Cicada Magic

Have you seen cicada husks lately? Or actual cicadas? These aren’t our annual cicadas yet, these are periodical cicadas, one year too early. Next spring—May 2024—is when Middle Tennessee gets our Big Emergence of 13-year cicadas.

I say “emergence,” not “invasion,” because invasion is a bad thing, but emergence is a normal, natural, functional, wonderful, amazing, and magical thing!
Cicadas are magic!

After all, the genus name for our 13 year species is Magicicada.

But, magic or not, cicadas can’t always count properly. The ones who emerge a year (or more) before or after their due date are called “stragglers.”

For the past few days, stragglers have commanded my undivided attention. They are small, dark, and handsome. They have round, red eyes! And they are fascinating.

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The Selective Squish: Aphids

I am lucky to be in a gardening group with a friendly email list. We share plants, news, tips, questions. Today, someone asked what to do about April aphids on a late-blooming aster, and added, “There are a gazillion of them on the plant (I counted).” 

This is someone who had done due diligence by looking for answers, but had found too many: No, don’t kill; Yes, do kill, but only with this, not that. What should they do?

What I should have done was congratulate them on having late-blooming asters—so important for late-season nectar / pollen / leaves / seeds! —and on trying to find a “best practices” solution to avoid harming the foodweb.
Good job, gardener!
But what I did was jump right in with zero manners and lots of info:

[Too-Long-Didn’t-Read version: pesticides will kill aphid predators along with the aphids.]

This time of year, most aphids are wingless, so they can’t fly away from us if we decide The Big Squish is required. The Big Squish = running a thumb and forefinger along a stem (or using a moist paper towel if squeamish). 

Actually, it should be called the Selective Big Squish. Please keep reading to see what not to squish.

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What a Robin Sees (Spring edition)

I caught a Robin Redbreast red-handed: she was taking soil from a tray on the porch. She took my seedlings, too, but only to toss them aside. She was treating my lovingly planted seedtray as her personal mudpile. Robins need wet soil to make their nests. 

Most yards nearby are solid turgrass with no soil in sight, but even my yard’s bare patches aren’t useful to her: they are compressed with our walking, and cracked with no rain. 

So I sat on the porch and watched the tray.
She came, she stole, she flew across the street. 

Then I hid the tray under my chair. A moment later, the Robin was under my chair, too.

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Cutting the Mustard

Every March, Nashville Mustard shines from old lawns at a handful of Metro Parks. The plant is a true Nashville native: an endemic wildflower that only happens in a few counties. And when it happens in blankets of bright yellow, it is glorious. It’s a Nashville Superbloom.

And then every March, the mowers come.
I worry if the plants had time to set enough seeds to make a blanket the next year, and the next.

[flattened, hairy, round seedpods/silicles]

Nashville Mustard (Paysonia lescurii) is sort of a secret. Who’s heard of it? And why should we care? You can’t even buy it, because no nursery anywhere sells the plants or the seeds.

I vote we make it a Thing. A Good Nashville Thing. It could be nonpartisan PR that anyone could celebrate.
At the very least, it could be an annual Social Media Superbloom Photo-op. And a reason to learn why “native matters.” Nashville Mustard is a piece of old Nashville: really old, like when the buffalo roamed.

Much of our part of Tennessee was grassland, where “the combination of grazing, browsing, and trampling by large herbivores maintained short stature grasslands in which endemic plants such as … Paysonia … evolved.”*

Buffalo were the first mowers of Nashville Mustard, but our lawnmowers may the be last.

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The butterfly who gives caterpillars a bad name

Today’s Backyard Nature: the Butterfly who gives caterpillars a bad name.
This is a Cabbage White, a species from Europe who aims for leaves in the Cabbage / Mustard family.
In this blurry pic, she is laying an egg on annual Honesty, an exotic mustard.
See her abdomen curving up to place an egg under the leaf?
The hatchling will be one of the dreaded, green caterpillars called “cabbage worms.”

When I talk to people about “caterpillar host plants,” and then these people say they HATE caterpillars, THIS particular caterpillar is usually why. 

Many gardeners who grow kale, cabbage, arugula, brussels, etc. learn to hate these caterpillars. And by association, learn to hate all caterpillars.
And then, to reach for the pesticide.

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Swallowtail Surprise

Today’s Back Porch Nature: a surprise Swallowtail!
It was fluttering inside the Southwest corner of our screened porch, trying to get out. I have no idea where the chrysalis was hidden all winter, but it was somewhere among my Show ‘n’ Tell twigs and leaves and seeds and nests and other treasures.
If the porch was tidier, I’d probably find the telltale meconium stain from when the butterfly eclosed this morning.

Black Swallowtail, male.
If he was female, he’d have less yellow on top, but more blue.
I put him in a butterfly cage just long enough to show him to my family, and to get a picture for ID.

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Toothbrush Bug

Superman and I were the only witnesses to this nighttime scene. After which, I released the bug and retired the toothbrush.

I have not told the owner of the toothbrush.

“MOM,” he yelled to me next morning, “Is the new green toothbrush mine?”

“YES,” I yelled back, “The white one was worn out.” 

But what I didn’t add was, “and it’s in the trash because a giant Western Conifer Seed Bug was sucking on it.”

The Western Conifer Seed Bug’s genus name is Leptoglossus.
Lepto is “fine, thin, delicate,” and glossus is tongue.
You’d need a “fine, thin, delicate” tongue in order to suck sap from immature pine cones.

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Spring Beauties: Bee + Bloom

[Spring Beauty bee]

I usually use the ol’ Monarch butterfly example to talk to beginners about “host” plants and “specialization,” which can illustrate “Why Native Matters.”

But right now, in lucky lawns all over town, there buzzes another great example: the Spring Beauty bee.

Monarchs can’t raise babies on anything but Milkweed, right?
Well, Spring Beauty bees can’t raise babies without Spring Beauty pollen.

Spring Beauty is Claytonia virginica, a not-common-enough “common” wildflower in Nashville.
And Spring Beauty bees are Andrena erigeniae, a native mining bee.

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You, too, can be a Tool of Destruction

[Second Sunday Gardeners WeedWrangle® 2022]

[Or: “How to Borrow a Weed Wrench”]

People volunteer at a WeedWrangle® for countless reasons, but one reason, I propose, is the Weed Wrench.
It is more than just the Tool of Choice.
It is the tool we covet; the tool that—thanks to the magic of leverage—offers the most gratification for the least effort;
and the tool that gives us mild-mannered nature-lovers the rare and oh-so-welcome frisson of AUTHORIZED DESTRUCTION.

At a WeedWrangle®, we wield a Weed Wrench as AGENTS OF DEMOLITION,
We bite, rip, and kill any exotic, invasive plant that can fit inside the metal jaws of a Weed Wrench.

And we do this in the service of a higher purpose: to bring back the birds, butterflies, and lightning bugs.

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