Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Dilly dallying around

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
Purple Cone Flowers

The monsoons have subsided for now. My garden is a jungle of tall plants listing in all directions, broadleaf plants being devoured by hungry insects, black spot appearing on several leaves of the only rose that barely survived February, and one tomato plant which lived through the winter producing tomatoes but either couldn’t handle all the rain… or it was its time to go.

I practically begged the neighbors at the end of the block to not cut down the Coreopsis and other wild flowers, and they happily complied. Three storms later the Coreopsis, which at one time stood nearly three feet tall covered in flowers, was blown down and is now six inches above the ground. I tried to raise the stems up higher, but a team of bumblebees let me know they were fine with the Coreopsis just where it was.

On the other hand, the other tomato plants are growing like gangbusters, the four stems of the prairie Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum) are over twelve feet tall and the purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) have never looked better. On the wood near the compost pile have developed some thin delicate purple edged shelf fungi I am sure the turtle appreciated as it ate the apple cores and leftover veggies. The bush beans have been madly producing pods of beans. Two harvests so far, but the next is on hold. Within the bush beans are the dill plants. They must have thought life was safer blending in with the beans rather than hanging out on their own at the edge of the stock tank. The four-foot-long rectangular galvanized gigantic plant pot has been the home to sunflowers, okra, bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), and now bush beans which were pleasingly edged with dill and collard greens.

Black Swallowtail caterpillars

The collards (Brassica oleracea) have functioned as a trap crop for insects this spring and only veins now remain while the bush bean leaves look lovely. Blame the aphids, thrips or flea beetles. One reason why many people grow collards in the fall and let the spring collards work as part of their Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategy. Collards actually originated in the area of Greece where they have been cultivated for over two thousand years. The Dutch and Portuguese brought the Eurasian greens to the U.S. with them in the 16th century.

The unperturbed dill (Anethum graveolens) has grown as tall as the bush beans and is exploding in umbels of yellow flowers. The dill timed its blooms to go with the fourth of July fireworks. Another native of Eurasia, dill is totally edible and repels squash bugs, spider mites and aphids. Right. They went to the collards instead. Dill does attract tomato hornworms, the larvae of the Five Spotted Hawkmoth. This moth is vital to the survival of several native plants, many now endangered. Hawkmoths move pollen further than bees or birds. Marigolds repel, but don’t kill hawkmoths. My Mountain marigold (Tagetes lemmonii) is quite near the stock tank. There may be some complex insect-plant interactions going on. Nature-driven IPM. The collards are not pleased about this.

Several episodes of “Scandinavian Cooking” on PBS feature dill in some form. Joanne Weir, chef on “Plates and Places” uses dill in her Greek dishes. If I had paid closer attention, there might have been collard greens in some recipes.

Dill, along with chives and parsley, are the herbs of choice in many European countries. Dill and potatoes, dill in yogurt, dill in omelets with green onions, and dill as flavoring in fish, seafood and rice. I thought dill was just for pickles.

Coreopsis up close

I may not have a chance to even think about pickles if the Eastern Black Swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes) have their way. In the dense undergrowth of the stock tank were hidden the single yellow eggs which have been undergoing five developmental stages called instars. Each time they molt their skin, they grow a bit larger. Young hatchlings are dark with itty-bitty spikes and little white saddles on their backs. During the next stage the spikes and white patch go away as the caterpillars develop stripes and spots. The base body coat is usually green, but black coats may occur. Regardless, they all have yellow spots.

During its last stages, if the caterpillar is prodded or feels threatened, it sends out from its head a small forked yellow ‘snake tongue’ called as osmeterium. This gland produces a pungent sweet scent to us. To spiders, ants and praying mantises, it smells totally disgusting. Something all swallowtails use as a defensive mechanism.

By the end of three weeks, the caterpillar is ready to undergo a real metamorphosis. It bows its head to form a J shape with its body. The larva then attaches itself with silk to a twig. Ready to make the chrysalis, which may be green/yellow to dark brown/tan.

You may never find the chrysalis. The swallowtail caterpillars often roam far away from their food plants, which not only include dill but fennel, parsley, rue and other members of the carrot family. In two weeks, the butterfly will emerge. Maybe. Monarch caterpillars take about two weeks to eclose (emerge from the chrysalis). Swallowtails are much more unreliable. They may hang inside their chrysalis for weeks or months. The chrysalis turns clear before the butterfly decides to come out. The larger females have vivid blue spots on the top surface of their bottom wings. The males are mainly black with yellowish-white spots.

The Hibiscus

Which brings me back to the caterpillars. If they run out of dill, the rue is right next to it. Watching over everything is the tropical hibiscus and tropical milkweed growing in their little pollinator corner by the frog and mosquito pond. Okay, it’s half of a whiskey barrel holding a water and algae filled thick plastic liner. Between the liner and the wood live spiders and five lined skinks. They need to up their quota of mosquitoes.

Becky Emerson Carlberg

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at Becscience@att.net.