You'd think I'd know better. I noticed a few days ago that my young Echinacea plants were looking a little bedraggled, as if some of their leaves had a fungus. Coming from Mobile lately where wet weather made Echinacea extremely difficult to grow, I sighed, lamented that the recent extremely rainy weather had allowed fungus to attack my Echinacea even here in Echinacea-land, and forgot about it.
Then today, while I was letting the dogs out for a bladder relief session, I looked at my Echinacea plants a little more closely.
Imagine my surprise when the "dry, curled, fungus-afflicted" leaves turned out to be skeletonized and covered with frass (bug poop). Obviously there was something other than fungus going on here.
Imagine my further surprise when I noticed that the dark mass of "dead leaf material" I'd noticed from the porch turned out to be a very much living mass of small, dark caterpillar bodies covered with bristles. (Note: My photograph here isn't the best. You can see one caterpillar fairly clearly and 3 more rather fuzzily. The dark bundle at the center of the photo is a mass of other caterpillars, which you can kind of make out if you use your imagination!)
So it was off to my books and the internet for a little research.
To the best of my ability to chase it down at this point, I think these are caterpillars of one of the checkerspot butterflies, probably the silvery checkerspot (Chlosyne nycteis). The photo to the right shows a single caterpillar on a partially skeletonized leaf, with several other "used-up" leaves in the background. The silvery checkerspot caterpillars feed "gregariously" on plants such as asters and Echinacea, skeletonizing the leaves as they feed. They are not considered to be a major problem, presumably because they don't get very big...and because we're not trying to compete with them, i.e., eat the Echinacea ourselves. When disturbed, the caterpillars quickly curl up and drop to the ground, behavior which I witnessed firsthand.
I'm not quite sure how I'm going to handle this yet. It would (will?) be easy enough to handpick them off the plants and drop them in soapy water, thus keeping the Echinacea healthier and allowing it to grow bigger and bloom more this year...but one of my main reasons for having a native perennial garden is to provide habitat for the native animals, including butterflies. It hardly seems fair to start killing them as soon as I see them, just because they are eating the plants that I put there for them!
Then again, I may not have to worry about the problem much longer. When I went back out to take a few pictures, I disturbed a pair of cardinals who had been, if I'm not mistaken, busily eating the delicious little black caterpillars they'd discovered in my flower bed.
Mother Nature's 24/7 Scales of Ecological Balance! Once again, I think I've proved to myself that letting nature take its course is the most effective - and interesting - plan of action.