ready the fleet

crossing the field & making marks

something must’ve struck me about the image above, for back in my scribbling days i marked it with my favorite yellow crayon, so that when i just happened to come across it some twenty eight years later in a dusty book at my parent’s shop it’d stop me – in. my. tracks. was i clumsily trying to star it because i liked the image of the women in their matching mechanic suits, walking across the air field in a confident but down to earth manner? was i already aspiring at a young age to be like one of these women? why did i mark this page…? why did i find it after all these years…? and how is it that i know for certain it was me, and not one of my sisters, that tagged it? what am i trying to foretell myself here? even though i found the mark, i often feel as if i’ve completely missed it. i’m well aware that life doesn’t come with a manual or pre-flight check list, but sometimes i just wish there was something more certain to go by. high school, check. college, check. grad school, check. career, sort-of check… on second thought, scratch that last one. where’s a good pink eraser when you need it?

my friend maggie, blogner of the curiosity shop at slotharium, recently posted about her own appreciation for rosie the riveter. she even had some local landscape interventions to experience them by this past memorial day. but seeing that it was i who begged her to start blogging, she’s now taunting me to pick up the blogging stick once again, even if i don’t feel as if i have much to say. yes ma’am…

here’s a somewhat recent cartoon, from the april 4, 2001 edition of the new yorker that’s been on the desk for a while, waiting for its moment at grwhryrpltd. it pretty much sums it up for me.


while not a worm, i do have an affinity for caterpillars, both before and after pupation. it’s especially cool when i’m able to convince a newly opened swallowtail butterfly to cling to my finger. there’s an amazing, unforgetable energy transferred from butterfly legs to human digits. you should try it sometime, if given the opportunity. i rescued this guy for a spell, then placed him on the flowering Diplo perennis (perennial corn) we’re trialing here in the garden:

male black swallowtail on perennial corn

thanks to my friend cindy for the link help to identify this guy from the gals. i was able to “rescue” another swallowtail from certain kitty doom yesterday, and she (the butterfly that is) seemed relieved for the assistance. while i may not have a matching swallowtail mechanic suit to strut amongst the sunflower patch with her, i have a quilt in the works that should suffice. it’s of my own design, modeled after the stripes on a swallowtail caterpillar. while it takes a certain amount of explanation to point out the similarities between the caterpillar and sewn squares, i sure like the mystery about it. i went to design school dang it, and not everything has to appear realistically. can you figure it out? here’s a hint: think vertically, in groups of three.

caterpillar quilt, in the works

see the resemblance?

Polyxenes asterius (black swallowtail) caterpillar

moral of the story: you really don’t need to know about everything all the time. but if you pick up clues and insights along the way, you’re probably doing okay.

now, where did that yellow crayon get to…


blooming swallowtails

i was scoping the garden yesterday for bloom day inspiration and came upon a surprise much more interesting than the few measly flowers that were blooming:

giant swallowtail, Papilio cresphontes

i certainly wasn’t expecting to see a giant swallowtail, freshly hatched, hunkered down in the foliage on a blustery (wind gusts 20-40 mph) and warm (77 degree) december day!  i ran to the porch where i knew there were three swallowtail chrysali hanging and sure enough, one of them was open:

a giant swallowtail chrysalis, zipped open & nicely camouflaged to its surroundings

this is what the chrysali look like before they hatch (this was in a different part of the garden earlier this summer):

giant swallowtail chrysalis

check out the super strong protein threads they suspend themselves from… these tiny details fascinate me!  here’s an image of the caterpillar, foraging on mr. grwhryrpltd’s precious dwarf key lime tree, Citrus aurantifolia:

giant swallowtail caterpillar on dwarf key lime tree

notice the giant caterpillar frass at the bottom left of the image above (yep, that’s insect poop).  now you see why mr. grwhryrpltd isn’t so fond of them.

giant swallowtail caterpillars... they even look like bird poop, on purpose!

at one point there were 20 little caterpillars between that and another citrus tree (my precious buddha’s hand citron, Citrus medica var. sarcodactylus).  by early november only half of the caterpillars survived, while the citrus trees kept producing new leaves.  the day i got back from the quilt festival i noticed a mockingbird hanging out in the rose bush nearby.  odd, because it was so close to the driveway and didn’t fly away when we drove up… but then i realized the bird was feasting on the plump caterpillars!  i ran out of the car only to find one left, which had its orange antennae fully extended and inflated, exuding a sulphurous pheremone that i now recognize as their go-go-gadget-get-away-from-me defense mechanism.  i picked it up anyway and tucked it down into the leaf mould beneath the hairy wedelia* for protection from that damn mockingbird, which i also made sure to shoo away.  a week or so later i found three chrysali on the brick wall of the front porch and wondered when they’d hatch, if at all, with the sporadic weather we’ve been having.  so it’s a understatement to say i was grateful to stumble upon the prettiest bloom all december…

keeping wings low out of the wind
a wind gust reveals the wing's yellow undersides
so nice to meet you giant swallowtail... safe travels to you

it’s the simple things that amaze me.  happy (belated, yet again) bloom day.

*hairy wedelia, (Wedelia texana a.k.a. zexmenia hispida) was one of the few measly flowers in bloom yesterday.  it’s a native, tough and drought tolerant.  and protective fodder for swallowtails.

a tiny hairy wedelia bloom
a wider shot of hairy wedelia's wide and low growth habit

a pollination dedication

it’s officially summer and pollination season has begun.  mr. grwhryrpltd has been out in the fields everyday for like a month now pollinating his research plants, leaving me to see what the professional insectivorious pollinators are working on in our garden.  seriously, it’s national pollinator week!  have you thanked your pollinators lately?  if you haven’t you should.  otherwise we wouldn’t have food in our bellies or flowers on the table.

Hypercompe scribonia (great leopard moth) at the DIG
Hypercompe scribonia (great leopard moth) at the DIG
Vanessa virginensis (american lady)

the critter shown below isn’t yet a pollinator, but will become a sphinx or hummingbird moth if it survives…

Manduca sexta (tobacco hornworm)

and yes, it probably survived…  you see, i’m a horrible vegetable gardener because i can’t seem to get rid of the insect “pests” in time to prevent major damage to whatever it is i’m trying to grow.  another case in point:

Leptoglossus phyllopus (leaffooted bugS) on the fruit formerly known as tomato

these guys are so bad this year i’ve all but given up on the tomatoes.  and artichokes:

Leptoglossus phyllopus (leaffooted bugS) contemplating artichoke for dinner

which is why i advocate for a good farmers’ market…

here are some more pollinators:

Eumenes fraternus (potter wasp) throwing pots in the wire ball

i’m not actually sure if these gals are into pollination, but i do know that they are beneficial parasatoids.  and damn fine potters if i do say so myself.  female potter wasps throw a perfectly formed pot from mud found nearby, sculpting the sides using only her mandibles and front legs – i know because i watched this one at work.  it was incredible!  she’ll then hunt for caterpillars, paralyze them, and thread them into the opening of the vessel.  once the vessel is full, she’ll lay a single egg and seal the pot with a bit more clay.

Eumenes fraternus (potter wasp)
Eumenes fraternus (potter wasp)

i’m not certain as to the pollination status of this guy either:

Arphia sp. (grasshopper)

you know me and butterflies… my favorite pollinator of all:

P. polyxenes (black swallowtail) caterpillar going to town on Foeniculum vulgare 'Purpureum' (bronze fennel)
P. polyxenes (black swallowtail) caterpillar selecting a spot to make its chrysalis
P. polyxenes (black swallowtail) chrysalis... hanging by a thread
nine days later... hatched!
hello beauty

interestingly enough, i don’t have any images of the most widely known pollinator of all, Apis mellifera (honey bees). i honestly don’t recall seeing (m)any around here… does anyone else think that’s odd? i’ve seen a Bombus (bumble bee) and Polistes carolina (red wasp) here and there, but no honey bees. perhaps they’re declining here as they are in other parts of north america due to colony collapse disorder (CCD) caused by the varroa mite.  competiton from africanized honey bees may also be to blame here in texas. i’m no expert on any of that, so will have to use national pollinator week to learn more. in the meantime, keep an eye out for pollinators in your neck of the woods. watch and document them. refrain from eliminating them from your yard and garden but if you have to, use integrated pest management (IPM). provide them the food and shelter they need to continue bzz bZZZ bzz bZZZing along… they depend on us just as much as we depend on them.

hatch of the fritillary

last year the hatching of the monarch butterflies rapt my attention.  this year it’s the gulf fritillaries, Agraulis vanillae.

Agraulis vanillae chrysalis
A.vanillae chrysalis on hosebib
A.vanillae chrysalis on concrete
A.vanillae emerge from their chrysali (second in background)
A.vanillae emerges from its well-irrigated chrysalis
A.vanillae rests before its first flight
another A.vanillae (!) emerges from its chrysalis
Agraulis vanillae at rest
first flight of this A. vanillae was hampered by feline curiosity and quickly rescued
surprise! the hindwings of A. vanillae are orange. you're safe in this backyard...

every day i spot more caterpillars and more chrysali, mostly of this same species so far.  i was amazed to learn that the chrysali are phototropic – they move toward or away from the sun depending on their needs – just like plants, who knew?!

i’ve also seen some black swallowtail caterpillars, Papilio polyxenes asterius, but haven’t spied their chrysali yet… so far i’ve only seen one monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, but i’m sure more are soon on the way.  to help track the caterpillars, butterflies and moths you see here in central tx, visit tamu entomology’s online field guide here, and click on lepidoptera.


i’m actually early for this month’s bloom day, hosted, as always, by carol at may dreams gardens.  i have a beautiful bloom to share with you…  i missed it the last time they opened in our garden here, but i was fortunate to spot one unfurling today:

jaded chrysalis
another jaded chrysalis, this time above our front door
a hard landing
a hard landing (the chrysalis above is from the spring monarch hatching)
asclepia's rest
Asclepia's rest

i’m not so sure this was the best day for the monarch to come out of hiding.  the clouds and intermittent rain prevented the monarch’s wings from absorbing the heat of the sun’s rays.  i thought i’d be helpful and bring some open milkweed flowers for it to rest on (Asclepia is a primary food source for monarchs), but its proboscis seemed to be sensing the shape of things rather than searching for nectar.   when another major storm front moved through, i gently coaxed the butterfly from the concrete and onto the branch of a potted plant (Eupatorium) i have yet to put in the ground.  i hope the leafy porch shelter is amenable.  as of writing this post, the monarch is still there.  i was able to capture a few videos of the unfurling, but i’ll wait a while longer before posting them; hopefully she’ll fully bloom by then.

happy bloom day.

if you blink…

i must’ve blinked because i missed it… twice!

well hello there...
well hello there...

a while back i bought an Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed) that came with a few of its own Danaus plexippus (monarch) caterpillars.  the guy who sold it to me was kind enough to throw them in for free.  while i contemplated where to plant it (yes, these decisions can sometimes take several days) one of the caterpillars decided to build its pupa (or chrysalis) on one of the Asclepias’ leaves:

plant jewelry
plant jewelry - see the gold flecks and the wings inside?

not wanting to disturb this stage of metamorphosis, i decided to forgo planting and instead heeled it into an empty space in the garden to help maintain the moisture level in the container.  everyday i’d go check on her (yes, you can tell from a mark on the pupa if it’s a boy or girl butterfly) to see if there was any visible wing development.  then i had to take a field trip to san antonio, and when i came back she was gone, just a shell of the pupa remained.  happy trails to mexico, miss butterfly.

after that bittersweet discovery, i planted the Asclepias.  a few days later i noticed four more big BIG monarch caterpillars munching on the now aphid-covered leaves.  yippee, more chances to observe metamorphosis…

a monarch caterpillar on its food of choice, Asclepias tuberosa
a monarch caterpillar on its food of choice, Asclepias tuberosa

but after several days, i didn’t see a sign of them anywhere…  did a bird eat them?  no, supposedly birds don’t find them palatable.  it wasn’t until we were working on turf elimination round one that we noticed a caterpillar in an upside down question mark hanging from a column on the front porch:

the caterpillar selects a site to pupate
the caterpillar selects a site to pupate

not an hour later when we came back from lunch, it had turned itself into a  jade-colored beauty.  amazing…

the butterfly-to-be hangs from its cremaster and spun silk
the butterfly-to-be hangs from its cremaster and spun silk

and then i noticed another, under the sill of the front door:

Danus plexippus_0171
an interesting choice of hibernating ground

that was a week or so ago.  when i went out to water some plants this morning and checked on them i gasped, as this was all i saw of them:

chrysalis remains
pupa remains
scale relationship
scale relationship

i missed them!  oh, happy trails to you too… i hope you come back and visit.  next time we’ll have even more Asclepias for you to munch on.

for more info on these lovely creatures, check out monarch watch.