Nature Oddities


apples 2015 Lapsley's Orchard

By all these lovely tokens September days are here, with summer’s best of weather and autumn’s  best of cheer”

Helen Hunt Jackson

September is here with its splashes of goldenrods, Joe-pye and other late summer flower. Butterflies that migrate are having their last hurrah and late season caterpillars are ready to pupate. Fruit trees are loaded down with apples, and the air in the early morning may be scented by ripe wild grapes. This is a great time of year, still green, but showing signs of the autumn that will soon arrive.  Getting outside now has its own sets of rewards.

spider web on a foggy September morning 2017 Pamm Cooper photo II

Spider web on a foggy September morning

 

While moving rocks in a landscape, one had a small mud like structure stuck to the underside. This was the work of the female Eumenes fraternus potter wasps construct mud brood  that look like miniature jugs. After an egg is laid inside with a good supply of caterpillars or beetle larvae to feed the larva when it hatches, the female seals the hole. Since the female potter wasps do not defend their nest, you can check inside to see the food stores/larva or pupa.

potter wasp structure under rock

Potter wasp nest cell attached to a rock

Wildflowers in bloom now include cardinal flower, turtlehead and closed gentians, all of which can be found in damp soils, especially along banks of ponds and streams. They can be found under shrubs or among other plants growing in wet areas. Cardinal flowers are a good plant to stake out for the hummingbirds that love their nectar. Bumblebees can be seen squeezing their way into to the gentian and turtlehead flowers that most other bees do not have the muscle to get inside.

turtlehead

turtlehead along a pond bank

There are spectacular late season caterpillars, like sphinx and tussocks. Also the aptly named asteroid, which feeds on both aster and goldenrod flowers and flower buds.

Lapara bombycoides northern pine sphinx

Northern pine sphinx caterpillar

asteroid

The asteroid

I had to rescue an eft of the red spotted newt the other day. They sometimes come out of the woods after rainy days in warm weather, and this little fellow had come a few hundred yards away from the nearest wood line and was in the middle of a fairway being mowed. Disaster was averted, and the eft was brought to a wooded area near a vernal pool.

red-spotted newt eft going up

eft of the red- spotted newt

I returned to an area of woods off a hiking trail that has a number of nodding trillium, Trillium cernuum.  They now have the brilliant red berry that contains seeds, but you have to lift up the large leaves in order to them. This is one of my favorite trilliums, mostly because it is hard to find, and then the flowers are a reward for those who peek under the leaves to find them.

nodding trillium

nodding trillium berry

 

This summer has been warm and droughty after a fairly wet May and June, and even part of July. There has been flooding after the numerous rains where soils are heavy and do not drain well. Then days in the 90’s coupled with poor surface drainage caused turf grasses to die. Even grasses in a light soil may have had shallow roots going into the hot, dry spell, and some of that turf may have bought the farm as well. Yesterday we had only an inch and a half of rain, and yet flooding still occurred where soils were hard from drought conditions. Like Roseanne Roseannadanna used to say- “It‘s always something!”.

flooding

flooding after a rain

I will not especially miss this summer, with its extended heat and awful humidity. I intend to enjoy the cooler weather and especially the cooler nights. And may I never complain about the winter again. Like that will actually happen…

 

Pamm Cooper

tree frog on turtlehead flower

you never know what you may find…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

tiger swallowtail and obedient plant

Tiger swallowtail on obedient plant flower

“What dreadful hot weather we have! It keeps me in a continual state of inelegance.” – Jane Austen

What a strange summer we have had so far in New England! I almost thought of going to Florida to escape the heat and humidity. It has been hot and humid, no doubt, but it is August after all, and things are coming along nicely in the out- of-doors. This time of year there is enough good stuff going on in the landscape to overcome any weather difficulties we may be experiencing, so let’s plod on out and see what’s happening.

Horsebarn Hill on a foggy July morning

foggy morning on Horsebarn Hill UConn

 

 

As we head on into the mid= summer, most garden buffs are by now reveling in the abundance of hydrangeas that are now in bloom. The dwarf ‘Little Lime’ is one of several panicle Hydrangeas that have nice full-bodied lime green flowers that pack a visual punch in the landscape. ‘Little Lamb’ is another of the smaller panicle hydrangeas, this one also having a compact form with pure white, ethereal blooms that give it its name.

little lambs hydrangea

‘Little lamb’ panicle hydrangea

Hibiscus are also blooming now, with their outstanding large, colorful flowers that really provide some visual excitement in the garden. I came across a nice hedgerow type planting that made a nice privacy screen along a sidewalk. I am not really a hibiscus fan, but a pink- flowered one popped up in my garden, and looks so great there that I guess it can stay. I wonder if someone snuck it in there to get me to have kinder thoughts toward these plants…

hibiscus border

Hibiscus

On the wild side, the sweet- smelling Clethra alnifolia is in full bloom and is attracting all types of bees, beetles and butterflies. Look for this small clump-forming shrub in any areas where soils are moist. The white flower spikes are very fragrant, so you can tell where Clethra are long before you actually see them. Groundnut vine is also blooming now, with its pea-like pink flower clusters dangling from its twining stems. Often found twining itself around goldenrods and blue vervain, it is always fun to come across this plant.

red spotted purple on clethra alnifolia

Red spotted purple butterfly on Clethra

The barn swallows that are partial to building their nests on the eaves of our equipment building have had their second brood of the year, as have bluebirds. Hopefully that will exit the nest soon and mom and dad can have a much needed rest in the near future. There was a female wood duck taking her brood on a tour in a large beaver pond the other day.

barn swallows ready to leave nest

barn swallows ready to fledge

female and male juvenile wood ducks Early August Airline Trail marsh Pamm Cooper photo

Juvenile wood ducks

I came across a wild grape that had one leaf covered with interesting cone- like galls formed by the grape tube gallmaker midge (Schizomyia viticola). This is a harmless gall, and only affected one leaf on the entire grape plant. Looks like a bunch of tall red, skinny gnome caps were set on the leaf.

grape tube gallmaker on grape leaf

grape tube galls

Combing through garden centers for great plants is always enjoyable when you find something like the Blackberry or leopard Lily Belamcanda chinensis. Star shaped flowers only 2 inches wide are heavily spotted with red, while foliage is sword- shaped. The flowers appear in late summer and bloom until frost, so this is a good plant to spiff up areas where other perennials are fading into the sunset.

leopard li;ly Belamcando chinensis

leopard lily Belamcando chinensis

Interesting plants suitable for containers are agave and other succulents. I saw a good size Agave colorata recently which was very striking in appearance. Its leaves are thick and powdery blue- gray with unusual cross- banding designs on them, plus leaf edges have brown teeth tipped with spines. A spectacular plant!

Agaave colorata

Agave colorata

pattern on agave leaves

patterns on Agave colorata leaves

Caterpillars this time of year are larger and, in my opinion, more interesting than the early season caterpillars. One favorite is the brown- hooded owlet, which is a sports a rich array orange, blue, yellow and red. Look for this caterpillar on goldenrods, where it feeds on flowers and flower buds.

brown-hooded-owlet-caterpillar

brown-hooded owlet

If you want a nice surprise, with a little careful handling you can check inside folded stinging nettle leaf shelters and may find either caterpillars of the comma or red admiral butterflies, or the chrysalis of the red admiral.

red admiral chrysalis inside nettle leaf shelter

red admiral butterfly chrysalis inside a leaf shelter on stinging nettle

 

The skies can provide some viewing that is better than any television show. Thunderhead clouds can provide some drama as they develop on hot and humid afternoons, and may provide further excitement in the form of thunder and lightning, and rainbows may follow. We can have remarkable sunsets any time of year, so don’t forget to have a look at the sky around sunset. August is also a great time for early morning fogs as well, especially when we have had a humid night. Getting up early does have its good points…

P1060375

Thunderhead developing on a hot and humid afternoon

 

Pamm Cooper

catalpa flowers 6-25-18 Pamm Cooper photo

Flowers of the Catalpa tree

 “ Nature gives to every  time and season some beauties of its own

– Charles Dickens

After a cool, wet spring and a similar June, July came in like a jalapeno pepper and is staying that way for a while, at least. It is a good thing that our native plants are adaptable to the swings in both temperature and water availability fluctuations. I am also a native New England carbon-based anatomical wonder, but I have a more difficult time with excessive heat coupled with high humidity. The one good thing about this time of year, though, is the wealth of interesting flora and fauna that provide a little excitement, if that is what you need, as you venture outside.

Bittersweet and an old truck

Bittersweet growing through the cab of an abandoned truck

Some of the most spectacular caterpillars are works of progress at this time, and also in late summer and early fall. Daggers, sphinx and prominent caterpillars are always interesting finds for me. They get larger than spring-feeding caterpillars, and often have warts, knobs, hairs and colors that make them stand out. Furculas, for instance, are prominents that have anal prolegs that act more like tails. When disturbed, they flail them about and that action may drive predators away. Sphinx caterpillars usually have horns on the rear end and may get quite large before they pupate. Most are not pests, but beware of the tobacco hornworm if you grow tomatoes.

wavy lined heterocampa lookimg toward the sky Pamm Cooper copyrighted

A wavy-lined heteocampa, a prominent moth caterpillar, looking toward the sky

early instar blinded sphinx July 4 2018 Pamm Cooper photo

Very small blinded sphinx caterpillar

Most milkweeds bloom Between June and late July. This year common milkweed is almost done none in many areas. Soon the swamp milkweeds will bloom, though. Milkweeds are important sources of nectar and pollen for many bees, moths and butterflies, and many other insects feed on the foliage and flowers. Check any of the milkweeds, including native and non-native butterfly weed, for the monarch butterfly caterpillars.

fritillary and skippers 7-11-14 on swamp milkweed

Fritillary and skipper butterflies on swamp milkweed in July

Most birds have raised their first broods, and many are started a second one. pIleated woodpeckers may be seen directing their young to food sources. These include trees and logs in which carpenter ants are actively feeding. Although  pileateds are very large, if not for their raucous calls and loud drumming that give them away, they can be elusive to find unless you know where they live.

Pileated Case Mountain Pamm Cooper photo

Pileated woodpecker

Butterflies have not been as abundant as last year, especially the red admirals and painted ladies. Since these are migratory, one wonders if they were held up in the southern areas and now the second generation be arrive later on.  Hairstreaks and skippers also were few and far between, but now the summer ones are starting to put in an appearance. I was delighted and surprised to have a white admiral butterfly visit the flowers in my backyard gardens this week. In all the time I have spent in the outdoors, I have only ever seen three of these, and this one was a hybrid, likely a result of a red-spotted purple/white admiral matchup.

white admiral cross backyard bush honeysuckle 6-30-2018 IIPamm Cooper

White admiral hybrid

Some summer flowering trees like the exotic mimosa, or hardy silk tree, should bloom in July. We are glad to have one of these on the UConn Campus, just outside of the Wilbur Cross building. Its flowers are pink, fragrant and showy, and to my mind look like fluffs of cotton candy. Catalpa trees finish blooming in early July, dropping their white flowers to the ground like a summer snow.

hardy silk tree UConn Wilbur

Hardy silk tree, or Mimosa

Wildflowers that begin bloom in July include the Canada lily, Lilium canadense, and the wood lily. Both attract butterflies and are a striking hint of color among ferns and herbaceous plants in sunny areas. In the woods, look for Indian pipe, a surprising member of the blueberry family which has no chlorophyll. White in color, you can see how it got its nickname- the ghost plant.

indian pipe

Indian pipe

Canada Lily Lilium canadense 7-14-13

Canada lily Lilium canadense

Fawns are here, being carefully trained by their mothers to be sure to sample hostas, yews, phlox and other tasty garden plants. Knowing this behavior inspired me to put plants that the deer are known not to like, at least for this moment in time, on the edges of my garden beds. I tuck the plants they seem to like to nibble on far enough behind the plants they will not eat, that so far- three years now- they leave stuff alone.

When we get afternoon or early evening thunderstorms, remember to look for rainbows once the sun starts to shine again. If there is going to be a rainbow, it will appear where the storm is still passing through, but the sun has to be behind you.  We can get some great clouds any time of year, so don’t forget to look up now and then, especially in the early morning and late evening around sunset.

rainbow with faint double above

Rainbow over Bolton, Ct. July 3, 2018

Enjoy your time outdoors, even if it is time spent in your own backyard. You can see good and interesting things on nature shows and the weather channels, but it is far better to see it for yourself. The excitement never ends…

Pamm Cooper

feed me Pamm Coope rphoto

Don’t forget to stay cool!

According to the language of flowers, the rose belongs to the month of June symbolizing love and passion, gratitude and appreciation. Well I am passionately in love with and greatly appreciate all of June’s flower blooms, including roses.

Rose, red climbing-1

Roses can be found in home gardens, public gardens and even commercial parking lot plantings, usually as tough shrub rose varieties needing little care. Hartford is the proud location of Elizabeth Park, the oldest municipal rose garden in the United States established in 1904. Within its boundaries are beds and arches filled with hundreds of rose plants loving tended by professionals and volunteers, all taking pride in creating a beautiful and scent filled space for all to enjoy. http://elizabethparkct.org/gardens-and-grounds.html

 

Check rose plants carefully as gypsy moth caterpillars are feeding on leaves currently. Hand pick off and kill the little buggers by squishing or dropping in a container of soapy water. Signs they were there and left are shown by them leaving their shed exoskeleton after they molt.

gypsy moth caterpillars and rose

Gypsy moth on rose leaf, C.QuishPhoto

gypsymoth molted exoskeleton

Gypsy moth caterpillar shed exoskeletons. A sign gypsy moths were here. CQuish photo

Not all roses are a considered a ‘bed of roses’ or a good thing. The multiflora rose, Rosa multiflora, is an invasive species of rose, overtaking and displacing native plants. It was introduced to the U.S. from Asia in 1866 for use as rootstock and later widely planted as hedgerows and living fences.  Due to its very thorny nature, animals did not attempt to cross. Multiflora roses can be identified by its fringed petioles which differ from most other rose species. When in mass  blossom, the make the June air incredibly sweet.

Rose, multiflower, C.Quish

Fringed petiole of multiflora rose, C.Quishphoto

A few other fabulous flowers caught my eye and camera lens this month so far. Lunchtime walk on the Storrs campus I found an unusual shrub in front the Castleman building. False indigo, Amorpha fruticosa, was sporting spires of purple and orange flowers similar to butterfly bush. I had never seen it before, and after researching its identity, I am glad I haven’t as the CT Invasive Plant Working Group has it listed as ‘Potentially Invasive’. It seems well behaved in the restricted spot surrounded by buildings and pavement, but pretty still the same.

False indigo bush cquish

False indigo, CQuish photo

The perennial Helen Elizabeth Oriental poppy is a lighter pink, eschewing the brazen orange color of traditional oriental poppies. Helen Elizabeth is softer on the eyes and blooms a little bit later than the orange one.

 

Annual poppies are just beginning to bloom in my garden. If you let them go to seed and collect the seed once the pods go brown, dry and rattle, you will have an incredible amount of seed to save, share or spread the beauty in other areas.

 

Foxgloves, Digitalis sp, are shooting up their towers of flowers in different colors. Some species are biennial and others are perennial. The spots on the throats of the flowers are believed to be nectar guides showing the bees and other pollinators the way in to find the location of the nectar.

Visit local, independent garden centers and nurseries for unusual plants not found in the big box stores or chain centers. I found the annual Popcorn Plant, Cassia didymobotrya, whose leaves smell like buttered popcorn when stroked, at Tri-County Greenhouse on Rt. 44 in Storrs Mansfield. A treasure trove of unknown annuals and surprising perennials, and large variety of tomatoes and vegetables were all over the sales yard. I especially love the philosophy of the place hiring very capable people with intellectual disabilities along with some great horticulturists.

June also brings disease and insects to the garden. A few of the things we are seeing from submissions for diagnosis to our office are shown below. Azalea galls were sent in from South Windsor and are being reported around the state. The fungal disease, Exobasidium vaccinii, develops from an overwintering infected plant part of azalea leaf, twig or flower, and malforms the plant tissue into a curled and thickened gall.  As the gall ages it turns white releasing more spores to infect fresh tissue. Control should be to hand cut off and destroy galls before they turn white.

Azalea gall, b.zilinski 2

Azalea gall, B.Zilinski photo

Another sample image sent in were sweet birch leaves with bright red growths called Velvet Galls. These red patches are soft felt-like growths made by the plant in response to  to wall off the damage by a tiny eriophyid mite feeding on the leaves. The red patch is called an erinea. Unsightly while still being pretty, the damage is considered only cosmetic and causes no lasting harm to the tree. Thanks to Jean Laughman for her photos.

velvet gall on birch 2 Jean Laughman photo

velvet gall on birch,Jean Laughman photo, 6-8-18

Another great photo was sent in by Shawn Lappen for insect identification. The Dusky Birch Sawflies were striking a classic pose while eating the heck out of the leaves of a birch tree. Sawflies are stingless wasps whose larvae are plant feeders. The larvae are not caterpillars as this insect is not in the butterfly and moth order of Lepidoptera. Feeding damage usually does not cause much damage to a tree in good health. If control is needed, insecticidal soap will suffocate the larvae when sprayed on them.

Dusky Birch Sawfly, from Shawn Lappen

Golden tortoise beetles are attacking morning glory and sweet potato plants. They look like a little drop of gold but their beauty belies their destructive nature. Hand picking and dropping into a container of soapy water will kill them quickly.

Golden Tortoise beetle

Be on the lookout for Luna moths during the month of June. It is one of the largest silk moths and is attracted to lights at night. After mating, the female will lay her eggs on one of the host plants for the caterpillars including white birch (Betula papyrifera), persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua), hickories (Carya), walnuts (Juglans), and sumacs (Rhus). The photo below was sent in to us last June 4 by A. Saalfrank.

Luna moth A.Saalfrankphoto 6-4-2017

Leave the light on to attract Luna Moths

-Carol Quish

Persimmon fruit close up

Ripe native persimmon fruit, up close. ©Carol Quish Photo, UConn

When thinking of fruit trees, persimmon does not immediately come to mind. We often see the large fruit of Asian or Japanese persimmon, (Diospyros kaki), in the produce section of larger supermarkets or specialty markets which are imported and need much warmer weather for trees to grow than the northeast provides. We do however, have the native American persimmon tree, (Diospyros virginiana), which will, and does grow quite happily to zones 4 to 9, two zones colder than Connecticut. American persimmon is native to the entire eastern United States. The fruit is much smaller than the Asian persimmon, but is said to be richer in taste when fully ripe. Waiting for the full ripening without the fruit getting to the rotten stage takes daily checks. Fruit can be eaten fresh, dried or made into a pudding. Fruits are very soft which probably why no one markets them. They would be impossible to ship even very short distances.

Persimmon fruit, blue sky

Unripe fruit is very astringent. If you have ever tasted alum, the resulting dry pucker of the mouth is much the same. As children, we dared the unfamiliar to eat one tempting them with “it’s good, really”, then laughing at the poor soul who believed us. Thankfully we lived to tell about it and are all still friends or accepted family. The Native Americans called them ‘dry fruit’ in the Algonquian language.

Persimmon tree

Native persimmon prefers a site in full sun, as most fruit trees do for good fruit production. It is accepting of a wide range of soil types except being in a very wet root situation. Good drainage is best, though. Trees make a good shade tree with plenty of larger, elongated leaves. They grow up to 74 feet tall and about 30 feet wide. Persimmons are dioecious trees, meaning there are male and female trees. Male trees house flowers containing pollen, the male sex part, and female trees house flowers containing the ovaries which, if pollenated and fertilized will produce fruits. If you want fruit, buy a female tree or one that you see fruit on it already. For a good fruit set, plant both a male and female tree. Occasionally, some trees will produce both male and female flowers on the same plant and be self-pollinating, but this is not always reliable. Fruits often hang on the tree late into the fall, even after the leaves have dropped making a pretty show of orange colors against the darker grey branches. The bark of a mature tree is beautiful on its own; black and corky, and richly textured.

persimmon bark, uconn plant database photo

Persimmon bark, photo UConn Plant Database

Uncommon and native fruits are ripe to be had, just look in the woods and forests of different locations to see what you can find.

Persimmon fruit

 

-Carol Quish

groundnut August 13 2017

Groundnut flowers

“The brilliant poppy flaunts her head

Amidst the ripening grain,

And adds her voice to sell the song

That August’s here again.”

–  Helen Winslow

 

August means summer is heading for a subtle change. Evenings begin to get cooler, skies are less hazy, most birds are getting a break from chasing fledglings all over creation, and the sounds of crickets and katydids during the night have replaced the trilling of the tree frogs. Bats are seen more frequently now as many moths and other late summer night- flying insects are abundant. Trees and shrubs have ripening fruit, deer are eating acorns already and, to top it all off, we just had a solar eclipse. Now is a great time to get outside and see what is happening in the garden and in the wild.

female and male juvenile wood ducks Early August Airline Trail marsh Pamm Cooper photo

Juvenile wood ducks are on their own now

The tiger bee fly, Xenox tigrinis is a very large fly that can be seen flying about now. About the size of a quarter, this fly may fly low over lawns and can be mistaken for a wasp. It has large white markings at the end of its abdomen and they really stand out against the black color of the rest of the abdomen, resembling a bald faced hornet somewhat as it flies around, , apart from its size. Female tiger flies lay eggs near carpenter bee tunnels, and its larvae will eat the bee larvae that are developing within.

tiger bee fly 8-21-2017

Tiger bee fly

One of our larger spiders is the black and yellow orb weaver, Argiope aurantia. Commonly known as garden spiders, orb weavers are frequently found in gardens, meadows and fields. Their web has a zig-zag pattern at the end of a  thickened strip of silk that and may signal birds so that they see it and avoid flying through the web, thus saving the spider from major repair work. Who knows? Other creatures seem to miss that cue and end up as little morsels in the food “web”.

orb weaver spider

yellow and black orb weaver

Another orb weaver, the arrow spider (Micrantha sagittata), is much smaller the black and yellow one, and is one of only three Micrantha species found in North America. It has an interesting web composed on a rather permanent frame structure and then the orb section is built inside the frame at dawn every day. In the evening, the spider will consume the orb part of its web and have to start anew the next morning. The whys and wherefores of this behavior is one to be marveled at, if not at all understood by mere mortals.

Arrow spider Micrathena sagittata PAmm Cooper photo

Arrow spider

Butterflies are having a banner year- even giant swallowtails are being seen in northern Connecticut as of late. I just peeked inside the old stinging nettles leaf shelter of a red admiral butterfly caterpillar and found its chrysalis inside. One way to avoid predators is certainly to make oneself scarce. Monarchs, spicebush and tiger swallowtails and American ladies are abundant in numbers this year. Good plants for late season butterflies, especially migrators, are boneset, Joe-pyes, goldenrods, mountain mint, lantana, petunias, impatiens and bluebeard (Caryopteris). Mints and bluebeard are excellent for late summer pollinators as well. My gardens are humming with bee and butterfly activity right now as I have most of these plants in flower.

red admiral chrysalis inside nettle leaf shelter

Red admiral butterfly chrysalis inside a nettle leaf shelter

Venturing out where forbs and small shrubs abound, you may run across the groundnut, Apios americana a native perennial vine that right now is in flower. The sweet- scented flowers are wisteria- like in form, appearing in small clusters along the vine. Found climbing among small shrubs and perennials like dogwoods, goldenrods and ferns, this plant is sometimes only noticed because its flowers are so striking in both color and clustered among a green background form the plant derives its name from the edible tubers that were consumed by native Americans and early settlers.

Cardinal flowers are also in bloom along watercourses now, and their brilliant dark red blooms and rich nectar attract hummingbirds. Along with jewelweed, cardinal flower is a great source of food for these energetic little birds. If you wait long enough when these plants are flowering, a hummingbird or two should make an appearance.

cardinal flower in stream

cardinal flower

Giant silkworm moths are putting in a second appearance this year, meaning a second or partial second generation of caterpillars will soon hatch. Over the last three weeks, Polyphemus and Luna moths have been seen, and there are fourth instar Promethea caterpillars out. Since the giant silkworm caterpillars take so long to reach the pupal stage, they may run out of foliage as many of the trees they feed on may shed their leaves before they can form cocoons.

exhausted Polyphemus moth on leaf litter Pamm Cooper photo

Polyphemus moth

And be careful out there! This past weekend I found two saddleback slug moth caterpillars in two different areas of the state, both on foliage not far off the ground. Though small, these caterpillars have many urticating spines that can cause a sensation like being stabbed with hundreds of tiny red-hot hypodermic needles.

saddleback found on small black cherry 8-19-2017

Saddleback caterpillar

As we move into the end of summer, sunrises and sunsets should be more colorful as the skies get cooler and particles high in the atmosphere scatter the blue light to our west and east as the sun sets or rises. To the early bird, then, may you see a spectacular sunrise.  And to the observer at eventide, may you be rewarded with an equally breathtaking sunset.

August dawn GHills from 8 8-18-13

August dawn

 

Pamm Cooper          August 2017

 

 

 

After two summers of drought conditions it is great to see how well the vegetable garden is doing this year. The lack rain and the elevated temperatures of last summer meant that I was lugging the watering cans from the rain barrel to the garden every other day. This year, it has been less than once a week as Mother Nature has provided precipitation in abundance. The zucchini, summer squash, tomatoes, peppers, kale, Swiss chard, green beans, carrots, and beets are all living large.

IMG_20170813_110722472_HDR

The first batch of ratatouille has already been enjoyed, a delicious blend of tomatoes, zucchini, summer squash and eggplant that is diced, tossed with olive oil and a pinch of salt, and roasted to perfection in the oven. The vegetables that provide the greatest depth of flavor in this recipe are the tomatoes and eggplant. These vegetables are found in the umami taste category (along with sweet, salty, sour, and bitter). Umami, by definition, is a Japanese word that means ‘pleasant, savory taste’. It is also known as glutamate and has been a part of the vernacular since 1985 which explains why it was not on any of the sense of taste diagrams that I saw in science class in the 70s.

IMG_20170813_195216822

Foods that contain umami such as tomatoes, eggplant, spinach, celery, and mushrooms will all have their flavor improved by just a touch of salt (or fish sauce, which is also high in glutamate) making them great choices for anyone trying to reduce their sodium intake. I recently had a Thai dinner of a spicy eggplant dish that had such an incredibly savory taste due to the combination of the eggplant and the fish sauce that I ordered it twice that week.

In fact, eggplant is one of my favorite vegetables. It is used in so many cuisines around the world. I believe that my first exposure to eggplant was through my Italian heritage in the form of Eggplant Parmigiana, a staple of every holiday meal and a prime choice when ordering from Franklin Giant Grinder on Franklin Avenue in Hartford. Those breaded sliced rounds, fried in olive oil, baked in a tomato sauce, and covered in mozzarella cheese were umami with a capital U!

Fast forward to the 1990s and the exposure to so many more dishes that use eggplant, including vegan and vegetarian recipes where it is a good substitute for meat. In the Mid-east, baba ghanoush is eggplant that is roasted whole, scooped out when cool and mixed with tahini, garlic, and a little olive oil and eaten as a dip with vegetables or pita bread. The already mentioned ratatouille is a stewed dish that comes to us originally from Nice, France, where eggplant is known as aubergine. Eggplant can be pickled or made into chutneys in India or stuffed with rice, meat, or other fillings in the Caucasus.

One thing about eggplant that separates it from most other vegetables is that it is basically inedible when raw, having a very bitter taste and an astringent quality. Early cultivars required the slices to be salted, pressed, rinsed, and drained before they could be used in a recipe but modern cultivars such as the large purple variety have less bitterness.

The three varieties that I am trying this year are the classic plump purple ‘Black Beauty’, the green skin ‘Thai Long Green’, and the white skin ‘Caspar’. It would appear that we are not the only ones finding the eggplant interesting this year.

The first pests that I noticed in July were the eggs and larvae of the False potato beetle (Leptinotarsa juncta), often confused with its cousin the Colorado potato beetle, (Leptinotarsa decemlineata). The bright orange eggs which are found standing upright on the underside of the leaf are not as tightly packed together as the eggs of the squash bug generally are. It wasn’t until I looked at an enlarged view of the below image that I noticed that I had actually captured a larva emerging from an egg!

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The pale larvae will feed on the foliage of most Solanaceous plants for 21 days as they go through 4 instar stages and then drop to the soil to pupate.

After 10 to 15 days the adult beetle will emerge and lay eggs. There are usually two generations a summer in Connecticut.

Then there were the larvae of the Clavate tortoise beetle (Plagiometriona clavate), awesome masters of disguise, who use their own frass (poop) as a camouflage. The rear abdominal segment of the larva has a special fecal fork that allows the attachment of the dried fecal matter and holds it over the larva, hiding it effectively. Even if the frass is pulled back it will pull it over again.

These small, green larvae with their flattened bodies and fringe of white spikes did a bit of damage to the eggplant leaves, leaving them quite pockmarked.

A few more visitors are not as Solanaceous host-specific as the False potato beetle and the Clavate tortoise beetle. The 14-spotted lady beetle (Propyleae quatuordecimpuctata) has been in North America since it came to Ontario by way of Europe in the 60s. It can out-consume the native North American lady beetle species, eating insect pests such as aphids, mites, and scale, landing it on the Invasive Species Compendium list.  Every garden needs pollinators and the bees love the big purple blooms of the eggplant.

This grasshopper nymph posed on an eggplant leaf, casting a very artful shadow. Grasshoppers are not picky eaters and can be found on every plant in the garden although squash and tomatoes are their least favorite. This one may have just been taking advantage of a bit of August sunshine. Can’t say that I blame it!

Susan Pelton

 

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