”I am learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma.”
– Eartha Kitt
“You learn something new every day,” so the saying goes. I have to admit, I’ve never fully agreed with this sentiment. I think the disagreement lies in my espoused belief that most learning requires seeking and not every human being is a seeker. Sure it’s possible that new truths can just land in one’s lap from time to time, but to legitimately learn something new EVERY day requires a purposeful pursuit of learning. So I would argue that it’s more appropriate to change the phrase to, “You SHOULD learn something new every day.”
Today’s December Photo Challenge selection might just accomplish this for you. I have chosen this photo as one of my favorites, not because the image is so keenly spectacular in any way, but rather because it is a vivid reminder that learning and the expansion of one’s mind is a beautiful and sacred opportunity. This simple image of a Bluebonnet depicts something that I learned just this last spring; and I even live in Texas where the Bluebonnet is the state flower!
Have you ever noticed how the little banner on some of the florets of a Bluebonnet might appear purplish-red instead of white? Have you ever asked why? This coloration change occurs when the floret has aged and been depleted of pollen, and the change acts as a signal to bees to let them know not to waste their time expending energy in that location. Pretty impressive that a flower could actually work in mutual cooperation with a bee to help it perform more efficiently.
Who knew? Well…now you!
All the best,
The Bluebonnet was named the official state flower of Texas in 1901, and there are actually six different species in Texas. Without adequate autumn rainfall, Bluebonnet seeds will not germinate. This means that some seeds might lie dormant for years before finally coming to life. Studies have shown that bees can collect up to 150 times more pollen from the white banners on the florets than from the purplish-red ones. Good thing bees can recognize this color distinction and just move on!
[Check out Day 3 of the December Photo Challenge here.]
“”Keep a good heart and all that is anything and everything will remember you,” said the Sphinx.”
Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun
“You’ve got a lot going on this week,” said J., after I brought over a little pot of dirt, excitedly showing him the two treasures I had just unearthed. His sentiment alluded to the fact that I had already rescued an Eastern Screech Owl, earlier in the week, that hit my vehicle near my son N.’s school (but that’s another story for another day). Wednesday, though, I had just been minding my own business in the vegetable garden after work, attempting to dig up whatever rogue sweet potatoes I could find that might have matured from re-sprouted second-year vines. As I dug and slowly lifted mounds of soil, I saw something long that almost looked like a dried pepper. After carefully picking it up, I knew right away what it was, despite never having actually seen one in person. I gently set it aside and continued to dig. Within five minutes, yet another one popped up. Wow! This was my LUCKY day.
What treasures had I added to my trove, you ask? Sphinx Moth pupae, of course. Some might call them hawkmoths or hummingbird moths, for the way they hover over flowers. I remember the first time I saw one in flight, several years ago, and didn’t even understand what it was. It moved just like a hummingbird but clearly wasn’t a bird. It’s pretty rare to be in the right place at the right time to snap a photo of one in flight, but it’s almost just as rare to dig up a fully formed pupa, especially two of them!
This is because the caterpillar can burrow down about a half foot to pupate; and if he burrows in the fall, the plan is to typically overwinter, with the new moth emerging in springtime (at other times of the year, the hatch will occur within only two to three weeks). So unless you are a gardener out digging, and digging fairly deeply in the soil, you are unlikely to ever see one of these with your own eyes. To see two in one dig…almost unheard of.
So how did I immediately know that this was a Sphinx Moth? The number one clue is the size of the pupa. It’s massive.
My two measured just over two inches! The bigger the caterpillar the larger the house, and I already knew some Sphinx Moth larvae could grow up to 4 inches. What I wasn’t quite sure about was the reason for the little “pepper stem.” I’m accustomed to seeing Monarch and Queen chrysalises suspended from little stems, having hatched many of them, but this made no sense…these pupae were just laying underground. That’s when I did a little research and found Bob Dluzen’s article over at All Things Green. Bob noted that the “stem” is actually the housing for the long proboscis that the moth will form (its nectar-gathering tongue). This makes sense, because many species of Sphinx Moths have a proboscis extending the length of a foot or more! So the top of the pupa will break open and the moth will emerge, headfirst, pulling its tongue out of the hooked casing.
Carolina.com actually provides a very helpful diagram on its site about teaching life cycles which further shows all of the parts of the moth beneath the pupa shell; and if you scroll back to the top of this piece and look at my first photo, you can see every part!
But there are around 1,100 species of Sphinx Moths. So how can I possibly know which one I have? Through further deduction, I propose that the two guys who burrowed and formed these nice, cozy little houses were likely none other than what we all more lovingly term tomato hornworms. And now the peanut gallery groans.
Groans from the crowd arise because these little beasts are experts in devouring foliage on vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and potatoes. So knowing this tidbit of information, and knowing that I just excavated these gems from beneath my sweet potato pile, which was, conveniently, located UNDERNEATH the remnants of our huge yellow pear tomato, leads me to this most probable of Sherlockian conclusions.
But now, what in the world to do with them???
Well, since I’m the excavator and this excavator is a “big picture” thinker, and, more importantly, she’s a pollinator proponent, the short answer is…they get a pass.
This Universe of ours speaks in mysterious ways, if you are willing to open your ears and listen to it AND you are willing to study it a bit. Wednesday morning, the VERY day of this dig, I happened to come into possession of some Datura seed that I thought I might give a try. It’s the lovely white Angel Trumpet you see in the photo above. It’s also known as Sacred Datura, receiving that distinction because of its history of usage for ritual intoxication in some Native American tribes. If you follow this blog, you know that I am a huge fan of the art of plant sharing, which I’ve coined as #plantsharenow. So to acquire some of these seeds for the first time was a fun happenstance, but to then dig up these pupae was a clear message.
The Datura is a night bloomer. Sphinx Moths fly at night. AND…drum roll…Sphinx Moths are one of the only pollinators of Datura. This is because Datura nectar is located in the well at the very bottom of the tubular flower. So only someone with a very long proboscis will be attracted to this flower in the first place to then pollinate it while moving along the top of the bloom. It is as if the Universe said to me, “You have been given. Now you must give back to this circle of life to make it all work.”
So, to the giving we go.
Again, if you know me, you also know that I like to practice sustainability, whenever possible, which includes repurposing whatever I can use. My pupae needed to go back into the soil, but I also wanted the chance to hopefully watch this process AND to confirm if my hypothesis on species was actually correct.
I found two old poinsettia pots from last Christmas, which are perfect because they have framing around the edges. The framing will provide a vertical structure necessary for the moths to climb up to properly unfold and dry their wings. I filled these with soil, and buried a pupa horizontally in each (because that’s the position I found them in) about 4 inches down.
Then I covered each with a mesh sack that cinches at the bottom. I commonly use these for our butterfly habitats both at home and at the school garden where I volunteer.
This time of year, as luck would also have it, my yard has no shortage of Elm leaves. So I filled the bottom of a Home Depot® bucket (“Let’s Do This” seeming appropriate) with Elm leaves and placed my pot on top, surrounding it then with more leaves and finally lightly covering the top with even more leaves. This should provide extra insulation now that the pupa aren’t actually underground. But, as J. pointed out, if you’re going to use buckets like this, it’s important to place them under a covered area on a deck or patio so that they don’t fill with rainwater. We don’t need any drownings on our hands!
So that’s where we are folks! I’ll be checking these buckets daily on our deck, because, as those of you from North Texas know, sometimes winter turns to spring a lot sooner than expected. I certainly don’t want to miss the hatch, and I definitely don’t want to hold anyone hostage! And if my hypothesis holds true, this is what should emerge…
…Manducaquinquemaculata, the Five-spotted Hawkmoth. Beautiful, isn’t she? And maybe, just maybe, I’ll be remembered by the Sphinx for my good heart. If not, I’ll be plenty satisfied if she can just remember me for the Angel Trumpet in my garden…and see fit to pollinate it.
All the best,
– All content photos, not credited, by Amanda J. Schulz
”The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love color the most.”
– John Ruskin
Today is a big day! Not only is it the first day of early voting in Texas but it is also National Color Day! Woo hoo!!! If you know me or have been following this blog, it’s not difficult to see that I’m a lover of color…especially in the garden. When I design a garden I like to apply the same techniques that I use when painting. I decide in my mind where each color should live on each section of the garden canvas. I actually tend to begin more with color than with height, size, shape or flower type. The special key to proper pollinator gardening, as well, is that you should plant in mass. A solid stand of a particular species of flower will be much more effective in attracting butterflies from high above, for instance, than just two or three plants. Each honey bee worker also only collects from one species of flower per flight, so giving her a nice bundle from which to gather lots of pollen is also helpful. What can I say? It’s important to color block.
The funny thing about a good pollinator garden, though…it keeps changing. Like the Mona Lisa, year after year altered by the master, it’s never quite “finished.” This is largely because pollinator gardens beget seeds sown randomly without any thought or order. But that’s kind-of what makes every spring exciting, you never know where some things will pop up next!
In preparation for National Color Day, I spent a little time in my gardens this weekend capturing some of my fall favorites before they fade away to mere memories. So instead of the usual Morbid Monday series, let’s celebrate a little life today through color! I hope you enjoy my color share as you wrap up your Monday, and I suggest that you get out this week for a while and enjoy the beauty of this stunningly pigmented planet that we are blessed to call home. No need to go in search of the rainbow, folks. We’re living right smack dab in the middle of it. Enjoy!
All the best,
RED – Love and Strength
(Blanket Flower, Red Autumn Sage, Ornamental Pepper, Firecracker Penstemon)
I’ve always loved orange. My favorite color is black, actually, but that’s for a whole separate post. (It’s not a stretch to see how someone like me would adore Halloween, huh?) But Orange. Orange somehow makes me feel grounded, centered, comforted. It’s that color that rings closest to pure for me. I’m not really sure why. The best explanation I can retrieve, from the depths of my inner self, is that orange conjures up memories of fall and memories of fall equate, in my heart, to Thanksgiving dinner around my grandparents’ table. Truth be told, a bit of sadness often wells within me when the orange is traded for Christmas red.
I think that’s one of my most favorite memories…Thanksgiving dinner. When we celebrated at my grandparents’ house, there were always ten of us. Two old, four mid and four young humans packed around a table in a dining room that had way too much furniture residing in it. And it was always just a smidge too warm in the house, but you wore a sweater anyway, and the whole space smelled like giblet gravy. And there was china on the table and laughter and delicate goblets and the clinking of silverware and pride seeping from every pore of my grandma’s skin over the quality of her cornbread dressing. And there was always pie with Kraft® Cool Whip. I remember one particular Thanksgiving in high school where I went out back by myself to gather pecans from under their massive tree. My grandma spent three-quarters of pecan season cursing squirrels in her head, but NEVER out of her mouth, so I’m sure I was out there trying to get a jump on things to help out. I was wearing a cream-colored sweater that J. had bought for me as a gift, jeans and brown Bass loafers, if any of you from the early 90s remember those. The sky was a perfect warmth of gray with a nip in the air. As I dropped pecans one by one into the paper sack, I remember feeling so thankful, so blessed, so loved and so nearest to God in the most defined place of contentment I can recall over the entire course of my life. Sometimes when I need grounding now, I go back to that place in my mind, step into that yard and just live Thanksgiving at Grandma and Grandpa’s for a few minutes. It was the one place where there were no expectations. In THAT place…you were simply embraced. You might have heard of this thing. It’s called unconditional love. It’s why, I suppose, when the universe speaks to my soul, it uses orange words.
So, you can only imagine how the color orange in my garden brings me great joy, and especially orange at this time of year. It’s like a double win! If you are looking for the perfect fall orange in your landscape, my all-time favorite winner is the old-fashioned Tall Orange Cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus). I have literally been waiting for weeks now for our stand to open up in the pollinator garden, watching with high anticipation as buds began to form everywhere across the crowns of dozens of plants. Finally, this week, after the turn of the autumnal equinox, which happened to fall on my birthday, the buds all opened into a stunning array of contentment.
The best thing about including this flower in your garden, is that you just don’t have to work at it. You sow seeds, sit back and watch them come up. In North Texas you can either sow in the fall before the first frost or wait until spring and sow in early March. We literally started with two or three plants last season that came up from a mixed wildflower packet, and this year we have DOZENS! I mean…why only have a sprinkle of joy when you can douse yourself in it??? And it is a true favorite of pollinators.
If that still doesn’t sell you, then let me say that the Orange Cosmos is the perfect compliment to your humanitarian efforts. If you are looking for ways to become more sustainable in your gardening efforts and not spend hard-earned resources buying plants, you can easily harvest seeds from one single plant and share them to other areas of your garden. You will even have so many seeds that you could #plantsharenow with friends! Just wait for the flowers to die back and you will see long, spear-like seeds develop where the petals once were. Just knock them off into a paper bag, and you’re done!
Now, I will admit that if you are a person requiring “order” in your garden, this might not be the plant for you. Our Cosmos definitely push J.’s sense of appropriate boundaries. Their stems intertwine like unkempt toddler hair, some will insist on raising their hands while the rest of the class sits quietly and they aren’t terribly considerate of stepping aside for sidewalk dog-walkers or scooter riders.
But, I have to say, I believe contentment often reveals itself in spaces a little less ordered and peace resides outside the boundaries, where you simply let go and embrace the tangles. So dog-walkers beware! You’ll just have to step over the Cosmos or pass around it. Or, even better, you COULD allow the petals to brush up against you…as you walk straight through.
“Summer was our best season…it was a thousand colors in a parched landscape… ”
– Harper Lee, “To Kill a Mockingbird”
When I pull up my WeatherBug® app these days, it shows a sun with cactus. It’s been a sun with cactus for days. It’s predicting a sun with cactus for another straight week. In case you’re a little slow on the uptake, that basically means it’s hot. It’s blazing hot. It’s some kind of near to hell hot. It’s so hot here in North Texas that my Facebook® feed has become a littered highway of automobile dashboard photos depicting 105°, 108°, 112°…you name it. When I walk from the house to the garage, I literally feel like I’m in the movie The Magnificent Seven, only no one is shooting at me. My dad always loved that movie, but as a kid I just remember thinking that all those people looked so hot. It was like the sun was glaring all the time, the landscape was a bunch of sticks and rocks, there were lots of men brandishing firearms and donning pants and vests and long sleeves, and everyone kept falling and rolling around in the dirt. Miserable. That’s pretty much how it is here. At some point, it honestly doesn’t really matter what the dashboard number says, you just don’t care anymore. It’s all the same swelter. You stand and sweat, along with everyone else standing and sweating, longing for the moment when someone posts a photo of the first Pumpkin Spice Latte. Ahhhh…fall.
I have to admit that we have spent precious LITTLE time in the garden these past few weeks, and I have been seriously “momming.” This “momming” thing is not for the birds, people. I’ve been shuttling kids to movies, dropping off and picking up from camps, trekking around water parks, fixing seemingly endless meals and snacks…I was even assigned a part in a YouTube video this weekend by my son…all while still working for my clients and longing for the moment when someone posts a photo of the first day of SCHOOL!!! LOL. Can we get a “yes” here that, as of July 23, we’re all pretty much ready for this?!?!?
When we WERE out, here and there, in the garden this last week, I honestly couldn’t help but marvel at some of my tried and true favorites still pushing on through, despite the perpetual sun with cactus. I surmised, though, that some of you might be blankly staring out a window, somewhere right about now, and disheartenedly wondering, “What the heck can I plant NEXT spring so that my July flower bed doesn’t look like a Mexican village taken over by the Calvera?” Have no fear. The Magnificent Seven are here. I snapped these photos Saturday when it was 109º at my house, and ALL of these beauties were bloomin’ hot (total pun intended)! I guarantee, with a little planning this coming spring, these can be surefire color-slinging saviors for your garden next summer. Here they are, riding into town to the rescue!
You: “I want ZERO maintenance. I mean…I want to throw out some seeds, watch some plants come up and not do anything but water twice a week.”
Me: “I hear ya. I’ve got ya covered.”
BLACK-EYED SUSAN and BLANKET FLOWER
Both of these specimens are in their second round of blooms right now, the first having been a spring bloom. If they can grow from seed on a Texas roadside, they can certainly grow in your garden!
ZINNIAS and ORANGE COSMOS
These are old-fashioned garden favorites! I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Zinnias for their variety. From the tiny Thumbelina blooms to the giant doubles, they come in a palette of color in all shapes and sizes. I tend to love the giant doubles in pink, seen above. Your basic Orange Cosmos is also a winner, standing up to all kinds of heat with continued green foliage, AND attracting bees! The best part…all you have to do is scatter seed and watch them come up!!!
You: “But I’m okay with a LITTLE work. I don’t mind using a few tools.”
Me: “Then I’ve got the two for you!”
AUTUMN SAGE and ORANGE ZEST CESTRUM
If you need to “feel” like you’re gardening, then these two choices might be perfect for you. Autumn Sage is a super tolerant plant to grow and it comes in a variety of colors. It’s a medium-height clumping grower that will provide continuous color from spring until frost. I have it growing in red, pale pink and deep purple in my garden. You’ll need to have hand pruners in the spring to cut back all of the old, dead stems and help shape the plant as it begins to sprout. Want something bigger? Orange Zest Cestrum might be my most favorite shrub right now. We have this planted adjacent to our pond, and it provides lush, dark green foliage and continuous orange-yellow clustered blooms, again, from spring through frost. It attracts a multitude of interesting insects as well, but not really pests that harm the plant. In fact, it’s known for being relatively pest resistant. Once it begins to sprout in the spring, you will need a good set of loppers to trim off branches that you don’t want in order to begin to shape the shrub upward for the blooming season. This shrub gets big. Ours is easily between 5 to 6 feet tall right now and about 4 feet wide, so allow some space for this girl.
You: “These are all great options, but what about a plant I can easily get a start of from a friend?”
This, ladies and gentleman, is the Yul Brynner of the Magnificent Seven. The leader, the champion, the one J. and I just said this week that, “We need a LOT more of.” If you want something big and showy to really add major pizzazz to your beds, I cannot recommend Phlox enough. Now, this is definitely an example of a plant that is easier to grow from cuttings or transplants, rather than seed, but that’s the best part! If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I like sustainability through the concept of using and sharing what you have, whether through seeds or starts. We transplanted shoots dug from the clumps of my mother-in-law’s Phlox into our garden last fall. They went dormant in the winter, then re-sprouted this last spring and REALLY started blooming when the heat cranked up…so, you can see, this plant species checks a lot of boxes! I’ve loved this so much that I would have it in every bed, if possible. And, hey, anything’s possible, right?
I hope these suggestions might help you feel a little bit better when you look out your window next July. These plantings truly will liberate any struggling, sun-filled summer bed. So don’t be dismayed by your swelter! I say, “Own it!” Well, at least own it in your flower beds. I have no control over the efficiency of your air conditioning or how many times a day you have to shower.
No, this isn’t the Ed Sullivan Show and I’m not introducing Liverpool’s most famous rock ‘n’ roll jet setters (wrong spelling anyway). I’m not even talking about the Volkswagen, which, incidentally, I heard a while back might be retiring our lovable Herbie. No…I’m talking about the tiny little members of the Order of Coleoptera that decided to make a perplexing appearance in our pollinator garden this spring.
Just before I left for spring break vacation in Orlando, J. and I noticed a plant variety coming up in various areas of the pollinator garden that we didn’t recognize from last year. This isn’t too surprising, though. We scattered a few wildflower mixture packets in the spring of 2017, and some of those seeds need a nice cold winter to harden over before they actually germinate. Nonetheless, there was much debate over the identity of our new friends, solely based on leaf structure. Before we left for the spring break week, our thriving little plants looked like this…
When we came back, they looked like this…
Every…last…one of them.
The picture above doesn’t do it justice. At least that plant still had some leaves. Some of the others literally looked like green sticks. It was a sunny day, and, as I puzzlingly peered downward, something beautifully golden shimmered beneath the sun’s spring rays. I happened to have the macro lens on my camera and zoomed in. You know that phrase, “All that glitters is not gold?” Yeah. There’s a measure of truth to that. There they were, just feasting away on the tender, green goodness of our newfound friends. These guys…
So now we had a double quandary on our hands. Not only did we not know for sure what plant species we were looking at, but we had NO idea what kind of beetle this was. I can’t tell you the hundreds upon hundreds of insect photos that I have from our first year in the pollinator business, but I KNEW that I had NEVER documented this beetle before.
This is where I diverge from the average gardener. Most would feel an alarming sense of urgency to undertake eradication. The pirates…may they plunder no more! But this is where I, the consummate student and researcher, come in. My first thought is to ask, “Why is this happening?” Then I use words within my brain like “observe” and “study.” Then I tell myself to look beyond what is right in front of my nose to see if anything else about the remaining surroundings is of interest. And then, of course, like every other good human, I turn to Google®. I’ve logged insects for about a year now. I’m getting pretty good at keyword descriptive searching, so it wasn’t long before I came up with several articles on Phaedon desotonis, or, what we can all more lovingly call: the Coreopsis Beetle.
Well, that killed two birds with one stone. When you know the insect, then nine times out of ten you can research its host plants and narrow down to the plant that you have. Coreopsis would definitely have been an indentification option for these plants. It all made sense once the devouring culprit was named. Through my research I learned that wild Coreopsis is the state flower of Florida, and these beetles have been a NIGHTmare for them. That’s when I also discovered, unbelievably, a 2012 article by Mike Merchant with Texas A&M Agrilife Extension on the very subject of this beetle beginning to pop up in Texas. I say “unbelievably,” because Mike happened to be the instructor on entomology for my Master Gardener’s certification coursework. In that same search, I also stumbled across a post by the Texas Invasive Species Institute (TISI) calling for residents to report any establishment of the species in Texas. So, I reached out to both Mike Merchant and TISI to report my findings.
You’ll see in Mike’s article that he ended up doing an update with some of my information. My TISI contact requested that I collect some of the beetles to send in for identification. When I asked how they wanted them collected, I was told to use a water tight container filled with ethanol, like “vodka, rum or everclear.” Yikes! We had just enough Tito’s left to do the trick. Sorry Tito’s. I definitely would have preferred you in a nice Saturday Bloody Mary. 😉
Of additional interest was the fact that we had two other varieties of Coreopsis, that we already knew about from the previous year, that the beetles didn’t seem to have as much of an interest in. Or, maybe, when given the choice between several varieties, they just preferred one over the other two. Kind-of like if you give a kid the choice of broccoli, a bowl of strawberries or chocolate ice cream…he might be willing to eat all three, but he’s going to go for the chocolate ice cream first. And if his stomach fills up on chocolate ice cream, he likely won’t have room for strawberries and broccoli.
So, I collected a dozen or so beetles and then just watched the garden to see what happened. I’ve had enough experience to know that if you sometimes just let something run its course, the plants can come back and thrive. As long as enough green is left to keep photosynthesis going, nature keeps pushing them forward. That is exactly what happened in our garden. The beetles ran their course, and the plants continued to put out more leaves.
Fast forward to today…
I waited and waited to see the chocolate ice cream once it bloomed, so that I could include that in my findings to TISI. It ended up being a Coreopsis variety that is more often referred to as “Tickseed,” although you might hear some people call any Coreopsis a “Tickseed.” Now I had the images of all three varieties in bloom, especially noting the one the beetles absolutely loved.
So, my beetles and my data are headed to TISI for evaluation. We’ll see what the “official” findings are. I chose to write this post because, as I’ve now completed the coursework and final exam for my Dallas County Master Gardener’s certification, I learned that a vast majority of questions that come in from the public involve, “What is wrong with my (fill in the blank)?” In the event that you one day stand scratching your head in dismay saying, “What is wrong with my Coreopsis???” as it devolves from lovely green seedlings to sticks, may you remember to peer down and hunt for a little shimmer of gold…and then hit the Tito’s.