A weathered tobacco barn in the snow

A weathered tobacco barn in Enfield, CT

In northern Connecticut along the Connecticut River a quintessential image of winter is a tobacco barn in the snow. It may be bright red or a lovely weathered wood but either way it is an image of New England that many may think represents a time gone by. Although tobacco has been condemned as a health hazard the growing of tobacco is still a viable agribusiness in many towns in Connecticut, Enfield among them.

Tobacco was already being grown by the native populations when the European settlers arrived in the early 1600s. Within seven years of the town of Windsor’s founding in 1633 tobacco was being produced for both personal use and profit although the majority grown was a variety that originated in the Virginias. The rich sandy soil by the river and the short, hot summers yielded an excellent crop. By 1820 Connecticut Valley tobacco leaves were being used for cigars as the two outside layers, the binder and the wrapper.

The late 19th century saw a variety from Sumatra that began to replace the wrapper from this area. Local farmers created the ‘shade’ conditions that mimicked the sunlight and humidity of Sumatra. 1920 saw a cultivation height of 20,000 acres in the Connecticut River Valley although it is currently just over 2,000 acres. My husband’s great-uncle, Frank Burton, farmed tobacco in South Windsor during the 1930s and 40s. The following images are from a 1938 booklet that he used called ‘Hubbard’s Handybook for Growers’ from the Rogers & Hubbard Co. of Portland, Connecticut:

SCAN0409

 

Tobacco is part of the genus Nicotania from the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, a family that includes tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and peppers. Tobacco mosaic virus is a disease that affects tomatoes and peppers in addition to tobacco. It can be transmitted through the debris of infected plants in the soil or through contamination of smoking materials on workers hands. It has been known to survive up to 50 years in dried plant parts. Avoid using tobacco products while handling or transplanting plants in the solanaceous family. Tomatoes will have foliage that has mottled yellow and green areas, reduced fruit set, dwarfing, and distortion. There is currently no control for TMV.

Another disease that can attack tobacco is blue mold, Peronospora tabacina, a downy mildew disease caused by a fungus-like organism that is highly destructive to seed beds, transplants, and fields.  Initially it can be confused with cold injury, malnutrition, or damping off. According to an Enfield tobacco farmer they did not have an issue with blue mold in 2015.

Insect pests of tobacco include aphids, cutworms, flea beetles, snails, slugs, wireworms, budworms, hornworms, and thrips. Many of these insects are common pests of tobacco’s relatives in the solonaceous family. Tomato spotted wilt virus (TSWV) is vectored by tobacco thrips. Tobacco and tomato hornworms are large caterpillars of the Manduca species that can strip a plant of foliage in a short period of time. As with tomato hornworm, tobacco hornworm can also be parasitized by wasps.

The end of the tobacco growing season is not the end of farmer’s work. Little has changed over the centuries in the way that tobacco is harvested. The entire plant is cut off the stalk at ground level and brought to curing barn by way of slow-moving tractors.

Freshly cut tobacco leaves

In our neighborhood following a wagonload of newly cut tobacco is a common occurrence.

Tractor with a loaded cart of tobacco leaves

When the harvested plants reach the barns they are speared through the base in groups of four to six and hung to cure. The curing process allows for the slow oxidation and degradation of the carotenoids in the tobacco leaf that give it the aromas such as sweet hay, tea, rose oil, or fruits when smoked. Starch is converted to sugar which oxidizes into advanced glycation endproducts (AGEs), the inhalation of which during smoking contributes to atherosclerosis and cancer.

Tobacco in the barn

Air-cured tobacco is allowed to dry in well-ventilated barns over a period of four to eight weeks. Fire-curing takes three days to ten weeks. The tobacco barns used for these methods have openings along the long sides that can be adjusted to control the heat and humidity in the barn during the curing process.

Ventilation slats open

Cured leaves are then sorted for use as filler or wrapper based on their appearance and overall quality and sent on to cigar manufactures.

Cured tobacco

For over 350 years tobacco has been omnipresent in this area. Many a Connecticut teenager worked on a local tobacco farm and although I never had that experience personally I understand that it was not pleasant work. Currently most tobacco work is done by seasonal employees although their numbers may also dwindle in the future as the land is turned over to more economically viable pursuits such as real estate development. The tobacco barns that dot our landscapes may be no more than curiosities to future generations.

A beautiful red barn in the snow

A beautiful red barn in winter.

 

Susan Pelton

(all images by Susan Pelton)

The sphinx, or hawk, moths are relatively heavy- bodied and are strong fliers. Some are important pollinators of trees and shrubs, especially those having white or light- colored flowers. Most sphinx moths fly at night, so we may not see them except as they are attracting to lights outside the home. The clearwing moths, such as the snowberry and hummingbird, do fly during the day and are common visitors to home gardens.

Below left: Virginia Creeper Sphinx Moth  Below Right  Hog Sphinx ( Virginia Creeper ) Caterpillar
Hog sphinx moth and shadow on birdhouse??????????

Just as the adults are large- bodied and heavy set, the sphinx caterpillars can also become quite the behemoths when compared to other caterpillars common to New England. They usually have a conspicuous horn on the hind end, but some species start off with a horn and end up with a “ button “ ornament instead. Most of these caterpillars feed on trees and shrubs, but some, such as the tobacco and tomato hornworms and the hermit sphinx feed on nightshades or basil respectively. Because of their size, damage to host plants can be substantial as they approach the final instars.

snowberry clearwing late instar. 2011 jpg

Snowberry Clearwing Caterpillar is found on honeysuckle

If you want to find hornworms, knowing the host plants is the first step. Many species can be found on grape and Virginia creeper. These include the hog ( or Virginia Creeper Sphinx ), the Pandorus sphinx, Abbot’ sphinx and the Achemon sphinx. Look underneath leaves where feeding is evident, then look for leaf stems left behind as caterpillars get larger and move toward inward leaves. If tomato leaves are disappearing, the Tobacco hornworm may be lurking nearby. Although this caterpillar gets huge, it can be surprisingly difficult to see as its color blends in with tomato foliage and stems. The final instar can eat you out of house and home in no time. I once raised one from an egg found on nightshade and it grew to the size of an Oscar Mayer hot dog. Fecal pellets are another indicator of caterpillar feeding, and the sphinx variety are elongate and have six deep grooves and may be quite large as caterpillars approach the penultimate and final instars. Eggs are usually laid on the undersides of leaves and are large and spherical. A large, green spherical egg found on a tomato leaf is most likely that of the tobacco hornworm. If you are not interested in raising this caterpillar, crush the egg and future feeding damage can be avoided.

Blueberry or huckleberry are the host plants of the fabulous Huckleberry Sphinx. When small, its horn is striped with lemon yellow and raspberry red ( one color short of Trix™ ). Its body is granulose, looking like it has been sprinkled with large crystals of sugar. As it matures, raspberry markings develop on its sides and back. Last year I found several of these on both host plants and at various locations. Each year is different, though, and abundance or apparent scarcity of species fluctuates accordingly.

Huck Sphinx

Huckleberry Sphinx Caterpillar on blueberry

When at rest or when disturbed, sphinx caterpillars position themselves in a posture that reminds me of a seahorse. Some thrash from side to side and some may regurgitate a green fluid as well. Some actually will nip, and Abbot’s sphinx and Walnut sphinx caterpillars make sounds when threatened. All these means are probably very effective at dissuading birds, but predatory wasps seem to be able to get past all that behavior. When you find a caterpillar with cocoons all over it, the internal feeding of cotesia or braconid wasps has been completed and the caterpillar is doomed to die a slow death. It is unfortunate that many introduced parasites that were meant to control pest caterpillars are now decimating benign native species, but that is just a sad story of good intensions backfiring.

Pandorus cat small size on Va. creeper Finley St

Pandorus Sphinx Caterpillar

sphinx paw paw or whatever

Paw Paw Sphinx found on winterberry

If you raise sphinx caterpillars, make sure that final instars have a suitable pupating medium, such as abundant mulch, plant litter or soil. Or simply release onto a host plant and let nature take its course. Caterpillars tend to be sedentary more than mobile and they have a good gripping ability which makes them easy to transfer to fresh food material. Keep pupa moist over winter and provide air to containers to keep from developing mold. Be vigilant and release as they eclose. Moths emerging in small containers may not be able to expand wings fully, and will be doomed as wings will harden deformed.

4-horned sphinx on elm 9-9-13

4- Horned or Elm Sphinx

Sphinx caterpillars are very commonly seen in the fall as they travel over lawns, driveways and paths on their way to pupate. If you see them, just remove them to a safer spot and they will find their way to a good spot to pupate for the winter.

Pamm Cooper All Photos© 2014 Pamm Cooper