Danger! Danger!

•September 13, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Gardens can be dangerous places.

First example, a crab spider (family Thomisidae) on a black eyed susan. The bee on this flower is tiny, perhaps a quarter of an inch long, so imagine how small the spider in front of the bee is. In this case the prey (the bee) was way to large for the spider to deal with so it did not attack.

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But what happens when the little crab spider grows up? A “normal” size bee is suddenly now just the right size for a meal.

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Crab spiders hunt by waiting in ambush. When the right size prey comes around the spider will grab with its front legs while quicking biting and injecting a paralytic venom. They prey quickly stops moving and the spider can then start on its meal.

Of course not all crab spiders match their chosen plant as closely as the previous one.

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In this case it’s a crab spider on a joe pye weed. The Misumena vatia spider, the white and yellow ones shown here, are also able to change their color over a number of days allowing a white one to assume a yellow coloration when on a yellow plant. Unfortunately for the one above it won’t be changing to red so it’s camouflage is less than ideal.

Not all ambush predators are spiders however. These next two shots are of the same incident, seen from above and below.

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The bee above was captured by an Ambush Bug, part of the Assassin bug group and one of the Phymata genus. Similar to a praying mantis, it has strong front legs that it uses to quickly grab and hold prey. The mottled green and brown colors along with its ability to sit motionless waiting for prey helps give it a chance at a meal.

So, how do you spot a bug having lunch? In the two examples here I actually found them by noticing the bee not moving as opposed to seeing the predator. When bees are swarming all over the flowers and constantly in motion gathering nectar and pollen a bee just sitting there becomes obvious and worthy of a second look.

Genetics Gone Wild

•September 6, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Genes control what an organism looks like. They control how it develops and grows. What happens when something goes wrong in those genes? Or instead of wrong, perhaps a recessive gene expresses itself?

In the case of plants you may see abnormal growth. In some cases, this is obvious, as in an albino species. In other cases it is even desired, for example when crossing two variants of a rose in an attempt to get a new variety.

Just observing any mass of plants and you’ll start to see the diversity that genes have imparted on each one. Some may be a little shorter or taller. Subtle color variants may be present. More or less flowers may be on display.

Two interesting examples were found in our bed of Black Eyed Susan flowers. First up is a curled leaf. This might be a result of outside influence (insect feeding on the plant causing the strange growth) or a result of genetics on this particular leaf growing wrong.

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Leaves are normally straight, not curled, as seen on the left and in the background. The next image is even more interesting.

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Petals normally grow around the head, not out of the middle.

Earlier this year we had a bee balm plant where after the flower head formed (normally at the top of the stem) the stalk continued growing right through the head, went up four more inches and then developed a second flower head.

Can you find it?

•August 30, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Today’s entry is a short one.

Can you find the subject?

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Camouflage is a wonderful thing when you don’t want to be seen (or eaten.) In case you didn’t spot the moth, maybe this close up will help.

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What’s on My Asparagus?

•August 23, 2014 • Leave a Comment

For three years I’ve been growing asparagus from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (it doesn’t look like they currently have our variety) which I did start from seed. Each year it has done better than the past year. This year, almost nothing. It’s finally time to harvest some and yet our spring crop was all but non existent. Only a few scraggly plants came up in the patch.

So, we took advantage of some plant sales and bought asparagus roots. We each planted a new section in different garden plots. They took and fronds appeared. They grew. All was good again.

Well, at least until a few weeks ago. I noticed one of the plants, a few feet tall, not looking so good. A closer inspection and I saw caterpillars or worms or all over it.

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Now for a sense of scale, these guys are maybe a quarter inch in size. Dozens and dozens. They looked to be eating the fronds, but only partially. In this next shot you can clearly see how they eat the green part but leave the underlying structure.

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At the time I didn’t think much of it figured it was just something that found asparagus tasty. Wandering around the yard some more and I came across the original bed and noticed one pathetic stalk still standing. A bit of red caught my eye.

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Well, I finally had a chance to look up what the red critter was and found out we have asparagus beetles and the worms are the larve. I also think in the above picture the two small dark objects sticking off the stem on the right side are eggs just waiting to hatch even more beetle larvae.

Instead of repeating what others have said, I’ll point you to a great article I found on Mother Earth News, written by Barbara Pleasant, that discusses these insects in detail.

Of course nature doesn’t let anything go to waste. Birds, Lady Beetles and a predatory wasp feed on the larvae, eggs and/or beetles. There are a variety of things you can do (organically) to control or eliminate them, as mentioned at the link above, but a good start is to remove the plant debris in the fall and either compost or burn it.

Sage Flowers

•June 22, 2014 • Leave a Comment

No, not wise or smart flowers.. but actual flowers on the herb Sage.

Last year we had a nice patch of Sage in our garden. Over winter it, of course, lost all the remaining leaves that we didn’t pick last fall. Come spring it looked dead. Grey and brown woody stems. We almost pulled it from the ground but for some reason I left it alone. Sure enough a month later a few leaves started coming out from the base of the plant.

Within a month all the “dead” stems came back to life with leaves. Then, just a few weeks ago, it started to send up flowers. Normally you can pinch these off to help force more leaves but since we like to also save seeds for future growing we’re quite happy to see it flowering.

 

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At first the flower buds appeared and while it was obvious they would become flowers there was nothing particularly colorful about them initially.

 

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Soon the purplish blue color started to peak out and eventually the flowers fully bloomed.

 

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They are not large as this small fly sitting on one can illustrate. The fly itself is about half the size of a common housefly. Reading in garden forums and seems hit or miss for people to have these plants survive over the winter. I suspect the deep almost six inch mulch layer I have in this garden bed may have helped insulate the roots and helped the plant come back this year. Our winter was one of the coldest on record so I’m even more excited that it survived.

The leaves are quite delicious mixed into various recipes that call for sage. Fall squash crops, like butternut, pair well with the sage.

Medicinally sage is also useful. As listed on WebMD :

Sage is used for digestive problems, including loss of appetite, gas (flatulence), stomach pain (gastritis), diarrhea, bloating, and heartburn. It is also used for reducing overproduction of perspiration and saliva; and for depression, memory loss, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Women use sage for painful menstrual periods, to correct excessive milk flow during nursing, and to reduce hot flashes during menopause.

Sage is applied directly to the skin for cold sores; gum disease (gingivitis); sore mouth, throat or tongue; and swollen, painful nasal passages.

 

 

Spittlebug

•June 15, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Ever seen a plant that looks like someone spit on it?

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The cause of this spit is a small little bug, and specifically the nymph stage of the insect. The creature is generally known as a Froghopper which is part of the superfamily, Cercopoidea. The insects, in the nymph stage, are quite vulnerable and would most likely dry out and die or get predated upon. To avoid these fates it has developed the spittle defense. They start by piercing a plant, usually the stem I’ve observed and suck the sap. It uses the sap to produce the froth which serves a number of factors. First, it hides it. Second it keeps it in a moist environment. Third the froth is distasteful keeping predators from exploring further and fining the tasty little snack.

 

A simple plant misting bottle is all you need to wash away the spittle and see the insect. Below you can see most of it on the left side of the stem.

 

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The froghoppers are related to the leafhoppers and like them can jump quite easily. Some are able to jump well over two feel vertically and in a comparison of distance vs. body size are even better at jumping than fleas are. Identification in the adults of froghoppers vs. leafhoppers is partially done by comparing the number of spines on the legs.

 

In misting the spit away I accidentally washed the insect off the stem. The nymph dropped to the leaf below. A relatively quick full circle and it spotted another spot of spittle which it immediately headed towards and disappeared into.

 

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Plantain

•June 8, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Plantain.

It is everywhere!

As a child growing up in Chicago I even remember it. It has been a familiar ‘weed’ throughout my life, but it wasn’t until the advent of the computer and immediate access to google did I start to investigate what was growing in my backyard and how I might use it.

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There are so many great websites that give info on plantain and its uses but I especially like the Green Med Info site that had these very interesting facts about plantain:

Plantain is one of the most common herbs found growing in North America. It can literally be seen growing out of the cracks of sidewalks and roads, found on the majority of homeowners lawns, cultivated or waste ground and even in places where there is little sun. Not only is this plant abundant everywhere, it is present for good reason. There is an old saying that plants grow where they are needed most. In the case of plantain, it is clear that this plant is greatly needed in the urban societies we live in today, as we suffer from many illnesses in which this plant can offer help.

Food
It is easy to pull this common weed from the garden without even realizing that it is probably more nutritious than most of the leafy greens we tend to eat. Young leaves can be eaten raw in salads and sandwiches; however, as they age they become stringy and rather tough, sometimes to the point where they cannot be eaten without cooking them.

The seeds can also be dried and ground into a meal or flour for its use in making bread or pancakes – an excellent way to save money on groceries and fuel your body with quality nutrients. Plantain is rich in magnesium, vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin K.

Medicine
The leaves as well as the juice have been widely used as topical substances in poultices and lotions for treating sunburns, stings, insect bites, snakebites, poison ivy breakouts, rashes, burns, blisters, and cuts.

(After being bitten by mosquitoes in the yard while gardening, Gary and I have repeatedly (and successfully) applied fresh plantain leaves that we plucked and crushed, to our bite site and felt immediate relief from the itching!)

Furthermore, the leaves have also been heated and applied topically to swollen joints, sore muscles, sprains, and sore feet. Interestingly enough, Plantain is a common folk remedy in many part of Latin America for treating cancer. It has also been used for many centuries in treating sore throats, coughs, bronchitis, tuberculosis, and mouth sores.

Studies have shown that plantain has anti-inflammatory effects, and it is also rich in tannin (which helps draw tissues together to stop bleeding) and allantoin (a compound that promotes healing of injured skin cells). Further studies have indicated that plantain may also reduce blood pressure, and that the seeds of the plant may reduce blood cholesterol levels. Plantain seeds were also widely used as a natural laxative, given their high source of fibre. Teas made from the plant, were used to treat diarrhea, dysentery, intestinal worms, and bleeding mucous membranes. The roots were also recommended for relieving toothaches and headaches as well as healing poor gums.

What a truly remarkable ‘weed’ we have growing all around us!

Look for it next time you are walking in your neighborhood.

 
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