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Daily Life For Master Gardeners

The Hungry Caterpillar

By Andrea Peck

 

The thing that's bugging me right now is the bug that continues to decimate my purple passion vine (Passiflora incarnata).  It is a small nuisance of a caterpillar with a hello-I'm-here orange color that lies beneath medieval looking black spines. It has a name: The gulf fritillary, Agraulis vanillae.  I know what you are thinking: how threatening can a tiny caterpillar be? Truthfully, it is not. At least not always.

The gulf fritillary is a lovely little orange butterfly that flirts around like a copper-headed lass. It chops its wings in a quick and erratic motion as if it is making cutout snowflakes in the air. It's pretty. It's pretty common if I may run the risk of sounding snide. Or maybe it is just in my garden that it seems like there is an overabundance.

Her (or his) delicate dabbling amongst your plumage does nothing to illuminate the seething spawn that will eat your plant, leaves, flowers, fruit and all.  Oh, wait. Where is my passion vine? Where has it gone? Has it been consumed by its own host?

Yes. It has. The guest has proliferated to the point of devouring the host. The sight before your gardening eyes is no less than the image of a Bosch painting brought to three dimensions. Your lovely vining plant has diminished to the point that survival seems unlikely. You are fearful, scared, anxious. Pick one.

The passion vine is what we call a host plant. It provides (free of charge, I might add) housing and sustenance to the gulf fritillary during its larval stage of growth. The leaves provide food for the caterpillars and a home for the chrysalis. Butterflies then visit to lay eggs and the process proceeds.

Normally this is a situation that does no harm to the passion vine. Provided the plant is healthy and well-established there should be no cause for concern. But, in my own case, the plant has not had time to gain ground. It is a new planting. Now it is a struggling new planting.

It needed help. First aid. Red Cross for plants.

So I jumped in like an Emergency Tech and grabbed (gently) about ten large offenders. I placed them in a bucket to be relocated to another, more established, passion vine that is at least 100 steps away. Once the pillagers were successfully relocated I was able to breathe a sigh of relief.  

So there you have it – you have been forewarned. Hosts are good. Visitors are good. But, once in a while you may need reinforcements to end the party before you get demolished.

 

Posted on Saturday, September 20, 2014 at 8:45 PM

Mediterranean Gardening

 

 

 

Lessons from Beautiful Tuscany

By Steve McDermott  UCCE Master Gardener

  

We live in one of the 5 Mediterranean climate regions of the world.  The others include Western Australia, Chile, South Africa, the Mediterranean region, which includes Italy, and of course, coastal California. All 5 of these regions share a mild climate and a similar plant pallet.   For instance, during a visit to the famous Chianti wine region of Tuscany in Italy, you'll find an environment similar to parts of San Luis Obispo County where the winters are clement, the sky is sunny, and the yearly rainfall is scant.  There, the rolling hills of Tuscany are covered in ribbons of grapevines, interspersed with small farms that are planted with olive trees and aromatic lavender.      

 

Some wonderful plants have adapted to these Mediterranean climates.  Olives, lavender, and a long list of beautiful plants do well in climates that receive lower annual rainfall. 

The next Advice to Grow By workshop - “Under the Tuscan Sun” - will feature presentations on cultivating and maintaining plants found in northern Italy, including fruiting olive trees and lavender.  Useful parallels will be drawn from small farms and regional gardening in Tuscany. 

 

The workshop will begin with the general concept of a Tuscan landscape and will then focus on the care of fruiting olive trees, specifically Tuscan cultivars as they are similar to our California Mission olive tree.  We'll discuss irrigation techniques, fruit fly management, harvest procedures, and the techniques used for processing olives for extra virgin olive oil.

 Join the Master Gardeners and a local olive grower for “Under the Tuscan Sun” on Saturday, September 20, 2014 from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 am. We'll meet under the shaded pergola in the Garden of the Seven Sisters, 2156 Sierra Way, San Luis Obispo.  Seats fill up quickly so come early for a good seat! No pets please; service animals only. The garden will remain open to the public following the event from noon to 2:00 pm.

 

 

Posted on Saturday, September 20, 2014 at 8:35 PM

No Butterflies Without Caterpillars

How can you hate a caterpillar and love a butterfly?

You can't.

Some gardeners so love their passionflower vine (Passiflora) that they squirm at the thought of a caterpillar munching it down to nothing.

But that's what caterpillars do. The Gulf Fritillary butterfly (Agraulis vanillae) lays its eggs on its host plant, the passionflower vine, the eggs develop into larvae or caterpillars, and the caterpillars into Gulf Frits.

Our passionflower vine--which we planted specifically for the Gulf Frits--is now a skeleton. The caterpillars ate all the leaves, the flowers and the stems. What was once a flourishing green plant looks like a criss-cross of brown sticks.

Comedian George Carlin supposedly said "The caterpillar does all the work but the butterfly gets all the publicity."

And architect-author-designer-inventor Richard Buckminster Fuller observed: "There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it's going to be a butterfly."

And someone named John Grey offered this poetic comment:
"And what's a butterfly? At best,
He's but a caterpillar, at rest."

So, it is. Take a look at the Gulf Frit caterpillar and then check out the Gulf Frit butterfly.

Yes, a hungry caterpillar turned into a magnificent butterfly. 

How can you hate a caterpillar?

You can't.

A very hungry Gulf Fritillary caterpillar working over the Passiflora. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
A very hungry Gulf Fritillary caterpillar working over the Passiflora. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

A very hungry Gulf Fritillary caterpillar working over the Passiflora. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

From a very hungry caterpillar to a magnificent butterfly. This Gulf Fritillary is nectaring on cosmos. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
From a very hungry caterpillar to a magnificent butterfly. This Gulf Fritillary is nectaring on cosmos. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

From a very hungry caterpillar to a magnificent butterfly. This Gulf Fritillary is nectaring on cosmos. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Posted on Friday, September 19, 2014 at 10:13 PM

Short Cut

We all take shortcuts.

We look for the shortest line at the supermarket, we use keyboard shortcuts, and we text ”how r u?”

So, why shouldn't honey bees use shortcuts? They do.

If you've ever watched a carpenter bee drill a hole in the corolla of a tubed flower to get at the nectar—this is "nectar robbing" or bypassing pollination—you may have seen a honey bee come along and sip nectar from the hole. Why work hard to get at the nectar when it's right there for the taking?

This is the insect version of a convenience market!

Take the foxgloves (family Plantaginaceae, genus Digitalis). Sometimes you'll see a honey bee trailing or shadowing a carpenter bee that moves from corolla to corolla.

Short cut to the nectar!

A honey bee sipping nectar from a hole drilled by a carpenter bee on a foxglove. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
A honey bee sipping nectar from a hole drilled by a carpenter bee on a foxglove. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

A honey bee sipping nectar from a hole drilled by a carpenter bee on a foxglove. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

A Valley carpenter bee about to drill a hole. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
A Valley carpenter bee about to drill a hole. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

A Valley carpenter bee about to drill a hole. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Posted on Thursday, September 18, 2014 at 6:02 PM

Bring Back the Monarchs!

When a monarch butterfly comes fluttering through your yard, grab your camera. Marvel at it beauty, celebrate its presence, and keep it in your memory. It may be become an endangered species the way things are going.

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation recently reported that the monarch population has declined by more than 90 percent in under 20 years. And, “during the same period it is estimated that these once-common iconic orange and black butterflies may have lost more than 165 million acres of habitat — an area about the size of Texas — including nearly a third of their summer breeding grounds.”

So a trio—Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, and the Xerces Society—filed a legal petition asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for Endangered Species status to protect the monarch (Danaus plexippus).

The widespread loss of milkweed, the butterfly's host plant, especially throughout the Midwest, is troubling.

Butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis,  says there's plenty of milkweek in Northern California. “The problem is that nobody's there to breed on it.” For example, he sees large spreads of milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) around his many monitoring sites, including one by the Vacaville (Calif.) Transit Center. “Probably 75 stems, but I have never ever seen a monarch there, let alone any evidence of breeding." (See his entry on monarchs on his website.)

So, a monarch's solo visit to our little bee garden seems like a major event. When we see one, as we did Sept. 17, it heads straight for the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia).

Backlit, the monarch resembles a stained glass window. What a gorgeous butterfly, worthy of the royal name, “monarch!”

The only question is: will we consider it worthy enough to save it?

  • Plant milkweed, its host plant.
  • Avoid insecticides or herbicides.
  • Become a citizen scientist and help record sightings.
  • Support conservation efforts. 
  • Promote public awareness.

The Xerces Society's information on its website on the mighty monarch should be required reading, as should be this website: Monarch Watch.

Backlit, the monarch resembles a stained glass window as it touches down on a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia). (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Backlit, the monarch resembles a stained glass window as it touches down on a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia). (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Backlit, the monarch resembles a stained glass window as it touches down on a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia). (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Side view of a monarch on a Tithonia. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Side view of a monarch on a Tithonia. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Side view of a monarch on a Tithonia. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Monarch spreads its wings, a glorious sight, even as the afternoon light fades. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Monarch spreads its wings, a glorious sight, even as the afternoon light fades. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Monarch spreads its wings, a glorious sight, even as the afternoon light fades. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Posted on Wednesday, September 17, 2014 at 5:28 AM

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