It is nearly the 4th of July. Is your grill ready for action? Are you a gas or charcoal type person? Do your sunflowers look as if they have already been incinerated?
Who are the culprits? Small fuzzy caterpillars? They will turn into Painted Ladies. Find out the background about these sunflower leaf munchers.

3rd of July 2013 Blog

Becky Emerson Carlberg

Independence Day is almost here. Do you have the grill clean and ready, the charcoal handy (who would use a gas grill for such an occasion?  Tomorrow, everyone should be out at a lake or park, firing up the outdoor cooking devices.  Remember, nearly all competition grillers use charcoal.  In my family, one son is the champion gas griller of salmon and chicken, and my other son likes his kettle grill.  My dad loved a roaring charcoal fire, and if it was slow to start, he’d bring out his arsenal of igniters:  gasoline and vacuum cleaner. I can remember some mighty big fires emanating from the grill, some that had people running for the hose, just in case. 

No one wanted a reenactment of the Wister fire in 1909, a storm of wind-swept flames that wiped out nearly the entire town.  Yes, the buildings were made out of wooden planks and there was no organized fire department yet.  Years later the volunteer fire department was indeed created, but they made Ripley’s Believe it or Not because soon after their firehouse burned to the ground.

When preparing to cook outdoors, please be careful.  We have not had measurable rain since the 9th of June, and things are becoming crispy.  At least in my neighborhood they are.  The piles of debris left from tornado Bob are drying out nicely, forming large collections of brown oak leaves, dead cedar mounds, trunks and branches.  In other words, fuel for fire. 

Ahhhh, summer in Oklahoma.  There are those people that say they love hot dry days.  I bet they’d change their tune if they did not have air-conditioning whenever they desired it, or had a garden that required water to keep the plants healthy, growing and productive.  While watering, I noticed the sunflower leaves had a lacey translucent look to them, with several small bristly sticks on the surfaces.  No, no, no.  Sunflower leaves are to be fuzzy green leaves, spreading wide to catch the sun’s rays.  The plants are making lots of food in preparation for generating lovely large heads of flowers collectively known as heads of the “sunflower”.  A place for bumble and honey bees to come in search of nectar while pollinating the florets, a support surface for the developing seeds, a place for goldfinches and squirrels to dine, etc.

Which takes me to my sunflowers, or what is left of them.  Yes, the tomatoes were sacrificed to the hornworms.  They are now re-sprouting from their new shorter versions of themselves.  My husband managed to get his hands on some small okra plants, courtesy of a generous Choctaw gardener, and the five plants are digging in.  My green peppers are showing some sun-scald, so they might need a sun-filter during the middle of the day (ground cloth is amazing versatile stuff).

The sunflowers sprouted from seeds that found their way out of bird’s mouths into the ground.  The plants are few in numbers, and they are experiencing the entire focus of Painted Lady caterpillars (Vanessa cardui and other Vanessa species).  It is a time I wish there was an acre of sunflowers to spread out the impact.  But the Painted Ladies need food in their larval state, and my slim pickens of sunflowers are going to have to do.  How can you not like a butterfly in the genus Vanessa and subgenus Cynthia.

These butterflies are brush-footed butterflies.  Their two front legs are shorter (some species have front legs so small they are almost not visible) than the other four, and do not have feet.  Did you know butterflies have feet? The front legs of the brush-footed butterflies end in little tufts of bristles they use to touch and taste with.

These butterflies come in many shapes and colors, but many rely on camouflage patterning on the underside of their wings.  The caterpillars have small spines to ward off predators, such as humans coming to pluck them off the sunflower leaves.  Not me.  I realize the value of these eventual airborne pollinators in search of nectar. They like plants in the Malvaceae family.  Not only are the mallows here, but okra, cotton, cocoa and Hibiscus grace the mallow family too.  To round off their diet, Painted Ladies also find thistles and nettles irresistible.  If all goes well, they may survive as butterflies 2 to 4 weeks.

I think the sunflowers will recover.  They will probably be very short.

Want to know more about the Painted Ladies?  This is a good website:


How about creating a butterfly garden?  What plants attract the butterflies?