Master Gardener News Blog
By Andrea Peck
What are the red and black bugs that I am seeing on my arugula?
It sounds like the infamous bagrada bug. Also called the painted bug, this insect is a member of the stink bug family. Its name sounds like a fancy dance step and its appearance, shiny black with orange-red and white highlights, is equally slinky. Often the male and female will bustle about like interconnected locomotives. Often is a key word here because this is a shameless mating maneuver that occurs often. You can expect lots of little bagradas swimming unabashedly amongst your plants. Newly hatched bagradas are small, but their dramatic orange-red coloring makes them highly visible.
In order to flourish, bagrada bugs need to host on plants in the mustard family. Despite their preference for cole crops (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale and turnip) that grow best in cold weather, the bagrada is dependent on warm temperatures for development. The adult is most apt to fly in temperatures of 85°F. You would think this would be a limiting set of requirements, but the invasive bagrada is a determined sort. During the heat waves of late summer, a bagrada family visit may erupt into a full scale infestation. At this time, numbers may reach such levels that the bagrada may become an equal opportunity eater and vary its diet towards tomatoes, peppers and melons. Small plants and seedlings are highly prized by this gourmand.
The bagrada literally makes mincemeat of its food source. The bagrada's tongue serves as a blending attachment, digestive juice injector and straw. The interior of your plant's leaves and stems don't stand a chance when this insect inserts its needle-like mouthparts, breaks down the contents and then slurps up the liquid meal like a smoothie.
Control can be gained culturally by removing the insect's host plants – those in the mustard family – near planting areas. Interestingly, removal of the pest is possible by using a hand-held vacuum. Row covers with very fine netting provide protection by excluding the pest.
A Bug of Color
By Andrea Peck
A blond in a red dress can do without introductions – but not without a bodyguard.
From afar, cochineal scale may look like a fungus or mold that has infected your prickly pear or nopal cactus (opuntia). If the pest takes up a small space, you may write the damage off to a bit of dead tissue, something that you might lop off if you are industrious and in possession of armor.
But, make no mistake, cochineal scale is a small insect. The female is usually what you see on your plant – she lives out her life, breeding and eating on the cactus, while the male, blessed with wings, takes flight on insect adventures. Juveniles are mobile enough. Once settled on a feeding spot, they produce long wax filaments. Soon they move to the edge of the cactus pad and are taken by the wind in the hopes of landing on unchartered territory. The female stays put.
This is no pretty bug. But, her power is fierce.
Underneath that unexceptional appearance lies a chemical – carmine – which, when eaten tastes bitter. This is her defense, since clearly she is defenseless lying atop a plant that grows in a desert climate without the ability to flee. What's a lady to do besides resorting to chemicals? She has her devices.
But, scratch beneath the surface (literally) and you have a grander tale of carmine and color. Carmine may be bitter to the taste, but it is candy to the eye. And if you are facile in collecting the creature, you know that it produces a rich red color that can be permutated into many shades, from pink to deep maroon. Its useful origins trace back to the Aztecs. The Spaniards eventually got a hold of it. From there it became a hot commodity. The British were said to hire pirates to confiscate gold and valuables – and cochineal insects – from aboard ships. The famous British red coat was colored with the cochineal. Betsy Ross herself used the insect dye to color the red stripes of our first flag. Art of all kinds utilized it.
The 1900's brought synthetic dyes and cochineal went out of fashion for a while. This did not last long. Synthetic dyes, it turns out, were carcinogenic.
The dye continues to be useful despite some relatively recent uproar about bugs in our foods. It was probably not a pretty sight when mothers around the country discovered that their red velvet cupcakes had bugs in them.
Their worry is not completely unfounded, however, as some cases of anaphylactic reactions and asthma has been attributed to the dye. The FDA did concede to pressure by requiring food products to be labeled. You have to read your labels carefully, however. Any number of names may stand in for carmine. (Carmine, cochineal extract, Red 4 and E120 are a few that I have come across).
Foods that are red or pink, such as yogurt, ice cream, candy and juice may contain the insect. Interestingly, cochineal is considered one of the few safe ingredients in eye cosmetics and is used in almost all types of cosmetic products.
The cochineal scale is a testament to the power of insects. Maybe its cardinal color is no accident. The color red, a symbol of love and hate, power and courage has had an honored place in history. Who knew that a lowly bug was responsible?
Below is a great video which shows the process of dying wool.
Also, there is an entire book devoted to the subject:
A Perfect Red by Amy Butler Greenfield
Tomatoes, Basil, and a Beautiful Garden, Oh My!
By Tami Reece UCCE Master Gardener
On September 6, the UCCE Master Gardeners had their 8th annual Tomato Extravaganza at the Garden of the Seven Sisters in San Luis Obispo. Twelve varieties of tomatoes and 15 varieties of basil were available for sampling. Tasters moved about the crowded room tasting and voting for their favorites and cleansing their palates with crackers and fresh basil lemonade.
Chocolate Stripes garnered the most votes for best tasting tomato and Hungarian Heart was a close second. The third favorite tomato was Cherokee. For the basil, the Lemon variety was the winner by far. There was a tie for second between Thai Siam Queen and Sweet Green.
The plant sale included the varieties of basil featured in the tasting room and apple trees from the California Rare Fruit Growers (CRFG). Workshops on gophers and ground squirrels, winter vegetable gardens and rain barrels were held throughout the day under the pavilion in the garden.
Informational booths and displays featured CRFG, UCCE Master Food Preservers, UC publications, gardening information, a tomato head station, and the personal insect collection of one of our very own Master Gardeners. This display of insects included pinned and preserved specimens and two Monarch chrysalises. A handful of lucky onlookers actually got to see the Monarch emerge from the chrysalis! Nature's perfect timing!
By the end of the event, the last case of heirloom tomatoes was sold, the last basil plant went to a happy gardener, and our beautiful Monarch butterfly fluttered away to a flower in our garden. We hope to see you next year at our 9th Annual Tomato Extravaganza!
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.
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.