which species, exactly, each wasp specializes in utilizing as prey for food for its larvae.

What a shame that we've ignored these important parts of the ecosystems in our yards and gardens...but what an interesting chance for everyday gardeners to help restore the balance of nature.  Literally as well as figuratively.  Best of all, this ability to help restore Earth's ecosystems is as easy as refraining from using chemicals on our lawns.  Seems like a no-brainer to me.

Note:  According to the Instagram poster "floridaplants", self described as a botanist, this is the list of wasps and bees that were observed nectaring at dollarweed, Hydrocotyle umbellatus, at Archbold Biological Station in Florida.  The scientific paper (?) is Deyrup, M.A. and M.D. 2015. Database of observations of Hymenoptera visitations to flowers of plants on Archbold Biological Station, Florida, USA.  Unfortunately I haven't been able to get a copy of this database online, so I'm going out on a limb here and assuming the information is accurate.  After all, it's not like many people have the interest or ability to make up a list of scientific names like this.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Monarch Caterpillars, Chrysallises, and Wasps: Sometimes Things Go Wrong

Two days ago, as I came back into the house after dumping my coffee grounds in the garden, I noticed a small black and white wasp sitting on top of something on the swamp milkweed.  Looking closer, I saw what I thought was a discolored monarch caterpillar, about the size of a 2nd or 3rd instar.  "Damn.  Oh, well, her babies have to eat, too," I thought to myself.

Of course I grabbed my camera to capture some photos, but it was early morning and the humidity was high, so I was only able to take a couple frames before the lens fogged up and became too opaque for me to continue.  By the time the lens cleared, the wasp with her payload had disappeared.

Well, my garden is definitely a place for nature to "do its thing", so I made no attempt to intervene.  In the late afternoon, I noticed what looked like the same female wasp working at the entrance to a hollow tube in my bee house which is above and behind the swamp milkweed.  Obviously that was where her nest was.

When I downloaded my photos, I was relieved to see that the caterpillar the little wasp had was NOT a monarch caterpillar.  If I had to guess, I'd say it was a cutworm of some sort, actually.  Much as I love insects, that's not a caterpillar I'm sorry to see feed some baby wasps.

Yesterday, when I went back out to take photos, the nest tube this little wasp was working on had been completely closed off.  It's the right hand tube near the center of this photo.  Inside it, I am sure that a wasp egg is developing into a larva that will use this hapless caterpillar to create the next generation of mason wasps.  As horrific as that seems in one sense, at the same time it seems pretty amazing.

I see these little wasps hunting in my gardens frequently.  It would be fascinating to know how many caterpillars they remove over the course of each growing season - and what species get "harvested".

In other caterpillar news, I was thrilled a few days ago to notice a monarch cat hanging upside down in the classic "J" position as it started the transition from caterpillar to pupa/chrysalis.  Because we've been watching Youtube videos about metamorphosis, I carefully pointed it out to our oldest grandson, Connor, who is 3.

We were both ecstatic to see that the caterpillar had completed its change the next morning...

...but by the following day, I began to suspect that something was seriously wrong.

Two days after it had formed, I removed the remnants of the chrysalis, as well as the leaf it was attached to, fearing for bacterial contamination.  It was probably too little, too late, but I figured it was worth a try to keep further contamination from spreading to other monarch caterpillars in the area.

Does anyone with more specialized knowledge of monarch/butterfly metamorphosis know more precisely what caused the demise of this pupating monarch?

Once again, as with bird nests, if I find it, I'm beginning to assume that the chrysalis/pupa is not likely to have a positive outcome.  Sometimes I have to be content with letting exciting events happen "off stage" in the garden.  If the result is more baby birds and more adult butterflies, then it's all good and my curiosity will just have to go unsatisfied.  Thank goodness for Youtube videos!