See those red spots on your milkweed seed pods?
Lady beetles (aka ladybugs or "garden heroes") are feasting on aphids.
And they're having a ball.
We've been watching the critters on our milkweed, Gomphocarpus physocarpus, for the last couple of months. The plant is a favorite among monarch butterflies, florists and interior decorators. This is the host plant of the monarchs; caterpillars eat only milkweed. It's also a "hostess" plant; florists add them to their floral bouquets and interior decorators grace their holiday tables with them. In fact, interior decorator Allison Domonoske of South Carolina transformed the White House Thanksgiving tablescape with moss, driftwood, pine cones, little white pumpkins and what she called "balloon-plant milkweed: large, green, ball-like flowers."
That was them!
We call them "lime green ball-like pods, covered with tiny spiny hairs"--or you could call them "spiky seed pods," as the Washington Post did. At any rate, they're often used for decorating.
Hmm, a forest green Douglas Fir Christmas tree adorned with lime green spiky seed pods? With red bows amid the green boughs? Gomphocarpus physocarpus to the rescue!
According to the Master Gardener Program, "the name physocarpa comes from the Greek physa meaning bladder and karpos, fruit, referring to the inflated, bladder-like fruits. It has a plethora of common names including balloon plant, balloon cotton-bush, balloon milkweed, bishop's balls, elephant balls, hairy balls, monkey balls, swan plant, and many others." It's also known as goose plant, giant swan milkweed, family jewels, Oscar, and by its former botanical name, Asclepias physocarpa.
It's a tall, spectacular plant that can reach a height of an NBA All-Star. Last summer monarch butterflies laid their eggs on it, lady beetles kept the aphids off it, and praying mantids kept everything off, including bees, butterflies and beetles.
If you have some growing in your garden, think holiday decorations...minus the red lady beetles, the First Ladies of the Garden, and their prey.
If there's any flower that should be crowned "Autumn's Majesty," that would be the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia), aka "Torch."
A member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae), it carries "the torch of life" throughout spring, summer and autumn, but it's especially important in autumn when few plants offer sustenance to insects, especially to migrating monarchs. The colorful annual has been blooming in our yard since April, reaching 10-to 15-foot heights (thanks, drip irrigation).
What loves this delightful orange blossom, besides the human beings who grow it?
Over a weeklong period, we photographed dozens of autumn critters, including monarchs, Gulf Fritillaries, hover flies, honey bees and crab spiders.
Every bee garden needs an "Autumn Majesty" and the Mexican sunflower fills the bill. When it goes to seed, finches and other birds will take what's left.
If you're rearing monarchs or offering them a “way station” of nectar-producing flowers in your yard, there's one thing you don't want to see: A praying mantis nailing a monarch.
That's when the "pollinator friendly garden" seems more like a "predator friendly garden." It's not by chance. It's by choice. Like bank robbers who go where the money is, mantids go where the food is. Unfortunately for those of us who favor pollinators over predators, they patiently wait for bee breakfast and butterfly brunch. And they're as cunning as they are quick.
It's an insect-eat-insect world out there.
It is Oct. 23, a bright, breezy autumn day. Pacific Northwest monarchs are migrating to their overwintering sites in Santa Cruz and Pacific Grove and are fluttering down to nectar on Mexican sunflower (Tithonia), butterfly bush (Buddleia), and Lantana. Flight fuel.
But wait! There's a monarch on the butterfly bush that isn't moving. Why is she not moving? Oh, she's struggling. Oh, she's in the clutches of a praying mantis.
The mantis is perfectly camouflaged amid the green vegetation. She is gravid and an ootheca is in her future. Her bloated abdomen wiggles like the leaf she resembles, Her spiked forelegs, like thorny rose stems, circle her prey. Oh, she's piercing a wing...
This migratory monarch won't be joining her buddies in Santa Cruz.
Final score: Mantis, 1; Monarch, 0.
So here's this gravid praying mantis perched on a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) in a Vacaville pollinator garden.
She's in a butterfly state-of-mind, a picture of patience and persistence, a predator like no other.
She doesn't have long to wait.
A migrating monarch butterfly drops down to sip some nectar, a little flight fuel to continue his journey to an overwintering site along the California coast, perhaps 113 miles to Santa Cruz. Unfortunately, he lands on a Mexican sunflower right next to the praying mantis.
The mantis is as still as a stone. She holds her spiked forelegs in the "ready" position, ready to strike. She knows what she wants. She's in a butterfly state-of-mind.
Suddenly, the monarch looks up and notices that the gray "twig" next to him is not part of the flower. In a winged frenzy, he escapes.
And you wonder why many migrating monarch butterflies don't make it to their overwintering sites?
If you engage in a mini-monarch conservation project, you know the joy of watching the egg-caterpillar-chrysalis-adult transformation. It's one of Nature's miracles.
Then when you release the monarchs and watch them soar high, awkwardly fluttering their wings in new-found freedom, that's another high.
But there comes a day when you realize that Nature isn't perfect--not that you ever thought it was or ever will be.
In fact, Nature can be a little cruel.
Take the case of several caterpillars we reared in an enclosed habitat to protect them from predators. The 'cats ate the milkweed, and then, they formed chrysalids, just like they're supposed to do. Perfectly formed green-jade chrysalids dotted in gold.
They all looked normal, except one. Apparently a very hungry caterpillar chomped on one of the chrysalids instead of its milkweed. It knawed and knashed until it cratered it.
"This is it!" we figured. All done. No more left to eclose. But today, a monarch eclosed from the damaged chrysalis. A monarch with a deformed wing.
It was a girl. It still is.
We placed her on a broadleaf milkweed (Asclepias speciosa), where she sunned herself and warmed her flight muscles--flight muscles she'll never use because she cannot fly. She sipped some sugar-water and a chunk of juicy watermelon.
She may even attract a mate and give us the next generation.
Maybe. Maybe not.
Nature is not always nice.