Tag Archives: insects

Laddie and the cats.

People who try to help out the butterflies by “raising” them in a protected location call the caterpillars cats. It took me a while to get used to this when I would browse the extensive Monarch Butterfly Garden website. After my experience last fall of losing the one caterpillar that I know hatched out on one of my milkweed plants, I had thought that if I found another this year, I’d try to feed it indoors.

But why not collect the eggs and protect even them from the beginning? The website tells you how to do that, too, and I did. Again, the Monarchs seem to prefer the Narrowleaf Milkweed; I found most, if not all, of the white oval eggs on those narrow leaves that had been ravaged by aphids. I cut pieces of leaf with eggs stuck on them and let them incubate in a plastic storage container. (I did remove the aphid that can be seen in the picture.) The first ones hatched in about four days, just about the time that my grandson Laddie arrived with his father from Colorado.

We had to use a magnifying glass to be able to see the caterpillars at first. Once I thought they had all died, because they were so small it was hard to see that they had any color, or that they were chewing. But within a couple of days they were big enough to see without the glass; by that time I had moved them into a mesh cage I’d hastily ordered, and I arranged a stem from the showy milkweed in a bowl with a florist’s frog so that the leaves I was feeding them wouldn’t dry out so fast. From the first I encouraged them to leave the narrow half-dead leaves and move on to the fat and nutritious ones I brought in.

How do you encourage a teensy caterpillar? I carefully laid each drying leaf upside down on a fresh leaf, and the next morning they were making holes in the showy milkweed leaves. Well, two or three of them were. I haven’t been able to keep track of these microscopic specimens and it appears that most of them didn’t make it. Even now, I think the active ones are mostly hidden on the undersides of the leaves, but if I look hard I can see a head on the edge of a ragged hole and a mouth making the hole bigger.

I will feel lucky if one or more of them gets to the stage where it spins a chrysalis. That almost happened with two other caterpillars I found on my Italian parsley. They didn’t look like Monarch cats, and I checked online to find that they weren’t the other butterfly I see around here, Painted Lady. I put them in a jar with more parsley and one of them did attach to a thick parsley stem I put in there for that purpose, but then he dried up. The other one kept trying out one or another place to hang, but he eventually lay on the bottom in the dead bug position. So.

Nearly invisible caterpillars aren’t very exciting to a five-year-old, so Laddie didn’t pay too much attention to the lives of insects; Soldier and Laddie and I, and some other friends and in-laws had many kinds of fun over a long weekend. They helped me pick beans, fix a toilet, wash the dirt and spiderwebs off my collection of outdoor trucks, and replace a taillight on my car. Bowling and hiking didn’t get photographed.

Meanwhile more caterpillars were busy in the garden; a very few newly-hatched green ones were sticking their heads out of beans, and one was found on a basil leaf — but Soldier and I studied the bean leaves a long time trying hard to discover what is turning many into skeletons. Eventually I saw one Japanese beetle, and one tiny insect I’d never seen before.

The bean crop is not affected so far; my second picking was 8 1/2 pounds, much of which I gave to neighbors. When Soldier and Laddie arrived, I was able to feed them quite a bit: first, steamed green beans slathered with basil pesto; then Turkish Green Beans. Laddie eats like a teenager, and his father said all the boys are like that. He had three helpings of everything, breakfast and dinner. I made a peach cobbler for them, too.

Maybe some of you recognized the parsley-eating caterpillar; finally tonight I caught my breath and looked it up online, to find that it is the caterpillar of the Black Swallowtail, a butterfly I don’t think I’ve ever seen. What do you know, they eat umbellifers! I hope that more than two of that butterfly’s cats were there in the vegetable box, and are now in the chrysalis stage. I’ll hope to see one next year.

The life force of words and wild things.

The Queen Anne’s Lace, or Daucus carota, one of the “wildflowers of the carrot family,” is in full glory this month along the creek near my house. It was a mild winter and a wet spring; though we are now well into the dry season, their plantation is lush.

Once before I posted a gallery of images of them, various angles and perspectives. This week my walk along the path was greatly extended and I explored the current neighborhood that has grown up, full of a unique assortment of plants and animals developing from this year’s natural and man-provoked conditions. That means a completely new gallery!

The picture just above shows a morning glory weed or bindweed (Convolvulus), which has twined around the stem of an opened flower, grown on through a bud, and is now reaching out into space. It has an opened flower just above the lower Queen Anne’s Lace bloom. And I just noticed a little seed of something, close to the bottom of the photo, and about to drop down, down… and make a contribution to next spring’s neighborhood.

Fennel in the background.

In my last gallery of Queen Anne’s Lace, I featured the red spots that are found in the center of many of the blooms. This year what were more eyecatching were insects and the other umbellifers.

I learned that word almost a year ago when Pippin and I were exploring wetlands together. As I walked along my nearby creek path I began to think about the flower form that Queen Anne’s Lace shares with the wild fennel nearby, and the word was struggling along my mind’s synapses for several minutes… and finally arrived where I could grab it. Today I researched its meaning again; it comes from the old name for the plant Family Apiaceae, which was Umbelliferae.

I found several helpful webpages besides the Wikipedia information. One has a timeline of North American invasive species: “We came on the Mayflower, too!“, where I learned that our wild fennel likely did come with those first pilgrims in 1620, and it spread all over the continent. That site also has lots of recipes for using wild plants, and I would be interested to try using the tender green fronds of fennel, or even the stems. But on the fennel page they were a little sloppy with their botany, telling me that fennel and anise are the same thing, which they are not.

Let’s start with fennel, which is my neighbor: its botanical name is  Foeniculum vulgare. Anise is Pimpinella anisum. They are both in the Apiaceae family but different genera. The fleshy bulb that is eaten as a vegetable is a fennel bulb. Anise looks very similar in the field, but I don’t ever see reference to eating the bulb.

On the Spiceography page I read a paragraph-long comparison of the seeds, which both contain the essential oil anethole. I found its guidelines confusing, and concluded that I will just try to use whichever seed a recipe calls for. By the way, two other plants with this flavor but completely unrelated and different in form are star anise and liquorice.

Anise is an ingredient in many alcoholic beverages traditional to the Mediterranean and Asia. At least one of them, absinthe, includes fennel as well. I was pleased to see a map showing the locales and the names of the drinks.

When I was in Turkey I did enjoy rakı. (Yes, that is an i without a dot. It designates a schwa or ə sound.) Usually it was served with a water; you would pour a little rakı in your glass and then add water. It turned all milky then, as in this picture. No one ever tried to explain to me why this happened, and I doubt they could have if they knew, because when I read the explanation for it now it’s very complicated to my unscientific mind: The Ouzo Effect.

Fennel flower

I seem to have drifted from flowers to food and drink (passing quickly over insects). Truly this earth is full of enough animal, vegetable and mineral to keep us forever occupied examining, experimenting, cooking and brewing — and thanking our Father for putting us in a world so packed with beauty and life.

She danced in with a leafy surprise.

I was following a Cabbage White around the kale patch, when I happened to look into a squash blossom. It was pointing straight up like a cup, and I saw a hoverfly in the bottom, not hovering at that moment, but I assume drinking nectar…? He didn’t move. While I was pointing my camera down there, another hoverfly zipped right in. For a moment they were piled up, but soon arranged themselves one on either side of the cup. Who knows how long they might have sat companionably at their juice bar if a third insect, flying so fast I couldn’t see, hadn’t flown in, and quickly out again; that agitated the fellows and they departed.

On the same tour of my estate I noticed bees at the dwarf pomegranate bushes. They would buzz around slowly checking out various blooms; I soon realized that they were looking for flowers that were at the right stage of opening, because they have to crawl deep into the narrow cave to get what they want. The flowers don’t seem to be open very long before they start to wilt, and then there is no way to get in.

I never believed in Mother Nature before this week, when I found a gift that was so clearly chosen with my particular gardening eccentricities in mind, I thought immediately that she would be the one who left it for me. But — I went back to that quote from Chesterton, following St. Francis of Assisi, who said we should think of Nature more as our little dancing sister,” who delights us into laughter. We have the same Father, we and Nature. Okay then, I’ll say it was my Little Sister who gave it to me: a tomato plant.

I used to grow the absolute best flavored tomatoes that you could find anywhere. A big part of my method was to dry-farm them, the way the Italian immigrants to California used to do. You water when you plant them, deeply, but then not again all summer. I tweaked that system and usually gave mine a drink every month or so.

But in my new garden, I haven’t found a way to do this, or a place. This year I didn’t plant one tomato, and I gave away all my tomato cages. Recently I saw my neighbor Kim’s tomato “garden” which is all in big pots, and it gave me the idea to try that next summer, and I could put the pots in my nice hot utility yard, on the gravel.

This week I went out to the clothesline and saw a tomato already planted in that very space. I’m thinking it must have a deep root, as it’s not near a water source. I did laugh, I can tell you. Whether or not I get a tomato from this plant, it was a very sweet and thoughtful gift from my little sister, and I take it as a pointed word of encouragement about my idea for next summer’s tomato experiment.

Les papillons et les fleurs.

When I got home from church this afternoon I baked a cheese tart from Trader Joe’s and ate it outdoors, and as the sun did not go behind a cloud, I read the Heritage Farm Companion and did some Spanish lessons. The Companion is a little magazine for members of the Seed Savers Exchange, an organization that I’ve loved for more than 25 years, though I’ve never participated by contributing seeds that I save.

Today I learned two interesting things from that issue: 1) People are growing rice in Vermont, and 2) Hoverflies/syrphid flies are attracted to the flowers of sweet alyssum; they also eat aphids, so planting alyssum as a companion to whatever you want to protect from aphids — in my case that would be milkweed, and several other plants — can be very helpful. This photo showing how that might look I found online, from the Regenstein Fruit and Vegetable Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Before my garden makeover, I had alyssum everywhere, but I haven’t let it grow since I re-landscaped. Alyssum used to sprout up everywhere, but now I see that situation as benign, whereas the aphids are a plague. Maybe there is a connection?

Three different people had been watching over my garden while I was in DC greeting the new grandson. Plus I have automatic irrigation, and drought-tolerant plants. So I should not have been surprised that it looked great, even better, when I got back — all the plants were bigger, and various things were in bloom, like the coreopsis that I had only set out the day before I departed.

Several times in the last week I’ve been able to sit in the warm garden, usually in the early afternoon. The morning is often overcast and around 55°; dinner times a cool marine breeze often drives us indoors. Today after I finished my tart I glanced behind me and saw that the toadflax is finally in full bloom. It looks pretty weedy most of the year, and even now 🙂 but the flowers are so cheery… I’d say it never looks better than today.

And what do you know – I just found a photo in my files of a hoverfly on toadflax. I also have a shot of one sipping at lavender, and lately they are really busy with the lamb’s ears; that actually seems to be their favorite flower around here. Come to think of it, there are blooming lamb’s ears right next to the aphid-infested milkweed… ? …but the hoverflies are mostly in the front yard… ? I need to think about this some more.

Cabbage white butterflies were dancing all over the garden the whole time I was out there. I assumed it was a kind of mating dance. I tried taking still shots, and even a video of their choreography. Against the blue sky, where one loses all perspective, they look like some crazy white birds. I read that “A male finds another butterfly of the same species by sight, then determines its sex by flying close to detect chemical pheromones—a process that often makes them look like they’re dancing around each other in the air.”

I could never get close enough to get any good pictures, still or moving, but here is a video I found of cabbage whites mating. Butterflies are so delicate and fairy-like, they make me feel that I am a character in a folk-tale where anything magical might happen. Even the name butterfly is charming, yes? Did you ever read my post about the words for butterfly in different languages? In French it is papillon. And in Spanish, mariposa. Those are beautiful, too! The Germans call them the fantastic schmetterling, which gives me almost as much joy to say, as it does to see a butterfly schmettering from flower to flower.

A year or so ago I decided to study Spanish. In much of California it’s kind of crazy not to know Spanish, but I chose French in high school, and several other languages since then. I’ve had close friends who were Spanish majors, and four of my children studied Spanish for two or more years. When I started doing 5-minute lessons on my phone using the Duolingo app I discovered that I already knew quite a lot. It’s been more like play than work, because are no humans to see my work, no shame in goofing up. I get points for doing the lessons no matter how many times I get something wrong. For six months I managed to do at least one five-minute lesson per day.

When I was at Kate’s for three weeks I didn’t have any gardening or housework or church work to do, and I was able to do so many Spanish lessons one day that my brain grew weary. It occurred to me that there would be no harm in checking out the French course, to brush up on my French; in my youth I studied it first and the longest, so it’s probably stuck deep in the recesses of my mind… While mom and babies were napping, I did quite a few French lessons, and they were even more fun than Spanish. On Duolingo the first lessons of a language are short so you whip right through them — especially if they are ones you did when you were 13!

So the next day what did I do? Turkish! I’ve had very little Turkish instruction, but I did spend six months total in that country, living with Turks, and it has been pure delight to do Turkish lessons. You may ask, what about my work, now that I am home again? It is mostly not stuff that anyone else cares if I do or not. And I’m still in a kind of limbo about my remodeling project, which makes it hard for me to know just what thing is the Next Thing. So I behave as though the maid is going to show up soon, and I am a woman of leisure with nothing more important to do than to read about seeds and learn a useless language.

And it is Sunday afternoon!