DIRT NERD


CATERPILLAR COEXISTENCE: A BITE-SIZED CATALOGUE

Occasionally, the cutest things will bring toxicity into your life, and you find yourself wanting to make them disappear, nip them in the bud, cut them off at the root. But the truth is that you don’t need to end them completely. You can just redirect the energy they’re taking from you, or that you’re giving them. You can find a mutually beneficial way to coexist that retains cuteness and allows everyone to thrive.

I am, of course, clearly alluding to caterpillars eating up your plants and the ways and means we have to share space with them without murdering them wholesale (although this can be necessary at times). The degree to which we collectively despise some species of caterpillar while we adore others is a little out of proportion, especially given that some of those hated-upon creatures become exceptionally beautiful moths or butterflies, and those butterflies that we covet also devour herbs and flowers that we love to grow.

Though they are a factor that must always be faced in any garden ecosystem all year round, caterpillars of most stripes get especially fierce from spring through early summer. This month we’re going to take a look at the most common caterpillars around these parts, and next time we’ll talk a bit more about managing them in your garden.


Buck Moth

Before we go further, because I know they are on many New Orleanian minds, there is one caterpillar that is impossible to make nice with: the buck moth. This is the one that falls from oak trees willy-nilly and stings you in the face on its way down, or that you brush against without even noticing that then gives you a very red, very painful rash for days. There are a few species of caterpillars that are poisonous to the touch around these parts, but the buck moth is by far the most prevalent of the bunch. And frankly, it is not cute as a caterpillar or a moth, nor does it do humanity any favors as a moth, being a particularly ravenous cloth eater. That said, for the human gardener, the buck moth is not an issue, as it really only eats oak trees, the prevalence of live oaks in New Orleans being the main reason they are everywhere and seem to fall from the sky from nowhere. Given that they live in trees, they are hard to kill en masse and probably not worth the effort. Professional landscapers and exterminators will have machines that can shoot up pesticides into the trees to effectively kill these monsters but, honestly, I think it’s just a hustle on their end. These monstrous babies are not going to kill you, or your house, or your live oaks. They’re simply hungry and poisonous. Just don’t tread on them.


Woolly Bear Caterpillar

There is another super prevalent fluffy black caterpillar all over town this time of year that is commonly mistaken for the poisonous buck moth but is in fact just a cuddly lil snuggle butt, so much so that its name is, actually truly, the woolly bear caterpillar. It is straight up black and fluffy, or yellow and fluffy, or black and fluffy with a distinct brown fluffy stripe through its center. Buck moths look like sadistic hellscape cenobites with very menacing multi-pronged spikes screaming danger poison. Woolly bears look like woolly bears. Woolly bears do eat things you like though, such as herbs, beans, and occasionally flowers and greens.


Armyworm

The largest nuisance to the gardener is the armyworm (the name actually alludes to a number of species, but for Southeastern purposes, it will do), so named because when they come, they come hard and en masse, and love to chomp on all manner of plants beloved by humans. Eggs are usually laid under leaves and are easy to miss, and as soon as they hatch, multitudes of microscopic munching machines begin devouring at the leaf they were born under. If caught early, on the single leaf they are born unto, simply pulling the leaf and stomping it out a few feet from your crops will totally do the job. However, they are easy to miss early on, as damage from these infants can be easily mistaken for disease or fungus or really anything other than chomping if you don’t know what to look for. These babies are often not able to chew entirely through plants, so you will be left with clear (not quite) holes in the center of a leaf or portions of a leaf that are lighter colored in the center, that seem to be discoloration but are actually a result of bottom layers of leaf being chewed up and light coming through the topmost layers. Be aware! These little monsters grow tall quickly and move even faster, and what begins as a single leaf problem can take over an entire patch of garden in just a few days.


Tomato Hornworm

Similarly expedient in its exponential munching prowess is the tomato hornworm, which predictably chews primarily on tomatoes, but will occasionally seek other plants to destroy when all tomatoes within reach have been utterly defoliated. These caterpillars can grow from tiny camouflaged nuisances to five-inch monstrosities quite rapidly (while still managing to stay hidden amongst your foliage), and you will know them by the trail of barren tomato stalks left in their wake.


Cutworm

Another easy-to-miss caterpillar is the cutworm (which refers to a number of species that have similar habits), a fat grubby brown guy that hides in plain site atop loamy soil, chewing at root bases by day and at leaves and fruits by night. They tend to operate in relative solitude, but can do a lot of damage on their own, and are especially prevalent amongst potted plants.


Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly

Many a gardener grows dill or fennel just to feed swallowtail caterpillars (swallowtails also love parsley but, probably because it takes more love, time, and effort to grow, it is not so much sacrificed for them), who are just as beautiful when in their larval phase as when they grow wings. They have kooky orange antennae that spring out when they sense danger. It’s probably rude to mess with them persistently, but wiggling your hands at them a little once or twice is still really fun. And anyway, triggering their fight-or-flight responses is less rude than, say, killing them like you probably want to do to other species of caterpillar, so go for it. You are (probably) not a budding sociopath for it.


Monarch Butterfly

Milkweed is and of itself a beautiful and practical plant, but is grown by gardeners almost exclusively to aid and abet swallowtails on their epic journey from as far as Northern Canada to Southern Mexico and back. It is a noble and worthy feel-good cause, and at the end of the day far more practical than pretending any municipal services in New Orleans are going to recycle your glass or cans (see Glass Half Full/Nola Cans 4 Food to actualize these particular planet-saving fantasies). There is no milkweed (genus Asclepias) plant that is particularly good or beloved by monarchs; they will have it all. But tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) should be avoided in the garden at all costs. Of course, every garden center for 100 miles in any direction from New Orleans is definitely going to have it and sell it all the same, because, well, it grows here, and it is beautiful. The thing is, it is also extremely hardy and grows all year long, and when it is available to monarch butterflies, it makes them stay here. Why travel down through Mexico if all the food you need is here? Because Southeastern winters are still too cold for them to survive, for now. So while you get to feed swallowtails and watch them thrive in your garden amongst that vibrant, beautiful everbearing tropical milkweed, you are also actually effectively killing them. Maybe you are a budding sociopath after all (probably still not).


There are innumerable species of caterpillars large and small in any half decent ecosystem and we’ve only touched on those most present in the eyes, lives, and gardens of the New Orleans gardener today. Next time we will talk about how you can build meaningful relationships (or put up hard boundaries and destroy them once and for all) in a healthy and nontoxic way with the many worms (yeah we call caterpillars worms sometimes) that wriggle their way in and out of your life. Coexist y’all.


If you’ve got questions for the Dirt Nerd, feel free to email ian@hotplantsnursery.com or visit @hotplantsnursery.


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