Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Our Night-blooming Cereus

A friend gave it to us in a pot, a stalk about a yard tall, some tall leathery leaves. We set it in the pot on the ground next to a fence, so the awkwardly tall thing could lean against it without toppling over. We thought maybe it was dead, but then saw some new leaves appearing.  We were rather interested. The great botanical artist Margaret Mee, who specialized in painting the rare plants of the Amazon Basin, had painted a close relative. Both plants had in common that they only bloomed once during the season, and that bloom lasted only one day, or night rather, since as the name said, it was night blooming.

That plant in the Amazon had to time everything very carefully. It had to bloom on just the right day to send out its fragrance when the moth that pollinated it was present, and the moth drinking from its nectar had to get its pollen on its furry breast and take it to another plant blooming on just that night also. The connection missed by only a dozen hours, and the plant's whole season was wasted.

The painter had to be there too, or her season was wasted as well. She prepared carefully, with professional botanists (her paintings often went to the botanical museum) keeping an eye out to tell her when things were starting to move. She hired a fisherman to take her out at the appropriate moment. The plant bloomed hanging from trees over water, so she needed just the right boat with a flat top to its cabin that she could sit on while she did the painting, a boat big enough to carry all her equipment and with a suitable berth for her to sleep in while she waited for the moment. That was always the hardest part, getting the fisherman to believe she was really going all that way just to paint a flower that would only come out that one night, and the fisherman had to be reliable enough to get her there on time (she wouldn't pay till afterward, so he wouldn't get totally drunk and disappear before they went, but would have to wait until after when she gave him the money). The fishermen worried that she had some scam she was working, drug smuggling or something like that that would get them all in trouble. And once she convinced him she was legit and he realized that she was serious, then when they got out to that remote place, and got up late at night, with a beautiful moon and a beautiful fragrance from the flower, the fisherman suddenly grew amorous, which was why she also always carried a pistol in the pocket of her painting smock

We weren't sure we would get a flower from ours, but in fact we did get one that first season, and then it was over with. It had happened a bit too fast for us. So we really looked forward to it the next year.  Meantime the plant sat glumly through the winter in our storeroom waiting for it to be summer again.

The next summer we put it out again, and it perked up again. But it didn't produce a flower. Maybe it only flowers every other year, we speculated. Or maybe only once in its life like a century plant?

It went through another gloomy winter, forgotten in our messy storeroom. Summer came again (this summer), and when we decided it was warm enough, we put it out again leaned against the fence (it had hardly changed in size or appearance, only the leathery old leaves greened up a bit once it was out in the sun). Then from out of nowhere three little brown twiggy things appeared. Buds?

But just about that time, it was going to be our grandson's first birthday, and we decided this was too important to miss. Now, the long drive out to Arizona, and the long drive back, was beginning to wear on us, so this time we decided to fly out, and that decision also turned out to be important. We stayed out there for about ten days, then flew back. We got home after dark, slept the night away, wandered out into the yard the next morning, and found the three little brown twiggy things had grown to three enormous buds just on the point of popping open. In fact we thought it would open that night. If we had taken the car out to Arizona we would still have been on the road with another day to go on our return.

 We waited until about nine o'clock that evening and went out, but nothing seemed to have changed. Maybe this wasn't the night. We checked again at ten o'clock, and this time the flowers were opening before our eyes, and the fragrance was apparent from several feet away.

That was really fun and exciting, our once in the year midnight celebration. Then it was over with. The next day the flowers were hanging limply, like the wrinkled balloons the day after our grandson's  party. In a couple of months the pot would be back in the storeroom.

Friday, July 28, 2017

The attraction of caterpillars

When we moved to Arkansas in 1976, we bought a little house outside of Jonesboro. It was on an acre of land, and we bought it because it had about a dozen fairly big trees on it, mainly different kinds of oaks. The rest of the yard was pretty much scraped clean. We began planting flowers on it, both for our pleasure, and to attract butterflies. The butterflies came, so it seemed only fair once they were here that we should also have appropriate plants for them to lay their eggs on and we began, one by one, year by year, adding plants specific to their needs. First we put in maypop, the local passion flower, and immediately got Gulf Fritillary butterflies to lay on them, and soon we saw their prickly red caterpillars on the vines.

And shortly came their near cousin, the Variegated Fritillary, and its caterpillar, just the same as the Gulf, but with a white line running its length.

Next we planted a sassafras tree, to see if we could attract a Spicebush Swallowtail, and sure enough, as soon as the tree was big enough to have a few leaves, we found one of them folded over to hide the snake-headed caterpillar.

And it was easy to plant a bit of parsley or fennel, and we immediately had Black Swallowtails. The early instar caterpillars mimic bird droppings, so nothing will be interested in eating them, and then their later instars pretend to be Monarch caterpillars, which are known to be poisonous from eating milkweed leaves.

We already had a sugarberry tree in the yard, so we already had Hackberry Butterflies, since that was the tree they laid their eggs on. The adult males post themselves around the yard, chasing females, and chasing off rival males.

Their somewhat slug-like caterpillars.

And we also already had winged elm trees in our yard, so we only had to look carefully to see we had Question Marks, with their odd way of stacking their eggs three or four high.

We wanted to have Pipevine Swallowtails breeding in our yard, so we got some pipevine and brought it into the yard in pots, and set the pots down in our back yard preparatory to planting them. Almost immediately a Pipevine Swallowtail appeared in the front yard and began flying in wide circles, coming closer to the pots with each sweep. We hastily planted the pots at the base of a large oak tree and the vines are now high up the tree, and if we search, we can often spot their big sinister looking black caterpillars.

 We planted a cherry tree, and birds spread seeds of it all over the yard, so we now have several, and almost any day you can see the Red-spotted Purples laying their eggs carefully at the tips of the leaves, and their caterpillars are easy to find.

Though they are less common than the Red-spotted Purples, we also get Eastern Tiger Swallowtails laying their eggs on the cherry leaves. Like many swallowtail species, their caterpillars start out by mimicking bird droppings, and later instars then become snake mimics.

We planted spring cress, and that lured tiny Falcate Orangetips into our yard to raise their beautiful caterpillars.

We planted senna to attract the various species of sulphurs, including the Cloudless Sulphur.

One day we were at the Arkansas Folk Center in the middle of the Ozarks and we bought a little pot of rue, which is a food plant for the Giant Swallowtail. We didn't have any appropriate plants in our area, so we brought it home and planted it. We only get Giant Swallowtails in our yard once or twice a year (perhaps because there are no plants of the right kind), and almost instantly a Giant came by and laid two eggs on our rue. The caterpillars gorged on the plant, growing bigger and bigger, and we realized they were going to eat all the rue before they were big enough to make their chrysalises. So we did what any besotted insectophile would do: We made the 300-mile round trip to the Folk Center for another pot of rue. Now to be a little safer, we have planted a wafer ash tree (another Giant Swallowtail food plant, this one much larger) and are waiting to see if it will work.

I haven't even mentioned yet the most obvious one of all: Naturally among our first plantings were milkweed plants, mainly common milkweed and butterfly weed.  On their northern flights the Monarchs would cover the plants with eggs, and the caterpillars would eat the plants right to the ground. The plants would then grow right back up, to be ready for any later Monarchs that were still laying eggs. Now, sadly, there are many fewer Monarchs coming through, and the milkweeds sometimes go untouched.

Well, that's thirteen. There are still many more. Once I started doing this I was surprised myself at how many had slowly accumulated over the years. I didn't get around to mentioning Sleepy Orange (on senna), Red Admiral (on nettle), Goatweed Leafwing (on Goatweed), Silver-spotted Skipper (on  indigo bush), Horace's Duskywing (on oak), Silvery Checkerspot (on black-eyed susans).

I don't believe we have ever planted a plant for the purpose of attracting a specific moth (well, I guess we planted a catalpa tree to attract catalpa hornworms), but if you have a variety of plants, you will get many moth caterpillars anyway. Moths in general can be rather drab (or, as my wife prefers, their beauty is more subtle), but on the other hand, their caterpillars go far beyond the usually rather staid butterfly caterpillars for spectacular patterns and shapes and behaviors and overall screwiness with tufts of hairs going in every direction and weird tendrils sticking up or hanging down. We are having such a banner year for caterpillars this year that I might make my next blog a moth-caterpillar-in-our-garden blog

Friday, June 23, 2017

More Arizona

Lately it seems like every time I sit down to write a new post, we are just back from Arizona and we've seen a whole new bunch of Sonoran flora and fauna.

For instance, almost as soon as we arrived in Tucson Heather, my daughter-in-law, was showing me around the garden she was creating in what had been, when they bought their house, a fairly bare backyard. We were looking at a raised bed of squash, just coming into bloom, when a small but muscular creature, like a half-size hummingbird, came powering through the yard and began hovering over the squash. It was moving so fast we couldn't see much detail on it, so I got up as close to it as I could and began snapping pictures of it with my macro lens and we looked at this wonderful creature magnified on the viewing screen.

It was a clear-winged moth got up to look as much like hornet as possible, the furry red hind legs carried alongside the abdomen to make it look even bigger than it already was. It was a squash-borer moth, beautiful to see but possibly disastrous for the squash. Its caterpillars would bore their way into the stems and eat the plants inside out.

The red and black and bluish coloration was meant to be a warning. "If you try to eat me you will discover that I am deadly poisonous, or maybe I have a hidden sting." In this case I suspect it was a bluff, and the moth was perfectly good eating (if you like moths). But we later saw another big, warning-colored creature, a kind of blister beetle called the iron cross beetle. The warning here was genuine: if molested this beetle would squirt out Cantharidin, a blistering chemical.

Unusual for our trips to Tucson, we took a break and flew out to the San Francisco Bay Area to visit my sister, and her daughter and family. Nice to get back in close touch with everybody. Lots of good meals and good walks and a natural-history high point was visiting the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, a huge area in Strawberry Canyon above the Berkeley campus frequented by mountain lions (which unfortunately we didn't see) and with plantings from all the temperate parts of the world. Featured on that day was the blooming of a puya, a plant from Chile, which we were told was the largest bromeliad in the world, and which had the largest bromeliad flower in the world. Now, most bromeliads are small scruffy epiphytic plants that grow on trees or telephone wires and are detached from any connection with the earth because they get all their nourishment and other needs from the air. Some of them have attractive flowers but you would hardly call them enormous. Well, the flower spikes on puya were advertised as being three to four meters long. Four meters is about fifteen feet. We thought we had better see this and had to ask directions several times to find the plant off in an obscure corner. Here is a picture of Cheryl photographing one flower spike which is only a disappointing ten feet tall.

The color is quite wonderful.

We came back to Tucson to continue our stay for another week, and went out to Sweetwater, which featured two White-faced Ibises sitting in a muddy field, and a family of Gambel's quail slipping through the brush.

There were lots of good mammals around, almost tame, as mammals quickly become when they are in places where they are not disturbed. Coyotes were common and virtually ignored our presence.

In past trips to Tucson we had often seen the big antelope jack rabbits; this time we saw, new to us, the much smaller desert cottontails (though their ears were nearly getting up to jack rabbit size).

Tucson is located at about 2000 feet, and has Mt. Lemon, an 8000 foot mountain, just out of town. It gets cooler as you go up, so you can dial-a-climate. We decided to go up. As you climb, the fauna changes, and we began to see birds like Bridled Titmice

and Yellow-eyed Juncos.

At one picnic ground a child had laid out all her toys on the table, then gone off somewhere else to play, and this Acorn Woodpecker could not resist coming over to say hello.

By the time we got to 8000 feet we knew we were getting into some real high mountain stuff when we saw this Abert's Squirrel. The abert's race is famous for being on the south side of Grand Canyon, with the kaibab race on the north side and never the twain can get across to meet. Both races are also famous for the super-long tassels on their ears, which unfortunately they only have during the winter.

Of course before we left for home we visited our favorite Saguaro East N.P., where as always we saw a number of neat things.  This small, chipmunk-like creature, for instance, is it own kind of rodent, an Antelope Squirrel, Harris's Antelope Squirrel, common in the Sonoran Desert.

And then we saw an insect we had always wanted to see. There is a group of wasps called velvet ants, because that's what they look like. They have long velvety fur, and the females are wingless, so they walk around on the ground like large furry ants. There are dozens of kinds in different sizes, but they all have an almost identical pattern, bright red with bands of black. The largest of them are called "cow killers" as an only slightly exaggerated description of the power of their stings, and so all the species have the same pattern to immediately warn any predator away from trying to attack one and risk the sting. Well, one species is so small it does not try the warning colors bit, and instead relies on camouflage, making itself resemble very perfectly thistledown, something there is lots of blowing around on the desert floor.

Cheryl, with her sharp eyes, spotted some Thistledown Velvet Ants (that's what they are called) by their frenetic movements. They don't walk, they hop and skip and jump in the most eccentric manner, making it very hard to catch up with them and focus a camera on them.

 This roadrunner stopped very close to us.

It must have been a young one; its feathers seemed only half developed. I thought I could see the primal dinosaur looking through its reptilian eyes. And then in fact we saw a genuinely primitive reptile, not dragging its belly as it moved, but carrying its body in the air as it walked on its muscular legs, swinging its head back and forth, its forked tongue appearing at intervals.  We are told that even most people who have lived here their whole life have never seen this creature: It was a Gila Monster.

Okay, this will seem like boasting, but we also saw an even rarer reptile, one probably never seen before by anyone: a Six Headed Turtle.