Spring is finally here and what a great feeling it is to be out in the gardens again, seeing supple green buds and new growth. But that is not all I am seeing these days — weeds, weeds, everywhere! Tons of henbit, chickweed, and bindweed invading our gardens faster than I can pluck them out.
Here I provide a pictorial guide of our biggest offenders so that you might correctly identify these pests in your own garden and dispatch them quickly before they go to seed.
What is a Weed?
I don’t like to throw that word around, and if you are unclear about what I mean by ‘weeds’ feel free to revisit my blog about proper lingo related to pest plants. In this post, I am simply meaning undesirable plants. This includes plants that may be native or naturalized, but are too aggressive or unattractive to be allowed in the gardens. This is a very subjective definition, but to keep this post brief, it must suffice!
Fool Me Not
Plants are wonderful tricksters. It is often too hard to positively identify them in their early growth stages. In this way, weeds and desirable plants alike commingle in our gardens because we are afraid to accidentally pluck out something we want! Many young plants have basic, nondescript leaves and haven’t developed hairs, waxy coatings, or conspicuous colors that help humans tell them apart. Many weeds right now are in their rosette stage, without flower stems to distinguish them. So you must find other ways to suss them out! Each photo caption includes an ID tip to help you out.
Keep an eye out for part two of this topic, wherein I dive deeper ‘into the weeds’ about which weed species are truly pests and which should be allowed to happily coexist in your landscape.
The Arboretum greenhouse is warm and alive this time of year, beginning to fill up with stock for FloraKansas Native Plant Festival. FloraKansas is our largest fundraiser, and takes a lot of prep work. Luckily, I relish my time spent time in the greenhouse, so it is a welcome change of pace from the snow-shoveling and office work of winter. Here is a behind the scenes look at how it all comes together in just a few short months.
Each spring we receive about 15,000 plants. Many plants come to us as plugs — pre-grown plants that are transplanted into sale-size pots. This is an economical and user-friendly way for us to plant thousands of plants without the risk associated with caring for tiny seedlings. We order plugs from lots of native plant nurseries around the country and around the state to ensure a nice variety for our customers.
Sometimes we seed our own plants with seed we have collected or purchased from a trusted source. Though this is very tedious and time consuming, it is so rewarding to see those little sprouts poking through the soil! We then use a fork to tease apart the tiny roots and plant them into individual pots.
We heat the greenhouse with industrial heaters during the cold nights of February and March and vent with large fans during the day. Keeping plants at optimal growing temperature helps them green up in time for the sale. Surprisingly, during a sunny day in spring, temperatures in the greenhouse can reach 90 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit quickly, even though it is cold outside!
FloraKansas would not be possible without volunteers. They transplant, water, sweep greenhouse isles, load and unload trucks, and so much more. I couldn’t possibly do all of those tasks by myself! And that doesn’t even include the many volunteers who help us on the days of the event, cashiering and helping customers to their cars. FloraKansas is a great time to be an Arboretum employee — surrounded by enthusiastic volunteers who support our mission, it makes the job easy. If you would like to volunteer at FloraKansas or otherwise, click here for more information.
I hope to see lots of our blog readers at the spring sale! It is a wonderful time to talk face to face with our members and supporters. Come see us soon, and pick up a few native plants while you are at it.
As a horticulturist and a dog lover, life can be a little ‘ruff’. I dream of a beautiful, lush landscape of gorgeous plants and well-tended lawn, but we all know how dogs wreak havoc on our outdoor spaces. Even my sweet pooch, well behaved and trained to a T, inadvertently tramples my plants and upends my #gardengoals with every enthusiastic game of frisbee.
But there is light at the end of this long, muddy, paw-printed tunnel — with some careful planning, you can love your dog and your yard.
This should be a no-brainer, but bears repeating: Keep harmful chemicals and pesticides out of a dog-friendly yard! Even if you think your dog doesn’t “go over there that often”, or you are pretty sure the treatment “will dry by the time she gets there”. Remember that your doggo is in direct paw-to-ground contact with the plants and soil they walk on – not to mention the digging, rolling, and rooting around that pups do on a daily basis. Some studies show a growing link between lawn-care products and cases of canine lymphoma. So, if you or your lawn care professionals are applying ANY pesticides or herbicides, do your research and call your vet to make sure you are making a safe choice for your canine friend.
Do Your Homework
It is impossible to keep straight all the poisonous and non-poisonous plants out there. Even the most well intentioned garden center clerk might get it wrong, putting your pup at risk. Check before you buy at ASPCA.org’s Poisonous Plants database. Be aware that even the most benign plants can cause problems if ingested in large quantities or if your pup has other health issues.
On the whole, plants in the mint genus (Mentha) seem to be fairly safe for dogs, including peppermint and spearmint, (but excluding Mentha pulegium.) In fact, many common herbs are safe for dogs and keep their highly evolved noses stimulated. Look for lavender, basil, rosemary, and oregano to include in your garden. Not only will these herbs freshen your pet’s breath should they choose to take a nibble, but they also attract pollinators and have lovely foliage.
As native plants go, it gets a little more difficult to pin down exactly what is safe and what is not. Most native plants only have a toxicity rating for livestock, but with completely different digestive systems, does that rating apply to dogs as well? There are lots of online sources for toxic plant information, so all I can provide here is a short list of native and adaptable plants that DO NOT appear on those toxic plant lists and DO appear at our spring sale.
Be sure to check with your veterinarian before assuming the safety of any plant, especially if your pet is prone to grazing.
Happy Tails, Happy Trails
If your dog spends unsupervised time in the yard, you have surely found narrow, hard-packed trails devoid of vegetation. These are a dog’s version of cattle trails — a safe and quick way to get from A to B. Dogs are creatures of habit, and this one may stem from their wolf ancestors. Pro tip: DO NOT try to change the trail. It is extremely unlikely you will change his walking pattern; this deeply ingrained behavior is stronger than your desire for a perfect lawn. If you plant anything in this path your pup will tromp over it or dig it out of the way. Instead, think about hardscaping problem areas with pavers, gravel, or a charming boardwalk. A friend of mine has four huge Labradors (yes, you read that correctly) and still manages a stunningly beautiful landscape. How? By planting and planning in accordance with their flow of traffic.
How to Stop the Digging
A once beautiful garden can turn into an ankle-twisting nightmare once your pooch gets the urge to dig. Punishment often won’t deter this behavior, as it is almost impossible to catch them in the act. In some cases, this is just a phase of puppyhood and the dog will grow out of it. In others, it signals she is bored and frustrated – time for us humans to get serious about fetch, walks, and training to placate their need for interaction. Lastly, if you notice the holes seem to only show up in summer, it means Fido is just trying to find a spot to stay cool. Dogs will dig in cool, moist areas of soil to create a comfortable spot to lounge. An easy fix for this comes from landscape designer Maureen Gilmer,
“…provide them with a pit of their own where it’s more damp and cool than the flower beds. Give them sand to lie in and it won’t make mud or stains, and easily falls away from their fur. Keep the area moist and your dog will prefer that spot over all else .”
THE DOG-SCAPED YARD: Creating a Backyard Retreat for You and Your Dog
With some careful planning, your backyard can be an oasis for dogs and people alike. If you are needing a little help planning out your garden space, please call us to set up a landscape consultation. If you would like to get Fido out of the yard for a while, visit the Arboretum grounds for a long walk in the prairie. Be sure to have your pup on a leash and to clean up after her! Our grounds are open dawn to dusk, 365 days per year.
This past Monday, at the swearing in of the new Kansas governor, some native plants from Dyck Arboretum got their time in the limelight. Cuttings from our grounds of evergreens, red twig dogwood, big bluestem and more were featured in the inaugural stage decorations out front of the state house. These natives are perfect for floral arrangements, and are also great performers in the landscape.
Originally, the volunteers helping to plan the inauguration festivities were looking for potted evergreens, tiny pines and spruces, lined up neat and tidy. When they contacted the Arboretum for those plants, I disappointed them — we don’t have a huge stock of evergreens outside of our sale times. But I asked, “Why not something native? Why not something that reflects the beauty of Kansas in January?” Needless to say, they were right on board.
Kirsten of Blue Morning Glory Studio was the perfect florist to take on this challenge. She regularly designs with native, home-grown and wild sourced elements. She graciously invited me to partner in the process. I have done some small floristry projects in the past, a few weddings or special events, but nothing quite so grand as this! I was immediately energized by the opportunity to work with native material from the Arboretum grounds I know so well.
The Plan: Dyck Arboretum would provide native plant materials, Kirsten will provide vision, expertise, schematics, LOTS of white tulips, and I will deliver the plant material and assist with the build at the Capitol.
Blue Arizona cypress made up a huge part of the display, really tying into the blue of the inauguration stage and harkening to the blue dominating the Kansas state flag. The cuttings smell fresh and citrusy, making them fun to work with. Arizona cypress (Hesperocyparis arizonica) grows well here in Kansas, making a nice privacy hedge or evergreen shelter for birds. Native to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, it can handle drought and extreme conditions.
We used eastern red cedar, with its comparably greener hue, to balance the colors and make it look lush and “friendly”, as one of the state house volunteers described it. Our ‘Canaertii’ cedars in The Mother’s Garden are good at resisting the brown/yellow cast that cedars tend to take on over the winter. Deep green and well-berried, with an open branching habit, these cedars are much more attractive yard trees than regular cedars, and come in handy at Christmas time for making wreaths and swags.
Florists always use some optical magic to make a focal point appear within an arrangement. This time we opted for the deep browns and blacks of rudbeckia triloba seed heads. This native is a mainstay on our grounds and in many landscape designs. Hardy, long lived and brilliantly yellow, it blooms early to mid summer and stays standing tall into winter. Harvest for your own dried arrangements or leave it outside for birds to nibble on.
As with any floral design, we needed some accent plants — just a little something to excite the eye. A few sprigs of red twig dogwood, a graceful arc of alder branch (complete with catkins!) were perfect additions. The alder trees on our grounds are not native and are in pretty rough shape from the harsh Kansas living, but they still produce adorable little cones that make excellent design elements or craft material.
I am so happy to have been a part of this unique design process with Blue Morning Glory Studio, and to create displays that honor Kansas’ prairie heritage. If you are interested in creating your own floral displays with natives, the first step is to integrate them into your landscape and live with them through the seasons. Attend one of our upcoming Native Plant School classes, our FloraKansas Native Plant Festival, or stroll the sidewalks at Dyck Arboretum to be inspired by the native flora and re-energize your relationship with the land.
Working on the Arboretum grounds means I have the joy of interacting with native plants and animals every day. I get to watch newly-planted trees sprout their first leaves and newly hatched goslings sprout their first feathers. I see migratory birds on their way north and south, caterpillars turning into butterflies, spiders wrapping up their breakfast of grasshoppers, and the cozy tunnels made by fastidious skunks and armadillos. But by and large my favorite living thing to observe here at the Arboretum is fungus.
That’s right – that crusty yet slimy, multicolored, spore-producing stuff that grows quietly all around us.
Fungi is a much misunderstood life form (and no, I am not just talking about my coworkers Brad and Scott, fun guys though they are!). While people often come to visit Dyck Arboretum to watch birds or spot their favorite wildflowers, I have yet to hear anyone shout in delight, “Guys, look over here! A stinkhorn mushroom colony!” And such a shame – I have seen so many weird and wonderful fungus (and fungus-like) creatures at the Arb that I can’t help but be enthralled by them.
Plant or Animal?
Perhaps you noticed I used the word ‘creature’ for fungi in the above paragraph. Aren’t mushrooms just strange, fleshy plants? No. Technically speaking, a fungus is genetically more similar to you and me than it is to a plant. In scientific nomenclature, fungi occupy their own Kingdom (there are 6 major Kingdoms of life, for animals, plants, bacteria and so on). Fungi do not photosynthesize like plants, and cannot make their own food (autotrophy). Like us, they must feed on other organisms to survive (heterotrophy). Fungus do not have roots, stems or leaves, and do not store energy as a starch like plants do. They reproduce by releasing spores into the environment, or by simply breaking apart (fragmentation) or budding (growing a clone).
What am I Looking At?
The first step into nerding out over fungus is to classify your observations. It is a tricky job, and scientists today are still in a tizzy about the genetic ancestry of fungus. For the layperson, let’s stick to the basics: yeasts, molds, and mushrooms are all types of fungus. Mushrooms are perhaps the most charismatic and well known fungi – shelf-like, gelatinous, or toadstool shaped, they spring up seemingly overnight. What we see as a ‘mushroom’ is only a small part of the organism, just the fungus’s reproductive organ. The rest of it exists as a massive web of string-like hyphae in the soil or decomposing wood. There are several trees around the Arboretum in various states of natural decay sporting impressive shelf fungi. (Or perhaps they are spore-ting it?) But don’t be fooled – lichen, commonly found growing on trunks and tree branches, is NOT fungus. It is actually a combination-creature; algae, cyanobacteria, and fungus all sharing a body to create a new being, with an endless array of forms.
Where to Look
People may assume Kansas is not a good place to find fungus – much too dry and hot. Not only do we have some delicious edible mushrooms growing wild in Kansas but a plethora of other fun-to-hunt (but potentially toxic!) fungus. In fact, they grow almost everywhere on the planet and have countless forms, colors, and methods of life. Scientists only know of 120,000 species, but estimate there are millions more waiting to be discovered. To find your first fungus, search around decaying wood piles or heavily mulched garden beds. Check carefully and often around tree stumps; different mushrooms will feed on the rotting roots at different stages of the decay.
On your next visit to Dyck Arboretum, be sure to get a peek at some magnificent fungi on our grounds. Hunting for fungus, in all its forms, is a meaningful way to interact with nature and build a relationship of wonder and respect for the land we live on.
Here is a repost from last year about using local cedar trees for your Christmas decoration this year, for the ecological benefits and the fun folksy style! Enjoy —-
This past weekend I cut down a red cedar to use as my Christmas tree; just the right shape and size and with the right amount of character. I feel great about cutting one of these trees out of the wild (an Arboretum staffer condoning tree felling? Yes!). Red cedars are beautiful, strung with lights and tinsel, but they have become a real pest in the Great Plains ecosystem. Here are a few reasons to skip the plastic tree or spruce farm and simply cut yourself a cedar!
Any Christmas tree, cedar or artificial, can benefit from some ecologically conscious decorations. Dried grass and seed heads of prairie plants look magical amongst warm white lights, but are biodegradable.
Trees and shrubs are overpopulating grassy landscapes. Randy Rodgers has a wonderful essay here on the impacts of trees encroaching on the prairie.
Cedars degrade the prairie ecosystem
Grassland dependent birds, insects and small mammals become displaced or outcompeted when red cedars populate formerly open land. The University of Nebraska has compiled a lot of data on this subject at The Eastern Red Cedar Science Literacy Project, where you can find informative and alarming tidbits like:
“Grassland birds are the most rapidly declining avian guild in North America (Fuhlendorf et al. 2012) and are rarely observed once juniper exceeds 10% of land cover (Chapman et al. 2004).” (Twidwell et al. 2013)
“An increase in overstory cover from 0% to 30% red cedar can change a species-rich prairie community to a depauperate community dominated by 1 (small mammal) species, Peromyscus leucopus.” (Horncastle et al. 2005)
Endangered and vulnerable species like the American burying beetle and the greater prairie chicken are only further threatened by the turnover of grassland to cedar forests. Cedars do have redeeming qualities – winter shelter and forage for birds, drought tolerance and erosion control. Red cedars certainly have their place in a hedgerow or small grove, but should be carefully limited from spreading.
My coworker Brad has some great bumper stickers that encourage regular prescribed burns to prevent cedar overgrowth.
Cedars are a ‘green’ choice
For all the aforementioned reasons, cutting a cedar for a Christmas tree is already a very ecologically conscious decision. But there is more! Unlike plastic trees, cedars are biodegradable and can be used for firewood or garden mulch. Also note that conventional Christmas tree farms providing spruce or firs require lots of resources:
clearing/agricultural development of land
years of regular water input
pesticides to keep needles bug free
shipping and fuel costs to get the trees to distributors around the country
Why don’t we skip all that frivolous resource usage and cut down some of these pesky cedars instead? You can feel good about a tree that’s low on carbon waste but high in old-fashioned, folksy quality.
Get permission from a farmer, landowner or your county land management officials before you start cutting. They will likely be happy to get rid of one, and you may get it for free (more money for gifts, yippee!) and enjoy a lovely, cedar-scented home this holiday.
Even though the grasses of the prairie are drying up and seed heads are ripening, creeping quietly beneath it all is bee balm – still green and growing. I have stumbled on to quite a bit of it around our grounds as I begin to hang Christmas lights through the gardens. I can tell when I am tromping through a patch of bee balm because of the fresh, minty smell the crushed leaves exude. Extremely hardy and adaptive, monarda species stay green long into fall and early winter. Bee balm is a timeless prairie flower, and an excellent performer in the landscape.
Here are some tips to getting the most from your Monarda!
Monarda fistulosa flower, photographed by Brad Guhr
Know Before You Grow
Though bee balm is quite adaptable, each species has its preferences and will thrive in specific environments. Monarda fistulosa, for example, is native to much of North America and thrives in full to part sun conditions. You may have heard this plant referred to as wild bergamot or Oswego tea. This is the species you are most likely to find in the prairies of eastern Kansas. Monarda didyma, however, prefers a much shadier and protected environment. This type of bee balm is native to eastern regions of the US and cannot handle our full Kansas sun. There are countless varieties of bee balm, specially made to fit any color scheme or garden space. Just be sure to check the parentage of the cultivar to know what its true growth habits are.
As I mentioned earlier, Monarda species often have common names that refer to its culinary use. It is sometimes called wild bergamot because of its aroma, reminiscent of bergamot orange oil in Earl Grey tea. The use of bee balm as a tea has a long history within the nations of Native Americans, for its pleasant taste and medicinal properties. I have personally had tea made from bee balm growing right here on the Arboretum grounds, and I love the warm, spicy flavor. I have even seen people use the flowers as cake decorations and in salads! Do your research and be sure you have edible species of bee balm growing in your garden before you decide to make any herbal concoctions of your own.
Monarda seed heads in winter add lovely texture to the landscape.
The Mildew Dilemma
One of bee balm’s fatal flaws is its tendency to contract powdery mildew. This is a fungal disease that causes the leaves to look as if they have been dusted with powdered sugar. This affliction causes leaves to twist and break off, and can lead to quite a bit of defoliation. It usually doesn’t harm the health of the plant, but can make it look a little sickly through the growing season. There are lots of ways to treat this issue, from conscientious watering to chemical options, as well as low-cost low-impact homemade remedies. Even though Monarda is so susceptible to this disease, it still stays in my top list of landscape plants because of its floriforus habit, aromatic leaves and pollinator attraction. As you see in the photo above, it even looks nice in the winter when the globe-shaped seed heads make their debut!
At Dyck Arboretum, we focus a lot of our energy on spreading knowledge and appreciation for the prairie. We love Kansas’s natural landscape and we are alarmed by how little native prairie is left intact. The prairie needs more advocates – people who will stand up for its preservation and defend its value to native wildlife and community health. Most of our direct efforts target land owners – people who can plant native prairie gardens and landscapes at their home or school. But these are not the only people who can make a difference! Here are a few ways you can be a prairie advocate even if you aren’t able to plant a prairie of your own:
I enjoy attending my local city council meetings to keep tabs on what is happening in the community, especially in regards to environmental issues. Most city council meetings have a citizen comment session at the beginning or end of every meeting. This is the perfect platform to express your thoughts on community green spaces, roadside prairie preservation and responsible neighborhood development. Letting your local government know you want to see more natural prairie in and around the city could inspire big changes!
Encouraging your city to adopt sustainable land management policies can create pollinator habitat, help clean stormwater run off, absorb carbon pollution from the air, and much more! Carpenter Bee on Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea Purpurea)
We say it all the time, but it deserves repeating — Dyck Arboretum couldn’t do what we do without volunteers. If you are passionate about prairie preservation and live in the area, consider volunteering for us! Here at the Arb, volunteers do everything from mow lawns and pull weeds to answer phones and process memberships. When you give your time to an organization, you free up the staff to focus on the heart of its mission and widen its impact. Search VolunteerKansas.org to find a place near you to volunteer your time and advocate for native landscaping, environmental education or sustainable agriculture.
Volunteers often help out on the grounds, planting new flower beds and maintaining old ones. They keep the Arboretum looking beautifully managed!
Lastly, if you don’t have lots of time in your schedule to attend community meetings or volunteer somewhere, don’t fret. The simple purchase of a membership to an organization you support can make a big difference. The Dyck Arboretum, and other non-profit organizations like us, depend on memberships as a large portion of our budget. Membership gifts also support our programming and events. We use membership numbers to gauge whether our message resonates with the public. It is always so encouraging to see that number grow, one membership at a time! Becoming a member tells us that you support the work we are doing and that you want us to keep it going. If that is how you feel about Dyck Arboretum, become a member and a prairie advocate here.
Staff and members get to know each other at the annual Summer Soiree, an evening of fine food and entertainment.
Fall is an excellent time of year to go searching for butterflies. The late season flowers like goldenrod, asters, and maximilian sunflowers are all important nectar sources, and are usually swarming with pollinators. If you want to get the most out of your butterfly watching expedition, consider these helpful hints.
Grey hairstreaks (Strymon melinus) are my favorite butterfly, even though they are very small and not overly showy. I caught a picture of this one as it fed on wild quinine flowers.
Look on the Sunny Side
Butterflies are most active on sunny, warm days, because they cannot regulate their own body temperature. This is why you don’t see them fluttering around in deep shade – their flight is dependent upon body temperature, which is dependent upon the sun. Daytime temperatures between 80-100 degrees fahrenheit are optimum. Anything colder and they will start to slow down or quit flying all together. To warm themselves back up to flying form, they ‘bask’ by spreading their wings and sitting very still on a rock or sidewalk to soak up heat from the sun. For a successful butterfly hunting mission, be sure to choose a warm day and look in areas of full sun.
Bordered patches are commonly found throughout the southwest US and Northern Mexico, but I have spotted quite a few in Kansas through early fall.
Keep an Eye on the Weather
Cold fronts and warm fronts can have a big impact on the kind of butterflies you will see. Earlier this week, a strong south wind stalled several hundred monarchs from continuing their journey to Mexico. Choosing not to waste precious energy and fight the wind, they hunkered down in protected areas of the Arboretum and waited it out. When monarchs gather together in groups and rest on tree branches, they are ‘roosting’. They do this at night as well, or to avoid flying in a storm. Additionally, strong winds can blow in butterflies that aren’t usually in our range or cause otherwise active butterflies to be still, giving you a good opportunity to view them in detail.
This video was taken last fall in our butterfly garden. Asters are a great pollinator attractant, as you can see by the monarchs, queens, painted ladies and bees all enjoying their lunch.
Get a Better View
A pair of good binoculars can greatly enhance your butterfly watching experience and allows you to see details that the naked eye might miss. Short range binoculars, meant for backyard birding perhaps, give you a much more detailed view of nearby butterflies without getting too close and startling them. This can be especially useful when you are butterfly watching with children. Often excitable and loud on these kinds of outings, children can be taught how to use binoculars to keep them at a distance and prevent them from scaring away all your winged friends!
This viceroy butterfly is a monarch look-a-like, but is smaller and has a horizontal line on its hindwings that help us tell them apart.
Dyck Arboretum is a great place to come for a butterfly watching experience, and we often have many species feeding at once in our butterfly garden area. But it’s easy to attract these beauties to your own home by planting native and adaptable plants that provide food and shelter. We still have a few plants for sale in and around our greenhouse. I’d would love to help you create a butterfly oasis of your own! Call the office today and ask about our remaining inventory and special sale items – coneflowers, a butterfly favorite, are 25% off through October 5th.
Part II of my blog series about caterpillars will cover their bodies and behaviors, and the habitats you can build for them at home.
Once you look closely, you can easily see that caterpillars are more than just a pudgy worm. They often have visible faces, charismatic coloration and interesting behaviors. Caterpillars are actually six legged creatures (because, of course, they are insects!), though it looks like they have many more. The six real legs are located at the front of the body near the head. All other legs are considered ‘prolegs’; appendages for gripping, and moving, but not true jointed legs.
Some caterpillars seem to have horns or antennas visible on their heads, but you are actually seeing tentacles. Most caterpillar antennae are very small and inconspicuous, located near the mouth, while tentacles are large, fleshy and can occur in several places along the top of the body. Tentacles on the head help them sense the world around them while tubercules (fleshy knobs along the body) are usually for intimidating predators.
You may have questioned at one time or another how caterpillars ‘breathe’, or if they do at all! In fact, insects breathe through holes in their bodies called ‘spiracles’. These tiny openings (found along the sides of most caterpillars) bring air into the trachea of the insects and usually deliver oxygen directly to the body tissues.
A white-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) caterpillar blending in with a rusty brown redbud stem. As long as my finger at least, this is one huge caterpillar!
Dude with a ‘Tude
When you are such a delicious and nutritious snack for birds, it pays to defend yourself and stay hidden! In the last post I discussed defense mechanisms such as special coloration, camouflage or toxic setae (hairs). But sometimes their defenses have much more attitude! For instance, swallowtail caterpillars are famous for their charismatic show of osmetrium, a forked organ that shoots out suddenly to startle predators. When threatened, the caterpillar quickly extends the osmetrium to scare the offending spider, bird, or ant. A great video of this reaction is found here. The organ resembles a snake tongue or tiny horns and can secrete unpleasant odors to further repel a would-be predator.
Monarch caterpillar on a swamp milkweed leaf outside the Arboretum greenhouse.
Caterpillars with osmetrium purposely produce unpleasant odors to scare predators, while other butterfly larvae take drastic measures not to produce an odor. Silver-spotted skipper caterpillars are famous for their ability to fling their frass (the fancy word for caterpillar poop) incredible distances. Scientists believe this helps keep predators such as wasps from detecting where the caterpillar is living. To be sure no predator finds their cozy home, a tiny skipper caterpillar can shoot their turds up to 5 feet away! That’s about 30 times their body length. They accomplish this feat through a controlled burst of high blood pressure.
Caterpillars have amazing organs called ‘spinnerets’ that produce silk. We know that silkworms are bred especially for their prolific silk production, but many of the caterpillars in your very own backyards also make silk. Some caterpillars use silk to escape predators by attaching it to a leaf and ‘bungee jumping’ to safety. They also use it to make mats or trails around the plant they live on to make travel easier. Some caterpillars will make elaborate tents or ‘bags’ out of silk, with hundreds of their kin inside with them. And when it comes time to mature into a butterfly, a silk ‘button’ helps the chrysalis hang from a leaf or twig. Moths make their entire cocoon out of silk, surrounding themselves in a soft yet protective barrier.
Regular visits to the Arboretum will provide ample bug-watching opportunities, and our staff are eager to chat with you. But the best way to learn about insects is to see them in person. Plant a native garden of your own where insects can thrive! Lots of wonderful resources exist about butterfly gardening, but remember: it isn’t a butterfly garden unless it includes host plants. They need host plants (the specific plants the larvae feed on) and native nectar to sustain their entire life cycle. Otherwise, as Lenora Larson might say, you are just “bartending”, serving only “adult beverages” to the butterflies but not supporting the larvae. If you need some inspiration to create your own native garden paradise for butterflies and moths, talk with one of our staff members at the upcoming FloraKansas Native Plant Festival!