Saturday, September 21, 2013

What are Invertebrates?

Oh, dear, what shall I write about this week? Having written columns on just about every garden subject over the past thirty years, it's hard to come up with something I haven't already covered. Flipping through my files yesterday, however, I came upon one labeled "Column Ideas" and when I opened it, the first article I found was titled "A Plague of Gypsy Moths." Since my last column mentioned the area on Locust Hill we call the Gypsy Cut, I'm hoping you might find their life cycle interesting.

The gypsy moth arrived in our country in 1868 when Leopold Tronvelot, a naturalist living in Massachusetts, let a cluster of their eggs he'd brought home from France fall out an open window.  An egg cluster can contain up to 1000 eggs, and when the eggs hatched into tiny larvae no bigger than mosquitoes, the plague began. These little innocents just spin long strands of silk in trees until they molt, but then they become the hairy hungry leaf-consuming caterpillars.

By July they are fat and full of green leaves and transform into pupae.  Some are males, some females, and when a pair gets together, the result is a gypsy moth, ready to start the cycle again when the female lays a new batch of eggs. It wasn't until 1974, 105 years after Mr.  Tronvelot  spilled the eggs, that both state and federal governments started pouring money into control programs.  Sad to say, that was not in time to save the beautiful stand of oaks on Locust Hill. 

Heard enough about gypsy moths? My idea file fortunately had several other articles on invertebrates, which by the way, means having no spinal column.  One that is far more appealing than the gypsy moth, is the Daddy Longlegs. He is a predator with olfactory organs in some of his eight legs that help him smell nearby prey.  Those legs are designed to release a squirt of foul-smelling substance to repel  enemies.  If that doesn't work he can shed a leg if it is seized by an enemy, who is then left holding this useless appendage while Daddy escapes. 

Ever heard of burying beetles? This genus, Necrophorus, which means "corpse bearer" in Greek, contains nature's grave diggers. They're anything but funereal looking, having bright orange spots on their black bodies. These beetles are able to detect the faintest smell of death, even before the body of a bird or small animal has cooled. If one of these colorful grave diggers discovers a corpse, he sets to work making a hole right under the carcass, or if the soil is too hard, shifts it to a softer spot. Soon other funeral helpers  arrive and join in the work until the deceased is totally buried. 

OK, just one more invertebrate, a weird looking insect with big bug-eyes, the praying mantis.Unlike her close relations - grasshoppers, cockroaches, crickets and walking sticks, who are all benign vegetarians, the mantis is a predator, and on top of that, a cannibal. She's not praying, she's preying, searching for the next meal. Like all insects, she has six legs., the back four used for walking, the front two , lined with razor-sharp spines and ready to seize her next meal, function  functioning like a swimmer doing the crawl.

Those bulging eyes of hers are always on the lookout for the next meal - moths, beetles, flies, even hornets and bumblebees. She doesn't bother to kill them, just happily eats them live.  Imagine being a hapless ladybug seeing this ogre ready to grasp you in her arms and knowing she will eat you up as if you're a
nice tasty ear of corn. 

What's even scarier is what Mrs. Mantis does when it's mating time at the end of August.  Mr. Mantis clasps his bride in an embrace that can last five hours.  But when they're done, instead of scuttling away, he hangs around, so the Cannibal Queen, as the naturalists have nicknamed her, gobbles him up.

Surprising as it might seem, this vicious female cannibal is terrified of ants.  She must have a good memory because it is only when a mantis is a nymph, a tiny newborn just out of the egg, that ants are a hazard.  They swarm around the egg case, devouring the babies as they wiggle out from the mass of foam that is their nest. 

How or why these nymphs retain this frightening experience through all their life cycles is a mystery, but even a hungry full-grown mantis will not try and catch an ant to eat.  In fact mantises will actually turn and flee in the other direction. 

I think we've all learned enough about the invertebrates,  don't you? But now you may at least have more fun knowing who is who when you meet up with one in your garden next summer. 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Woodland Berry Walk

I think Weeds and Wisdom has been so rampant with weeds lately that there’s not been a bit of wisdom.  But I’m  in good company - my favorite newspaper, the Wall Street Journal, had an article on weeds just last week.

 I’m sure you’re all as sick of this subject as I am, so let’s take a nice wildflower walk today. Fall is such a peaceful time in the woods, and so many of the wildflowers that have rather inconspicuous spring flowers are full of colorful berries.  I thought we’d head up to the Falcon Forest, an area we named in honor of the old Ford Falcon we  dragged up there when it stopped running so that future grandsons could play race car driver in it.

It’s quite a trek, and having not been  here in many years I was amazed  to see how it’s changed. The pines are now so tall there’s hardly any sun and  not a single wildflower to be found, just a few patches of emerald moss. We should have better luck if we head over to the Dead Horse Field which is close by.

Yes, we actually found the skeleton of a horse in this field the first year we lived on Locust Hill, but never solved the mystery of who had owned the horse or why it had died.  We won’t find old bones today,  just wildflowers, hopefully two  closely related ones, the red and white baneberries.  

In the spring these comparatively tall stalks, sometimes two feet high, are hard to tell apart. Their  blooms are so similar,  delicate clusters of white flowers called  terminal racemes. But now it’s easy. The red baneberry obviously has red berries, while the white has white with a black dot in the center of each, so they're known as Doll's Eyes.

Children love these funny little berries,  but make sure they don’t try and eat them as they’re poisonous.

The section of woodland that borders this field we call the Gypsy Cut, named for the wretched gypsy moths that stripped the leaves of every oak in this area  way back in the 1960s. We should be able to find  a wildflower here that we call blue  beads,  a highly appropriate name at this time of year, as its small yellow flowers have turned into conspicuous blue berries.  

Its formal name, Clintonia, might appear to be inappropriate.  Why give DeWitt Clinton,  a governor of  New York, this honor?  Well,  Mr. Clinton was also an avid naturalist.  According to Neltje Blanchan, one of my favorite wildflower authors, who explains  “were  it not for this plant keeping his memory green, we should be in danger of forgetting the weary, overworked governor, fleeing from care to the woods and fields; pursuing  the study which above all others delighted and refreshed him.”

Miss Blanchan wrote close to a dozen books on wildflowers and birds.  They are full of not only scientific facts, but charming poetic comments, making them a delight to read compared to the factual books limited to nothing but scientific  information.

Oh, what luck!  Here is a beautiful patch of one of my favorite wildflowers,  the partridge berry.  Look at all those bright red berries!  In the spring it has tiny white blooms, always born in pairs at the end of each vine-like stem.  The result is that each pair produces a single red berry. 

You know how an apple has a stem at one end and opposite is the calyx, the remains of the blossom?   If you look carefully at a partridge berry you’ll find two calyxes, the remains of the two blossoms that joined to make a single berry.  You can clearly see the two caylixes on one berry.

As we head home we can probably find one more wildflower with conspicuous berries, the bunchberry, a miniature copycat of the dogwood tree, Cornus florida.   Its Latin name, Cornus Canadensis, hints at the relationship.  Its flowers have the same four notched white bracts surrounding the true flowers and the same cluster of red berries.  Yes, they're bunched berries, but  I call this plant  the little dogwood.

There are many more wildflowers with  berries at this time of year, but we’re almost home and it’s lunchtime.  This was much more fun than weeding though,  wasn’t it?