This is one cool spring. Tonight watch the temperatures drop. Almost as good as watching the lighted ball drop at Times Square on New Year's nearly the same temperature! May Salvia can be seen at Shawnee Mall, but false dandelions, spreading chervil and tent caterpillars can be located further north. Tent caterpillars now? Yes indeed. Read all about these young leaf eaters.

2nd May 2013 Blog

Becky Emerson Carlberg

(Note:  Google each name and search under images for pictures.  Our blog site only allows one single picture or one composite picture at the beginning of each article!)

Is it cold enough for you this May?  Think of all those past Mays where you were sweating in shorts and t-shirts, complaining about the heat and humidity.  Ha, not now! (OK, there are probably some folks still running around in shorts and t-shirts today.  They looked at the calendar, not the thermometer).   

Tom Terry wrote a cool article about the May Salvia (Salvia nemorosa ‘Mainacht’) in the May Day edition of the Shawnee News-Star.  Some May Salvia plants are also blooming at the Shawnee Mall, a place my husband and I walked around last night while watching this brief electrical storm as it drifted northward.  Earlier during the day, the radar showed the advancing cold front as it entered Oklahoma, visible due to dust and insects collecting at the leading edge.  Storms were in the southwest.  Our house received 0.13 inches of rain from that brief evening t-storm.   

All my tender plants are again lined up on the front porch, awaiting entry into the house later this afternoon before freezing temperatures hit tonight.  I have two big grow boxes into which the tomatoes and peppers were planted.  One has wheels (really great) and one doesn’t (really heavy).  Both are now on the porch, along with the citrus trees, avocadoes, and other bewildered plants.  I moved inside two Pentas plants last night.  They are very sensitive to cold below 40 degrees F.  I am still formulating a plan for the okra and marigolds out in the raised bed.  If the plants survive tonight and tomorrow morning, it may be clear sailing into warmer temperatures.

The wild things continue to perk along, regardless of weather.  False Dandelions (Pyrrhopappus carolinianus) are cheerfully expanding their bright yellow flowers.  The false dandelion is larger and in a different genus than the lawn dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), but both these happy plants are edible.  Young leaves go into a salad, and older leaves or roots can be boiled.  Dandelion is derived from French and mean’s “lion’s tooth” in reference to the jagged edges of the flower petals.  Pyrrhopappus is Latin for “fire fluff”, and these wildflowers are now fired up and expanding out along the roads.

Spreading Chervil (Chaerophyllum texanum) is another road and ditch plant that has blossomed into large sections of small, delicate white flowers arranged in umbels.  What is an umbel?  It is a group of flowers all originating from a common point with stems all the same length, giving the impression of a broad half cup perched on supporting stem with leaves below.  The carrot family, represented by the carrot, parsley, parsnip, caraway, Queen Anne’s Lace and poison hemlock, amongst others, is known for its umbel floral displays.  A very diverse family of over 3,700 species.

You can’t see the inflorescence (flowers) yet, but Curly Dock (Rumex crispus) is alive and well, located by their large leaves unfurling as the plant elevates itself high above ground level.  These plants tolerate a range of habitats, and their sizeable leaves contain oxalic acid.  You can eat young leaves, especially if you like greens with a bite, but rinse and boil first.  Please avoid older leaves. 

I have saved the best for last.  The tent caterpillars (Malacosoma americana) are now becoming active.  Usually only a pest, no real damage is done unless the female moths lay eggs on very young trees and the caterpillars demolish all the newly minted leaves.  Another species can cause trouble in the forests.

The tent “worms” are interesting.  They hatch and begin spinning their silk tents in crotches and branch angles of trees where the web will get morning sun.  The caterpillars’ enzymes do not function efficiently at temperatures below 60 degrees F.  They are geared only to eat young leaves and lay down pheromone trails to food much like ants do.  The caterpillars range up to 2 inches long and are black with one white stipe down the back with blue circles to either side.  Tufts of hair sprout above the legs.  After 7 to 8 weeks, each larva will spin its cocoon, and will undergo metamorphosis during the next 2 weeks.  It then emerges in the form of a small rusty brown moth with white bands on the outer wings.  This transition from caterpillar to moth is truly amazing.

The female moth takes wing, her body already full of eggs, looking for a mate.  After a brief intimate encounter,  she lays her eggs around a stem and dies, all within 24 hours.  Whoa.  The foot-loose, fancy-free males may last up to one week before going on to moth-land.  Talk about mortality put into perspective.  Not reserved just for the end of life experience, though.

Tent caterpillars are part of the food chain for cardinals, robins, wild turkeys, blue jays, hornets, squirrels, 5-lined skinks, bats, frogs, turtles and fish, if unfortunate to drop into water from their branch silk network.  Humans, like my dad, may turn into pyromaniacs and attempt to burn out the caterpillars in their tents.  Actually, my father seemed quite happy when he had his super-charged magic wand, the blazing torch, at the end of his hand, ready to do battle with whatever needed to be eradicated.   

If you are not in the mood to help perpetuate the survival of wildlife, and are intimidated by using fire, then place a bucket 1/4th full of water next to the trunk of the occupied tree.  It may attract the caterpillars and they drown.  Feel bad yet?  Some people put a ring of tar or Vaseline around the tree trunk to prevent initial conquest.  I would not use Vaseline and fire at the same time.

This is the end of Part 1.  Part 2 will be posted May 3rd.  I am experimenting with the blog site right now!