Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Hooray! Black Swallowtails!

   I can hardly believe it! Thursday evening I was standing in the kitchen, making dinner, lazily staring out the doors, like I do, when I saw movement. A blackish butterfly was dancing up and down over the Parsley mound, could it be?! Yep, sure enough, it was a Black Swallowtail laying eggs! In the past, our yard has not been a successful incubator of butterfly caterpillars. For example, last year out of a dozen Monarch cats, only two made it to the fifth instar stage, and after that, I have no idea what happened to them. This spring, Jeff and I watched a Monarch lay about a half dozen or so eggs, none of which made it past the first instar. So after being afraid to interfere with nature, I'd decided a while ago that from now on, if I find any more cool cats in the yard, they're coming inside. It seems like their only chance at success since our yard apparently has too many caterpillar predators. So far I have six, three of which hatched this morning. There may be more outside, but I'll have to wait until they get big enough to see. I splurged and bought them a cozy little reptile terrarium, which is on a shelf in the sunroom. I hope they like it here!

They're so tiny!

I didn't even realize they were spikey until I enlarged this photo.

Did I mention they're tiny? Around 2-3 millimeters long. I doesn't look like they eat much, but they do poop a lot.

An unhatched egg.

One of the other eggs, they are sooooo hard to find.

For more pictures and information on the life cycle of the caterpillars, click here.

Friday, August 24, 2012

My Favorite Spider...

This one's currently living along our front sidewalk, see how it's got it's fangs on the web so it can detect the slightest movement.

...Is the beautiful Argiope aurantia, or as we like to call them, writing spiders. They're called writing spiders because they "write" a zig-zag stripe vertically down the middle of their web. I don't know why I like them so much, but I do. When I was younger, I always considered them as temporary yard pets (and I still do). If I found one, I would feed it, sweeping my hands through the grass to catch a moth or two, then throw it onto the spider's web and watch it get snatched and wrapped up by the spider. 

This one's a female.

She had a male (who is much smaller) visit a couple of days ago, so I hope I see an egg case soon!

I found this one down by the river this morning.

She has quite possibly the largest abdomen I've ever seen on a writing spider.

Look at that profile!

She built her web right over a huge patch of Common Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum). Smart girl, that's why she looks so well-fed!
Congratulations! You made it all the way to the bottom of this post without turning away! I salute you for not being too creeped out by spiders!
If you need to brush up on your spider anatomy, here's a cute diagram I found: 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Uh-Oh, Bee Careful Where You Buy Your Honey!

My two favorite honeys, on the left is local, from Catawba Valley and on the right is Bee Raw Wild Raspberry, yummy!

If you are a honey fan, like me, you might find the following info pretty interesting/eye-opening/holy blankity blank...
    I recently heard a short story on the NPR show Living on Earth about a researcher who's shedding some light on a shady business practice that both threatens our health and the livelihood of our local and legitimate bee-keepers and honey producers. You can listen to it here, it's only about six minutes long. Basically, it's about fake honey that's being sold at national big name stores. Honey that's originally from China is having the pollen removed (so no one can tell it's from China) and relabeling it as American honey. When I think about honey (and anything else food-related) coming from China, I always hear this sound clip in my head, you may recognize it from Kill Bill. Once the pollen is removed, it's no longer nutritious, medicinal, or technically honey, just sugary syrup.
    Last year I read of these and other dubious practices in a book titled "The Honey Trail" by Grace Pundyk. In addition to removing the pollen, some companies are blending honey with amber dyed corn syrup and selling it as "pure honey". They can sell it super cheap, which in turn drives the price down for real honey producers, at a time when they really can't afford it. It's a fascinating and at times very depressing book, but worth the read for sure. You can listen to a wonderful interview with the author here on the Diane Rehm Show. It's a long one at 51 minutes, but well worth a listen.
   So what are you to do as a responsible honey consumer? It's easy really, just head down to your local farmers market and find someone selling their honey. Or ask the fruit sellers, orchardists almost always know someone who keeps bees. Honey that is local to you has the most health benefits, people have believed for centuries in it's ability to combat pollen allergies. There are also several brands out there who are committed to selling the real deal, in particular I'm a fan of Bee Raw Honey, available in many upscale grocery stores or online.

What? You don't like honey? I'm so sorry but you're really missing out. It's like saying you're a gardener but you don't like getting your hands dirty!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

GBBD: Not a bad showing, after all

   Originally, I wasn't going to participate in Garden Bloggers Bloom Day this time because I didn't think I had enough plants that looked decent enough to show. August in this part of the country is not kind to gardens, everything tends to look a bit crispy and tired, gardeners included. Throw in a drought and you're looking at a virtual apocalypse. Well, I'm glad I got out there with the camera after all, with the right lighting, the right angle, and a little cropping, things don't look half bad! In fact, I think it might look better in pictures than in person, but you'd miss all the buzzing and whirring of life here.

Eupatorium dubium "Little Joe" and Agastache "Blue Fortune"

Agastache aurantiaca "Shades of Orange", a truly awesome plant and hummingbird magnet

Close-up of "Shades of Orange", also called hummiingbird mint

Coreopsis "Full Moon"

Trycirtis hirta, name unknown, aka Toad Lily, a lovely little orchid like plant

Black and Blue Salvia, with Agastache "Heatwave" barely visible behind, a stunning combination for attracting hummingbirds

The hardy stalwart, Caryopteris, aka Bluebeard or Blue Mist Shrub

Close-up of Caryopteris, with Agastache "Heatwave" behind

 Rudbeckia laciniata still kickin' it

 Pycantemum muticum, aka Short Toothed Mountain Mint, it looks kinda wonky this year but the pollinators don't care

Ageratina altissima, formerly a Eupatorium, aka White Snakeroot, a simple delicate native to brighten up a dark shady spot

Finishing with a bang...Solidago rugosa "Fireworks"

Monday, August 13, 2012

Sneaky Little Sphinx Moth

I don't know how he did it, but Jeff spotted this lovely creature on the woodpile last week. I wish I saw more of them, but I understand why I don't, their camouflage is incredible! This is the adult form of the hornworms we often see on our roses and vegetables, I can't bear the thought of considering them as pests. Please reconsider if you do! Or bring them to my house, they can eat all of my roses if they like. If you grow vegetables, consider planting a sacrificial cabbage and tomato, just to have a place to relocate caterpillars to. Sound ridiculous? Well I am!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

My First Video: A Camouflaged Looper!

   I've always wanted to make videos/mini-movies of all the really interesting things that happen in the yard, but something always stopped me, like "I don't know how to use the camera, I don't know how to use the software, and I don't have time". Well, I've never been one to read an instruction manual (that would be boring) so I just kinda figured it out as I went along. I realize I'm no Quentin Tarantino, but here's my first attempt, I found a willing participant in a Camouflaged Looper on some Joe-Pye out in the front yard. Just in case some of you folks have never seen a camo looper, I thought this might be a good subject to share. By the way, to refresh your memory, a camo looper is the larval stage of a Wavy-Lined Emerald moth. Loopers are the more formal name or what we called inchworms as a kid. Camo loopers also look different based on whatever plant they're on, kinda like chameleons.

*Don't forget to view the video in larger format, it'll look better that way and the quality is actually pretty good. Click the "Watch on Youtube" button in the bottom right corner of the video window. Once in Youtube you can enlarge it again by clicking the "Large Player" button in the bottom right corner of the video.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Rudbeckia laciniata, or whatever you call it...

Our native Rudbeckia laciniata

   Do we really need so many different names for the same plant? Rudbeckia laciniata is also known as Cutleaf Coneflower, Wild Golden Glow, Green Headed Coneflower, Tall Coneflower, and Thimbleweed. Seriously, as far as I'm concerned coneflower should only refer to Echinaceas and Thimbleweed should only refer to Anemones.
   Whatever you call it (we just call it Tall Rudbeckia) is blooming now. It seems every green metallic bee and all the species of wasps within a 50 mile radius are gettin' happy on these flowers right now. We love these plants not only because of the insect show, but they also just have such a presence in the garden or out in the wild, easily reaching 5-6 feet tall in big clumps and bearing bright, cool yellow flowers for many weeks in late summer. They can get pretty droopy if the soil dries out too much, it's one of the handful of plants in our yard that needs extra water. No wonder though, it grows natively along the rivers edge just down the hill from our house.
   There's also a native cultivar floating around the nurseries called "Herbstsonne", which thanks to my elementary German I remember means Autumn Sun. A very apt name since it's flowers are, I believe, slightly warmer gold in color. The quality of these hybrids seem to vary greatly, some have not proved hardy for me, while one plant in particular looks to be on steroids, standing between 6-7 feet tall.
   If you need a "Statement" piece in your garden, plant some Tall Rudbeckia, the bees will love the pollen, the birds will love the seeds, and you'll love the show.

See, I told you the bees like it!

A patch of Rudbeckia down along the river.

Rudbeckia "Herbstsonne" on steroids at a family members house, if I knew it was going to get that big I'd never have planted it that close to the sidewalk.

A close-up of "Herbstsonne". Note the fuller petals and darker yellow color.